Leading Article: Soft drugs and hard jails

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The Independent Online
LORD WOOLF'S speech last night on prisons and crime contained two important points. He called for a debate on whether a controlled legalisation of drugs might help to sever the link between addiction and crime; and he attacked as 'irresponsible and short-sighted' the idea that the best answer to rising crime is to put more people in prison and make their lives tougher.

There are good reasons for thinking that drugs should be made legal, and many of them have been canvassed in the Independent. The campaign for a debate on drug legalisation has greater weight now that one of the most respected and humane figures of the legal establishment is one of its public advocates.

The second point is more subtle. It could be argued that Lord Woolf was not levelling a specific accusation when he said the context set by Government and Parliament for prisons and sentencing policy was 'in the process of change'; and that he had nobody particularly in mind when he decried the 'fashion, not confined to the totally uninformed, to indulge in rhetoric, advocating increased sentences across the board'.

But the law lord's speech was made less than a week after Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, laid before the Tory party conference a multitude of new measures intended to tilt the balance in favour of the victims of crimes and against their perpetrators. In that speech, Mr Howard said nothing about the job of helping criminals to get back into society, and little about the risk that prison overcrowding will make them continue their life of crime with more professionalism rather than abandon it.

Lord Woolf did not propose that the Government should set formal quotas on the number of people that the courts may send to prison. But he called for more prevention and more community service, and a curb on the increase in the prison population.

He recalled the words of his report two years ago: 'The prison service has to live with prisoners during their time in prison. The rest of the country lives with them afterwards.' He is right. Mr Howard may be unable to resist the temptation to play to the galleries; but if he truly wants ordinary citizens to sleep safer in their beds, he must make British jails more humane, not less.