Leading article: Our prisons are not doing what we expect of them

The penal system is prohibitively expensive and dangerously ineffective

The recommendations of the two-year study by the Commission on English Prisons Today are what you would expect from a report sponsored by those veteran campaigners for penal reform, the Howard League. But that does not make its prescriptions any less sensible, or pertinent to our present situation.

A prison system should serve three basic functions. First, it should keep truly dangerous individuals out of our communities. Second, it should play a punitive and deterrent role. Third, prisons should help to rehabilitate offenders.

The problem is that the present system is failing in all three of these functions. The chronic levels of overcrowding in our jails mean the resources for rehabilitation are utterly swamped. Rather than being engines of reform, our prisons have become colleges of crime for tens of thousands of petty criminals who have been given short sentences.

Prisons have also become warehouses for a multitude of drug addicts and the mentally ill. Most of these people need treatment, rather than punishment. As for a deterrent, how can the prospect of jail deter a paranoid schizophrenic? Finally, the prison and probation system is so overloaded that it is not even protecting the public from the most violent criminals, as the recent case of Dano Sonnex, who brutally murdered two French students while on parole, graphically illustrated.

The Commission makes the case for an entirely different approach. It recommends more use of community punishments instead of custodial sentences and greater investment in education and drug treatment. The authors argue that the National Offender Management Service be dismantled and control of prison budgets handed to local communities in an effort to decentralise the justice system.

Evidence from other countries with more progressive prison policies suggests that these reforms would save money and help cut offending. As the report puts it, our penal system should aim to "do better, do less".

The obstacle is politics. Violent crime and anti-social behaviour are serious blights on modern Britain and should not be ignored by any responsible politician. But this particular Government has gone after the symptoms, not the real problem. And in doing so has made that underlying problem worse. "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" has become a cliché, but there is wisdom in it. The pity is that those who invented the slogan never acted upon it. Instead we have had a decade of legislative hyperactivity, with Parliament churning out endless draconian criminal justice bills and judges subjected to relentless political pressure to impose longer sentences. The causes of crime have been almost entirely ignored.

What Britain is crying out for is a mature public debate on how to make our penal system genuinely effective. The simplistic arguments in support of cramming ever more people into our jails have been discredited. We have tried this approach for the past 15 years. The prison population has more than doubled since the early 1990s. And it has not worked.

It is also no longer affordable. The Ministry of Justice has plans to build five new jails to ease overcrowding but at the same time it is facing a budget cut. Something has to give. The present path we are on is prohibitively expensive and dangerously ineffective. It is time to change direction.