How to make our prisons work

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JACK STRAW

From the 1998 Annual Lecture on penal policy delivered by the Home Secretary to the Prison Reform Trust in London

THE NINETIES produced some hard, and much needed, lessons for the Prison Service particularly about security. The service's response has been impressive. There were only 23 escapes from prisons last year compared with 232 in 1993. But meanwhile, and primarily because of the rapid rise in the population, the ability of the service to deliver constructive regimes has been limited.

This government came into office with a commitment to tackle crime. We believe prisons can be made to work as one element in a radical and coherent strategy to protect the public by reducing crime.

So what are the defining features of my approach?

First, our policy must be fundamentally about protecting the public. Assessing risk, reducing risk and managing risk after release are key elements. Curing every offender of crime is beyond the reach, I suggest, of any Home Secretary. But some things make some people more likely to offend, and some things make some people more likely to desist from offending. The Prison Service in isolation will hit relatively few of those moving targets. In concert with others, however, it has a critical part to play in bringing forward the moment at which an offender gives up offending, whether through understanding the impact on others, through finding a new, more positive way of life, or through the impact of rigorous and well-planned supervision.

Secondly, our policy must be realistic. By that I do not mean that it must be pessimistic, but it should be based on experience. We know that prisons must be effective in preventing escapes. But we also know that containment (even if humane) is not enough. Research evidence suggests that some things do reduce the likelihood of re-offending on release. Because of that research, it is realistic to think in terms of a Prison Service that makes a difference in offenders' lives. But it will not do so by accident.

Thirdly, our policy must be outward-looking. The overwhelming majority of prisoners return to the community in which their crime was committed - well over half of them within months, rather than years, of being convicted. There has also to be a secure and consistent broader context for our penal policy.

This is above all about sentencing. Until we introduced the Crime and Disorder Bill last year, Lord Hurd's Criminal Justice Act 1991 was probably the last piece of strategic criminal justice legislation in this country. It continues to be the foundation for sentencing and for a proper use of custody as punishment. It is the seriousness of the offending or the risk of future harm to the public which justify custody. Community punishments remain the most common disposal for most offenders and the public broadly accept this.

A most revealing piece of recent research by Mike Dough and Julian Roberts showed that, when the public is presented with the full details of a real- life offence, offender and sentencing, they make choices very similar, and if anything less severe, than the sentence of the actual court in the case. In that study, for example, over half of those questioned recommended a community penalty for a burglar given a three-year prison sentence by the Crown Court in real life.

But courts still need to be convinced that community punishments are demanding and rigorously enforced. Offenders who do not go to prison should not be seen as "getting away with it". Those who are sent to prison should be done so with a clear-sighted appreciation of its consequences for the offender concerned.

On the other hand, if sentencers use prison other than in accordance with these principles, they undermine the Prison service's capacity to be effective in tackling the offending of those in prison.

In case you hadn't noticed, this government is passionate about young people and about education. That's education, education, education. I will have more to say in a minute about the implications of that for constructive regimes, but let me lodge with you some pretty alarming statistics.

Twenty per cent of the general population have deficiencies in literacy and numeracy, but among the prisoner population, this figure is much greater. So we can hardly be insensitive to the opportunities which the provision of well targeted education in prisons offer. Prison has an infinite capacity to inculcate dependence, to remove the most basic capacity for personal decision making and to undermine a person's self reliance. As a government, we are not prepared to allow that in prisons.

I am confident that the vision I have for constructive regimes will be welcome. Together, we have a real opportunity to make prisons work.

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