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06 December 2010

Coalition can break from failed justice policy

Abandoning the obsessive concentration on increasing prison capacity will allow the government to restructure justice system.

What strikes you most about the new justice policy outlined in the coalition programme for government is the absence of rhetoric. The new watchwords are moderation, common sense and effectiveness. As an example: everyone knows that drugs and drink fuel crime and antisocial behaviour – so let’s deal with addictions and binge-drinking in a way that reduces harm and cuts costs. The coalition government appears to be taking the opportunity to break with the failed legacy of vacuous prison building and instead concentrate on what works in justice policy.

When the new justice secretary, Kenneth Clarke, was last in charge of prisons and penal policy, as home secretary, the average prison population in England and Wales (1992 – 1993) was 44,628. That figure now stands at over 85,000 – a number Clarke described after his appointment as “extraordinarily high”. The political arms race over the criminal justice policy indulged in by successive Conservative and Labour administrations over the past two decades has seen the UK prison population grow from average to the highest in western Europe. As outlined in the Prison Reform Trust briefing launched this week, the social and economic costs of our addiction to custody have been immense.

In the current climate it would be a form of economic madness to allow the prison population to continue to spiral out of control. Each new prison place costs £170,000 to build and maintain, and the cost per prisoner per year is £45,000. Total prison expenditure increased from £2.843bn in 1995 to £4.325bn in 2006. Despite its exorbitant cost, prison has a poor record for reducing reoffending – 49% of adults are reconvicted within one year of being released, and for those serving sentences of less than 12 months this increases to 61%. The National Audit Office estimates that reoffending by all recent ex-prisoners costs the taxpayer between £9.5bn and £13bn a year.

The coalition can draw on lessons from abroad where justice reinvestment and prisoner re-entry programmes, driven by economic necessity in many states in America, have had considerable success at reducing crime and rates of reoffending. Closer to home, restorative justice with young people in Northern Ireland has delivered a reduction in youth crime, a drop in child custody and a 90% victim satisfaction rate. Integrated offender management schemes piloted in parts of England and Wales have achieved impressive results and are waiting to be rolled out nationally.

A breathing space from obsessive concentration on increasing prison capacity at all costs would give the government time to restructure the system so that local authorities, voluntary organisations, and police and probation services work more closely together to develop community solutions to crime that inspire public and judicial confidence.

A moratorium – a proposal welcomed by the Ministry of Justice as “timely and interesting” – would also allow time for the coalition partners to capitalise on the considerable areas of agreement between them on justice policy and, where there are differences, resolve them in a rational manner. In the Liberal Democrat and Conservative election manifestos there was broad consensus on investing in getting children out of trouble and nipping youth crime in the bud, diverting addicts and people who are mentally ill into effective treatment and, at the other end of the spectrum, informing and supporting victims, transforming prisoner rehabilitation and cutting reoffending on release.

The new justice policy fuses these plans and, although moderate in tone, could deliver the prize of increasing public safety while at the same time reducing the cost burden imposed by excessive use of custody.

A review of sentencing could be useful. The glut of legislation, raft of new offences and mandatory penalties and overall growth in the punishment industry all need unpicking. New ministers will need to examine the explosion in indeterminate sentencing – which has increased from 3,000 indeterminate sentences in 1992 to 12,822 in March 2010. The Freedom Bill will be an opportunity to review the civil-liberty crushing IPP sentence, which has led to thousands of people being held in jail long after their tariff has expired. It will be important, too, to look at the high number of recalls for breach of license and any unnecessary use of custodial remand.

As Alan Travis highlights in the Guardian, in the past the new justice secretary has been highly critical of the unchecked expansion of the prison population. In a debate on prison policy in the House of Commons in June 2007, Clarke called for “a change of culture in which the platitudes about community sentences and making prison only for those who need it are turned into reality by returning proper discretion to the courts and ensuring that prisons are used only for violent, dangerous and recidivist criminals in conditions in which there is some hope that some of them will be rehabilitated”. As a moderate prescription for reforming our overcrowded and underperforming prison system the new coalition government could do a lot worse.

Juliet Lyon

This article appears in the Guardian Comment is Free pages. You can read it at