Justice Committee criticises government’s approach to growing prison population

By agency reporter
April 4, 2019

The Government’s current approach to prison funding to accommodate growing population forecasts is inefficient, ineffective, and unsustainable in the medium or long-term, says the Justice Committee in a major new report.

Reporting on a wide-ranging 18-month inquiry, the Committee agrees with Justice Secretary David Gauke that there is a very strong case for abolishing sentences of six months or less altogether. Re-offending costs an estimated £15 billion a year. The report recommends a focus on investing in services to reduce this, thus cutting crime and reducing the overall size of the prison population which is increased through repeat imprisonment.
 
Over the past 25 years, the prison population for England and Wales has almost doubled in size from 44,246 in 1993 to 82,384 in December 2018. Capacity has not kept pace with demand and many prisons are now overcrowded. The inquiry heard how staffing shortages and other disruptions have severely undermined the delivery of rehabilitative services in prisons, including education, mental health treatment, substance misuse treatment and offending behaviour programmes. The Committee concluded that this creates immeasurable wasted costs.
 
The nature of the prison population is rapidly changing: a higher proportion of offenders are in prison for serious violent or sexual offences. The average age is rising and many prisoners have mental health problems. All these factors and others make the current cohort of prisoners extremely challenging.
 
The report argues that the Government’s focus on addressing safety and decency in prisons has come at the expense of rehabilitation. The Ministry of Justice needs to refocus its efforts to enable a dual approach to maintain both safety and decency, as well as to improve rehabilitation.

Chair of the Justice Committee, Bob Neill, said: “The Ministry of Justice and Treasury are guilty of a crisis management approach to prisons that has been failing for the past five years. Throwing money at the prison system to tackle multiple issues takes funding away from external rehabilitative programmes that could stem or reverse many of the problems.

“Proper investment in rehabilitation services would really work. Better access to support and opportunities for offenders would reduce repeat imprisonment, save money, and start to alleviate pressures on jails. 
 
“Poor access to rehabilitation while in prison creates boredom and frustration, with a cyclical impact on the degradation of regimes and safety.
 
“We need a serious open public debate about the criminal justice system, the role of prison and its affordability. We are pleased that the Justice Secretary and Prisons Minister have acknowledged this but regardless of the political climate, it cannot just be a long-term aspiration.

There must be greater transparency so that everyone can understand the true costs and challenging nature of decisions which need to be made about public spending on prisons and other aspects of criminal justice. This should form the first step of the Justice Secretary’s ‘National conversation’. These issues cannot be hidden behind the prison gates any longer.”

Commenting on the report, Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “This thorough report represents a welcome outbreak of cross party common sense about a complex problem. It should lay to rest once and for all the idea that governments can build their way out of the prisons crisis. And it rightly focuses on the need to implement ambitious policies rather than just announce more of them.

“There is unanimous endorsement of the government’s wish to abolish pointless short prison sentences. The committee also supports the justice secretary’s call for a bigger public conversation about how we punish the most serious crime.

“There could not be a more comprehensive demolition of our national obsession with imprisonment, fed by governments of all colours for more than two decades. The current government’s response must now recognise the need for fundamental change.”

* Read Prison Population 2022: Planning for the Future here

* Justice Select Committee https://www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/justice-committee/

* Prison Reform Trust http://www.prisonreformtrust.org.uk/

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