Bishops blame government for crime: Attack on policies claimed to result in poverty. Jason Bennetto reports

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN'S Catholic bishops will today attack the Government's crime and punishment policy, arguing that unemployment, poor housing and poverty are partly responsible for law-breaking, and that prison does not work.

The report, endorsed by a committee of the Bishops' Conference of England and Wales, which represents all bishops, also says reduced benefits for young people contributes to crime and that prison sentences are too long. The Catholic Church's criticism of the penal system and the linking of crime and poverty follows a spate of outspoken comments from church leaders and is bound to cause the Government further embarrassment.

The conference's Social Welfare Committee argues in its report, A Time For Justice, which is published today: 'There is strong evidence of a relationship between unemployment and crime, especially at a time of growing inequalities of income.

'Unemployed people have time on their hands, lack the stability which steady employment can provide, suffer a lack of dignity and loss of self-image and do not have sufficient money to acquire by legitimate means access to many of the possessions and activities which they see others enjoying.'

It continues: 'Even more striking are the results of studies of the effect of relative declines in income during periods of widening inequalities. Present-day Western society places a high premium on material success, but we have seen an increasingly unequal distribution of the legitimate means to reach that goal. Some unfortunately adopt illegitimate methods instead.

' . . . Reductions in social security payments for many claimants, and the withdrawal of benefit from 16- to 17-year-old people, place many under severe financial pressure, and increase the temptation to resort to petty crime as a way out of destitution or overwhelming financial problems.'

Other factors which the report believes can predispose people towards offending include poor parenting, racism, lack of leisure facilities, drug and alcohol abuse and the media's promotion of violence.

The bishops intend to give copies of the study, which has taken five years to complete, to schools, Catholics and penal organisations. They carried out a similar review of criminal justice in 1982.

The report also argues that too many people are being locked up, contradicting the assertion by Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, that 'prison works'. 'Studies confirm the ineffectiveness of prison in rehabilitation, its damaging and counter-productive effects and high costs,' says the report. 'There has been a record recent rise in the prison population and a return to severe levels of prison overcrowding.

'The length of prison sentences imposed on many offenders is excessive in comparison with those of other countries and it has been steadily increasing over recent years.' It says this has jeopardised improvements made in the service.

It calls for judges to impose shorter sentences in more cases - except where the public would not be at risk.