Leading article: Persistent offenders

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Across the country yesterday judges and magistrates received an urgent letter, jointly signed by the Home Secretary, the Attorney General and the Lord Chancellor. The three most influential figures in our criminal justice system are reminding them to incarcerate only the most dangerous and persistent offenders who come before them for sentencing.

It is clear what has prompted this letter. The number of inmates in England and Wales has reached 80,000, a figure above maximum capacity. This week, 480 prisoners are being held in police stations. Cells at the Old Bailey have been made available. Norwich jail is to reopen a wing previously declared "unfit" by inspectors. Recommissioning prison ships and military-style camps are talked about. In short, the system has no more room. Prisons are in crisis.

The Government's own cowardice and incompetence are to blame. For the best part of a decade, ministers have pursued a policy of mass incarceration, paying little attention to rehabilitation or community sentencing. The letter states: "We should not be squandering taxpayers' money to monitor non-dangerous and less serious offenders." This is exquisite hypocrisy. Successive Home Secretaries, dancing to the hysterical tune played by right-wing newspapers, have put pressure on judges and magistrates to jail offenders for longer. Now they are sending out the exact opposite message, while lecturing judges on the need to achieve value for money for taxpayers.

Of course, the thrust of the letter is correct. Far too many people are in jail who should not be there. Thousands of drug addicts and mentally ill prisoners would be far better dealt with in other ways. Nor is an over-strained prison system succeeding in rehabilitating those who should indeed be there. Some 60 per cent of prisoners are reconvicted within two years of release. This is hardly surprising considering that so much effort is being expended on merely finding room for inmates. There are scant resources left for reforming prisoners and preparing them for life on the outside. The Liberal Democrat prison policy announced this week, which would demand more community sentencing for those guilty of relatively minor offences, is the only realistic way forward of relieving the pressure on the system.

But the Prime Minister still refuses to face up to this. At Prime Minister's Questions yesterday, Mr Blair was citing "more prison places" and "tough measures" as his Government's achievements in law and order. Yet these are the very policies that have resulted in the present overcrowding débâcle. We have a Prime Minister who, in the face of all the evidence, still seems to believe the solution to the prisons crisis is to lock more people up.