Cherie Booth QC: How to cut the prison population

Over the last few years, as a part-time judge, I have on occasion given custodial sentences to the guilty. I have no doubt that prison is the right place for those responsible for violent or serious offences.

But we can't ignore, either, the troubling fact that the number of people in jail has more than doubled in the past two decades. The prison population, already at a record high at 84,000, is expected to keep rising.

The building of thousands of new prison places each year has failed to keep pace. The result is badly overcrowded prisons with all the problems this brings. As anyone who visits our jails knows, they are packed not with violent thugs or master criminals but with those with mental health and addiction problems.

It is why the Howard League for Penal Reform believed there was a need to examine anew the role of prisons in our society. The Commission on English Prisons Today, of which I am president, is an independent review by experts and practitioners. We were asked to think radically about the purpose and limits of our penal system.

The commission calls for the replacement of short prison sentences with effective community-based punishments. This will lead to a reduction in the prison population and allow the closure of some prisons. There must also be clear acknowledgement that criminal justice is a blunt tool which cannot in itself provide lasting solutions to the problem of crime.

Given that prisons are expensive yet re-offending rates of former inmates remain high, there is a financial case for examining whether there are more effective and better value options. With increased pressures on public finances likely, this argument seems certain to carry more weight.

At the heart of the commission's recommendations is a call to devolve more power over our penal system – and the resources that go with it – to a local level, which will help to tackle the present public alienation from the criminal justice system.

With local authorities as lead partners, the commission recommends local partnerships should be formed to bring together representatives from the criminal justice, health and education sectors. Prison and probation budgets would be fully devolved to their control, giving them the tools to effect change. Such an approach would put communities back at the heart of the justice system.

The writer is the president of the Commission on English Prisons Today