Dismay as Boris Johnson ‘ignores evidence’ with pledge to crack down on crime with thousands more prison places

‘Tough rhetoric is no substitute for understanding the evidence,’ experts warn prime minister 

Lizzie Dearden
Home Affairs Correspondent
Monday 12 August 2019 16:07
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Boris Johnson in profile

Boris Johnson has been accused of ignoring evidence on the causes of crime with a vow to create thousands more prison places and “properly punish” offenders.

The prime minister is to announce his plans at a meeting with police chiefs, judges and prison officers on Monday.

Downing Street officials said he wanted to “improve the criminal justice system and make sure criminals are serving the time they are sentenced to”, following controversies over the automatic release of prisoners including a grooming gang leader halfway through their sentences.

Robert Buckland QC, the new justice secretary, suggested new prisons could be built “so we can keep criminals behind bars”.

“The prime minister is putting prisons at the heart of our bold plan to create a justice system which cuts crime and protects law-abiding people,” he added.

“More and better prison places means less reoffending and a lower burden on the taxpayer in the future.

“Boris’s vision for policing shows this government is serious about fighting crime. It is vital we have a world-leading prison estate to keep criminals off our streets and turn them into law-abiding citizens when they have paid their debt to society.”

The move will be seen as a push to shore up support for Mr Johnson’s new government following the announcement of 20,000 more police officers and funding for the NHS.

There has been speculation that a snap general election could be called if MPs force a vote of no confidence in the prime minister over a no-deal Brexit.

The Conservatives previously pledged to create 10,000 more places in several new jails but only one – HMP Berwyn – has been completed and construction did not start on a second prison until June.

There was no immediate comment from the Ministry of Justice, which just three weeks ago released research indicating that short prison sentences were driving up reoffending that costs the UK £18bn a year.

Days before losing his post as justice secretary, David Gauke appealed for the next prime minister to “follow the evidence” rather than appeal to populist rhetoric on crime and punishment.

“I don’t want to see softer justice – I want to deliver smarter justice where offenders serve sentences that punish but also make them less likely to reoffend,” he said last month.

Mr Gauke had called for “ineffective” prison sentences of under six months to be abolished in favour of community orders and substance misuse programmes that address the root causes of people’s offending.

The plans, which were welcomed by penal researchers and advocacy groups, are to be scrapped by Mr Johnson.

During the Conservative leadership campaign, he called for offenders given prison sentences of 14 years or more to remain inside for the entire term, rather than being released on licence halfway through.

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The change would dramatically increase demand on prisons in England and Wales, which are currently filled to 95 per cent of their operational capacity.

An annual report released by HM chief inspector of prisons last month cited overcrowding and squalid conditions as one driver of rising violence and self-harm, but also called for an effective drug strategy, improved rehabilitation, better planning for release and purposeful activity for inmates.

“At present ‘overcrowding’ in prisons is assessed by the prison service based on how many prisoners can be crammed into the available cells,” said HM chief inspector Peter Clarke.

“Perhaps we should think about describing prisons as being overcrowded if, among other things, there are not enough meaningful education or work places for the prisoners being held in them.”

Downing Street acknowledged that prisons need a “greater emphasis on rehabilitation” and training but did not detail plans to provide it.

The Prison Reform Trust warned that government had historically underestimated the difficulties in removing or replacing old prisons.

Director Peter Dawson said: “According to the prison service’s own figures it would take 9,000 new spaces just to eliminate overcrowding – not a single dilapidated prison could be taken out of use before that figure was reached.

“Current projections suggest a further 3,000 new spaces will be needed just to absorb sentences already passed, and we know the aggressive rhetoric of ‘prison works’ invariably drives up the use of imprisonment long before the capacity to deal with that has been created.

“Half-baked policy on prisons always runs up against inconvenient reality. Tough rhetoric is no substitute for understanding the evidence. ”

Frances Crook, CEO of the Howard League for Penal Reform, called the construction of new prisons “an exercise in ego and reputation” and a “gross squandering of taxpayers’ money”.

She said prison governors and officers described managing men on sentences longer than 20 years “an impossible challenge”, adding: “Sentence inflation is now out of control.”

Christina Marriott, chief executive of the Revolving Doors Agency, said short prison sentences “create more crime and more victims”.

She added: “The prime minister says he wants to take tough action on crime, but for effective action, he must listen to the evidence including, that from the Ministry of Justice.”

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