Leading article: A vicious circle of short-termism and neglect

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If we were to compile a list of the most egregious failings of the New Labour government, prisons and prison policy would have to come near to the top. Nine and half years after winning power, there is still not the slightest sign that ministers have come close to getting to grips with the problem. The evidence rather suggests the opposite.

It is well-known that prisons, like the treatment of offenders in general, tend to be one of the least popular areas of public spending. Hospitals, schools, public transport, recreation facilities - indeed, almost anything - takes precedence over spending on offenders in the public mind. With historically large parliamentary majorities, however, Tony Blair's government had a chance to address this neglected cause. Yet the state of our prisons remains a disgrace, and innovation, such as there has been, has been halting and patchy.

The statement on the latest prison crisis - expected as early as today - from the Home Office will show how far the Government has fallen short. The almost 80,000 places in prisons in England and Wales are full. Inmates are being moved around to accommodate the growing numbers receiving custodial sentences. A leaked memo suggested that more people could be moved to open prisons, with the risk that rates of absconding and drug use in the open prisons would grow.

Among other options apparently under consideration are the earlier deportation of foreign offenders and the use of expensive police cells. The only option ruled out in the quest for emergency prison places is a return to the notorious prison ship. It was sold last year, soon after its closure. Meanwhile, ministers offer the "consoling" news that another 8,000 prison places are in the pipeline, 200 of which will be available before the end of the year.

All this is a far cry from what New Labour seemed to be saying when it pledged to be tough not just on crime, but on the causes of crime. At the time, Tony Blair needed to convince a sceptical electorate that a Labour government shared their concern about crime. But Britain already locks up far more offenders proportionately than most of our European neighbours, and our rates of incarceration have been rising, even though the incidence of serious crime has not.

The rise in the overall prison population comes despite the fact that more money has been allocated for drug treatment and rehabilitation, and despite the increased use of community service orders and other prison alternatives, such as antisocial behaviour orders. And a major reason is the scandalously high rate of reoffending. The idea that the prison experience itself could contribute to the reoffending rates, however, is an argument that is too rarely heard.

There is a vicious circle here that this Government has not tried nearly hard enough to break. It has responded to the public's fear of crime by restricting the sentencing discretion of judges. At the same time, it has consistently failed to fund the increase in prison places that are needed to keep pace with harsher sentencing. Overcrowding means that prisoners are often moved around at short notice, which makes rehabilitation, in the form of education and training programmes, nigh impossible - even if funding were adequate, which it is not.

We would like to believe that when the Home Office sets out its response to the latest prison crisis, it will propose solutions that go beyond the simple expedient of more prison places. Precedent suggests, however, this is too much to expect from a government that has emulated its Conservative predecessor in stressing its toughness on crime, at the expense of its supposedly equal concern about the causes.

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