Once the courts started sentencing those involved in the riots, little imagination was required to see that the prisons would rapidly fill up. Because the number of inmates generally falls in summer and because pressure on youth facilities has been comparatively low this year, the impact of so many new prisoners has so far created less of a crisis than might have been expected. With 100 new people being committed each day, however, the unusual equanimity currently being shown by HM Prison Service will not last forever.
Nor should it. The rioting and looting of two weeks ago seem to have anaesthetised those ministers and others who were insisting only recently that fewer people should be sent to prison, and for less time. The silence of the Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, and the chief inspector of prisons, Nick Hardwick, has been especially deafening. Just now, of course, the cause of reducing the prison population is unlikely to be popular. But the arguments against prison remain as cogent as they always were; indeed, they may be more so.
Those, such as the Deputy Prime Minister and penal reformers, are right to want a greater role for restorative justice. Many of those involved in the riots are first-time offenders; even for those with a record, community service that entails repairing some of the damage could prove both punitive and therapeutic – a distinct improvement on prison. Yet, perhaps for fear of a public backlash, judges have steered away from sentences that so well fit the crime.
Some of the harsher sentences will probably be reversed on appeal – the first successful appellant was released yesterday. But if judges continue to send rioters to prison at the present rate, the consequences could be severe: prisoners held three to a cell, the reversal of planned prison closures and even, in the last resort, the return of those infamous prison ships. With such emergency remedies liable to become permanent, it would be far better to avoid the need for them in the first place.