Home Affairs Correspondent
The Archbishop of Canterbury is to launch an unprecedented attack on the "prison works" criminal justice policy of Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, today.
Joining the growing list of Mr Howard's critics - which includes judges, police and lawyers - Dr George Carey's speech calls into question the unprecedented rate at which people are being sent to prison.
The day after the prison population reached a record high of 51,754, Dr Carey will warn of the dangers of overcrowding and of the "grave injustice" to remand prisoners - many of whom will be acquitted or not sentenced to imprisonment - and to their families. He says he is horrified that over a fifth of all prisoners have not been sentenced to a term of imprisonment.
Dr Carey's criticism comes four days after the Law Lords ruled that Mr Howard's cheaper scheme for compensating crime victims was illegal. Their judgment, that the Home Secretary had abused his powers and flouted the will of Parliament, brought to an abrupt end the relative calm Mr Howard had enjoyed since the Whitemoor and Parkhurst prison debacles.
Dr Carey, in his first major address on justice and the use of prisons, is clearly calling for a return to the short-lived criminal justice policy of the late Eighties and early Nineties. It was inspired by Lord Woolf's report into the Strangeways riots and driven by Douglas Hurd, then Home Secretary. Mr Hurd, now Foreign Secretary, sought to divert petty offenders from jail while imprisoning more serious offenders for longer, but in more constructive and rehabilitative regimes.
However, it proved to be a short-lived experiment with successive Home Secretaries pursuing increasingly "tough" policies. Mr Howard has talked of wanting prisons to be "austere" and has introduced a succession of policies which are leading to the greater use of imprisonment. He has also committed millions to a prison building programme - with seven now in the pipeline.
But Dr Carey, who spent four years as a chaplain at the Lone Newton remand centre in County Durham, will say in a prepared speech today: "Retribution without rehabilitation produces more crime and injustice."
Addressing about 250 delegates at a special conference on prisons in Lincoln, he will make clear that prison is needed for serious offenders and those who pose a danger to the public, but questions its use for petty criminals and the unconvicted.
Contrasting the Government's penal policy with that of the Netherlands, which, with a similar crime rate, incarcerates only half the number, he will say: "The main point I wish to emphasise is that even if vigorous prison-building were to keep up with the growing numbers and ease overcrowding, fundamental questions remain about the wisdom and justice of resorting to prison on such a scale." It punished prisoners' families, served to undermine a sense of responsibility and self-respect and put massive pressure on the penal system.
While praising the work of the Prison Service and noting improvements, the Archbishop says "serious problems" remain and he urges the creation of alternative non-custodial forms of sentencing for less serious offences. He concludes: "If there are too many people in prison, the purposes of the criminal justice system are ill-served."
But Dr Carey's criticism is not only aimed at penal policy. He also attacks tabloid newspapers which labelled criminals as "beasts", "scum", "animals" or "vermin" and tended to stress "unlimited hatred" rather than justice as the driving force of punishment.