With numbers rocketing at the rate of a small jail a week, the Ministry of Justice has a straight choice: hold its nerve and redouble its efforts to cut any unnecessary use of imprisonment or cave in and go cap in hand to the Treasury for more money to pour down the prisons drain.
Sensible spending to cut crime should range from intensive work with serious and violent offenders in custody, for whom there are enough places already, through to breaking addictions and effective work with petty offenders in the community. The current prison population is neither justifiable nor sustainable.
There are important footholds for change. The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, currently before Parliament, should limit custodial remand to those on trial facing a real prospect of imprisonment. The Bill will sweep away the Kafkaesque indeterminate sentence for public protection and pave the way for a case by case review of the 3,500 people held beyond their sentence tariff. New clauses on women, young adults, restorative justice and rehabilitation of offenders could make for a fairer legislative framework.
Many of the solutions to prison overcrowding lie in public health and welfare measures. Enabling people to break addictions to drugs and drink would cut acquisitive crime, public disorder and violent offences like a stone. Funding just announced by the Department of Health puts a further £19.3million into ensuring that many people who are mentally ill, and those with learning disabilities, are diverted at police stations and courts into the care and health treatment they need. This move is supported by over one million professionals including the Royal College of Nursing, the Police Federation and both the Prison Governors and the Prison Officers Associations who form part of the ‘Care not Custody’ coalition led by the WI.
There is public backing for reform. A YouGov poll released this week shows that just 11% of people think that shoplifters should be jailed and most would rather see them paying a fine or doing community service. An ICM poll commissioned by the Prison Reform Trust four weeks after the August riots revealed overwhelming popular support for constructive ways for offenders to make amends for crime and disorder.
Juliet Lyon is Director of the Prison Reform Trust