Lord Chancellor Michael Gove has set up a team to investigate how to establish United States-style courts that would monitor drug offenders rather than send them to jail, in the hope it could reduce prisoner numbers.
English and Welsh prisons are virtually full, and nearly half of adult prisoners reoffend within 12 months. Now Mr Gove has asked a working group of Ministry of Justice (MoJ) officials, senior judiciary, and think tank experts to look at “problem solving courts”.
Rather than simply sentence people over low-level drug, alcohol or domestic-abuse related crimes, they would be sent on rehabilitation programmes, and have their progress overseen by judges who would interview them in court for regular updates.
Mr Gove visited Texas last year to examine how a Republican programme has cut prison numbers by sending criminals on intensive courses to deal with drug abuse, alcohol addiction, and mental-health problems rather than sending them to jail.
Although Texas is not known for a progressive attitude to crime – the state retains the death penalty – its “Star” courts monitor offenders who can be treated, and will only send them to prison if they do not attend scheduled meetings or hit targets set by judges.
The working group convened by Mr Gove meets for the first time this month and is understood to be supported by both David Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne. There will be between 10 and 15 members, and it involves Lord Thomas, the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales.
Mr Gove is keen to gain the support of Lord Thomas so that he can get the plans past a judiciary who are concerned that such a sweeping change could be unworkable.
Mr Brine said last night: “I’ve seen problem-solving courts at work in Houston, and their recidivism figures are as impressive as they are indisputable. It has to be right that we explore how the concept can be scaled up here as we finally get away from the tired ‘lock them up or let them out’ mentality. These courts are inherently a Conservative approach because on one hand they help turn lives around, and because a smaller prison estate is at the end of the day a smaller state.”
A senior Tory source added: “This is a very Conservative proposition. Prison represents market failure and creates a bigger state. We, as Conservatives, want a smaller state – the Prime Minister, Michael Gove and George [Osborne] get that.”
MoJ figures show that prisons were 97 per cent full in December, with Wormwood Scrubs in west London, Oakwood in Staffordshire, and Dartmoor in Devon among those that were at capacity. In March 2014, there were only 265 free spaces out of 85,800 in the English and Welsh prison estate, and 14 privately run jails were asked to cram more inmates into their cells.
A prisons expert who has spoken to the Government about problem-solving courts said there was “a head of steam” behind the idea, and that the working group would start work “in the next few weeks”. The expert added: “There’s a process of ‘how do we implement this?’.”
Andrew Neilson, director of campaigns at The Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “We welcome any exploration of the problem-solving concept. One of the aspects that problem-solving courts cover is a sense of checking progress and monitoring how people are doing.”
However, Mr Neilson said the working group will have to determine how to avoid putting additional strain on community services that have been badly hit by austerity cuts.
He argued: “These courts are certainly one aspect of how you could reform the system and reduce prison numbers, though I don’t think it would do that on its own. I certainly think that the big question is these courts would have to link into services somehow, and of course there have been cuts to local government services.”
Mr Neilson added that there is a problem with the system in the US because it had limited welfare. This meant that committing a crime that would be resolved in these courts could be appealing because it would be seen as a “route to welfare”. This would be less of a risk in the UK where there is a more accessible welfare system.
David Hanson, a Labour member of the House of Commons’ justice select committee, said it was “a good thing” that Mr Gove was investigating the option. He added: “For shorter sentences there’s an argument for an alternative to prison sentences.”
Mr Gove told the Magistrates’ Association last month: “I recently visited the US to look at the innovative ways in which the judiciary were taking an active role in overseeing the rehabilitation of the offenders they had sentenced.
“I was impressed by the potential of these problem-solving courts to contribute to crime reduction and personal redemption. I know all of you care a great deal about the rehabilitation of the people who appear in front of you in court and want to play a bigger part in that process.
“The Lord Chief Justice and I have discussed how we can learn from the experience of problem-solving courts in other jurisdictions, and we are both keen to look at what more we can do in this area.”
A source close to Mr Gove added: “One of the principle aims is to make sure we effectively tackle the root causes of re-offending.”
A senior prison reform campaigner said: “This will help reduce numbers, but it can only work with more direct sentencing reforms. The real driver of prison numbers is that the length of sentences has grown for people who commit more serious crimes. This is a political problem – ministers have to make it easier [for prisoners] to earn their release.”
There are concerns that the system could prove prohibitively expensive. There have been limited pilots of problem-solving courts in the past, notably in Liverpool, where it failed partly because of cost.