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15 November 2010

Unsustainable prison building is not the answer says House of Commons committee

A report published today calls for a change in the way we tackle criminal justice and seek to cut reoffending. Cutting crime: the case for justice reinvestment published by the Commons Justice Committee says that the criminal justice system faces a “crisis of sustainability” if resources continue to be consumed by the current programme of prison building rather than being invested in crime prevention.

The committee says the national and international evidence it has gathered over the two years since Lord Carter’s review of the use of custody has convinced it that a more “prudent, rational, effective and humane” use of resources is needed to shift the focus of expenditure away from incarceration and towards rehabilitation and prevention. This would involve investment in local education, health, drug, alcohol and community programmes in targeted areas based on analyses of where offences occur, where offenders live and “what works” in reducing offending. This is known as “justice reinvestment”.

Speaking today about the Justice Committee report Juliet Lyon, director, the Prison Reform Trust said:

Politicians rarely agree about crime and punishment but here the Justice Select Committee presents an unequivocal view across political parties that it is time to cut crime, break a national addiction to imprisonment and talk sense about criminal justice. 

The report reveals the unsustainable economic and social price of almost doubling our prison population in 20 years.

With a general election weeks away and close attention on value for money and effectiveness in public services, this report provides a blueprint for reform of the criminal justice system and builds a vital bridge between social, health and justice policy. Prison should no longer be treated as a free good and must be used sparingly. It is time to cap the prison population at its current level, while resources are diverted to more effective means of reducing crime in communities.

The expensive and counter-productive ‘arms race’ on being tough on crime belongs to a different era and, as this report shows, the prison population can be safely reduced by one third in the next few years.

A thorough-going report with 98 painstaking recommendations is unlikely to make headlines, but most people would rather have sane justice policy informed by evidence and effectiveness than one driven by media hype and kneejerk reactions.

Rt Hon Sir Alan Beith MP, Liberal Democrat and chairman of the committee said:

Whoever forms the next government, they face a choice between unsustainable ‘business-as-usual’ in the criminal justice system, and making some radical decisions. With pressure on all areas of public spending, the costs of the current ‘predict and provide’ approach to prison places simply cannot continue to be met. It is the responsibility of governments and Parliament to protect citizens from crime by using the taxes they pay as effectively as possible; and that is not what is happening. A demand-led policy of building ever more prison places is being fuelled by political and media pressure for more and longer custodial sentences, diverting resources away from measures which are more likely to prevent future crime. Prisons are needed, and some very dangerous people need to be locked up for a very long time, but prison is no answer, for example, to persistent crime driven by addiction.

The public are entitled to be sure that crimes from which they suffer are being treated seriously; but seriousness should be measured not by the length of a prison sentence but by whether it is a sentence which stops further crime and enables restitution to be made to the victim and to society. Instead of sinking endless resources into prisons, it is time to make tough choices and reinvest in other parts of the criminal justice system, and, equally importantly, invest in a range of community and public services outside the system that can do most to cut crime. Evidence from other countries shows that this approach can actually cut the financial cost of crime and reduce the wider burden of crime for individuals and for society as a whole. In an election year it is vital that there is a responsible debate about how we can use limited resources to cut crime, not a competition as to who will promise the longest prison sentences.