Juliet Lyon: A senseless system in both economic and human terms

The social and economic costs of imprisonment have become too great to bear and the Carter review fundamentally fails to get to grips with the crisis. When you start talking numbers the scale of the problem quickly becomes evident. The prison population has soared by 25,000 in just over 10 years. Previously it took nearly four decades (1958-1995) for it to rise to that degree. Each year more than 132,000 people are received into our overcrowded prisons and 70,000 children enter the youth justice system.

Talking tough, creating new offences, introducing a raft of mandatory penalties and then, under the Criminal Justice Act (2003), bringing in a new indeterminate sentence, has led to a massive inflation in sentencing. The misuse of prisons to contain the mentally ill, addicts in need of treatment, and vulnerable women and children compounds the problem. It also provides a key to its solution in terms of the range of government departments who must shoulder responsibility.

People are questioning whether we can afford all this. Each new prison place costs 119,000 and the annual average cost for each prisoner exceeds 40,000. In November it was revealed in Parliament that 29m had been wasted in one year on overspill police cells. No investment has been made to increase staff numbers.

It is difficult to estimate the social costs of needlessly high rates of imprisonment. But the impact on families, as well as the cycle of crime, will be immense. Today well over 150,000 children have a parent in prison. More children are affected by the imprisonment of a parent than they are by divorce. Yet almost no attention is paid to the needs of prisoners' families and carers.

And what of those children who are themselves jailed? The number of 15- to 17-year-olds in prison custody increased by 86 per cent in 10 years from 1995 to 2005. Here we should stop and think of just one child.

On 29 November 2007 notification was received of the death of a 15-year-old boy in HMYOI Lancaster Farms. Liam McManus was found hanged from a bed sheet tied to the window bars in a single cell. He was serving a sentence of one month and 14 days for breach of licence. His sad, lonely death raises fundamental questions about the use of custody for children. If anything good could come out of such a tragedy, it would be for government to urgently review its policy of locking our most vulnerable children in under-resourced, unsafe institutions.

The report by Lord Carter is a missed opportunity to advocate a more sparing use of custody. Polls show that what people want is not vengeance but a system that prevents the next victim. By reintroducing proportionality in sentencing and meeting its commitment to reserve prison only for the most serious and violent offenders, government could begin to repair some of the damage caused by an addiction to imprisonment that has cost us dear.

The writer is director of the Prison Reform Trust