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To reform prison, put fewer in there, parties are urged

14 June 2024

Long-term solutions are needed — not ‘sentence inflation’ — campaigners say

Diocese of Gloucester

Bishop Treweek visits PI Allen a den Rijn, a prison in the Netherlands, during her visit to the country last week to learn more about their criminal justice system

Bishop Treweek visits PI Allen a den Rijn, a prison in the Netherlands, during her visit to the country last week to learn more about their criminal j...

CAMPAIGNERS for prison reform have called on the next government to address urgently the issue of overcrowding — not by building more prisons, but by reducing the number of people behind bars.

The latest prison-population figures, released this week by the Ministry of Justice, show that 87,284 people are being held in prisons in England and Wales — up by 2000 a year ago. The UK has the highest incarceration rate in Western Europe.

Last October, the Government announced an early release scheme to allow “low-level” offenders out of prison up to 18 days early, to ease overcrowding. In March, this increased to up to 60 days, and, last month, was extended again to 70 days. Anyone convicted of terrorism, or a sexual or serious violent offence, is excluded.

On Monday, the Shadow Justice Secretary, Shabana Mahmood, declined to rule out the continuation of the scheme under a Labour government. She said that it would be “irresponsible” to make a decision without seeing figures on how many offenders had been released.

The topic has otherwise received little attention so far during the General Election campaign, as parties jostle over tax and immigration.

The Bishop of Gloucester, the Rt Revd Rachel Treweek, who is Bishop to HM Prisons, said this week that the crisis was “not prisons which need expanding, but rather our imaginations and public understanding”.

She continued: “We need courageous long-term thinking, rooted in a vision of restoration and transformation. We need to be more courageous in establishing alternatives to the revolving door of prison and the repeated pattern of fractured relationship.

“Such solutions would include ever-more imaginative community-based initiatives; not using prison as a place to accommodate people with severe mental-health problems; and shaping alternative interventions for many whose offending is rooted in drug addiction.”

Bishop Treweek, who last week visited the Netherlands to learn more about their criminal-justice system, has called for a move away from short sentences, which, she said, “disrupt lives and achieve nothing”. More than half of the prison sentences given to women in 2022 were for less than six months.

There is broad agreement across the charities working in the sector about what approach the next government should take: one that focuses on long-term solutions, such as crime-prevention and rehabilitation, rather than punishment and lengthening of sentences.

Recidivism rates in prisons in the UK are also high; one quarter of prisoners reoffend within two years of being released.

Children are also being affected. The charity Children Heard and Seen was set up to support children with a parent in prison. In some cases, these children were left living alone, without any support in place, and without the authorities’ knowing about their situation. It estimates that 312,000 children are affected by parental imprisonment, and that the lack of support means that many children become offenders themselves.

Two-thirds of boys with a parent in prison go on to commit an offence, it says.

The charity is campaigning to have parental imprisonment officially recognised in law by autumn 2025, and for the Government to introduce a statutory mechanism to identify and support children with a parent in prison.

The Prison Reform Trust supports prisoners and their families, and advocates for a reduction in necessary imprisonment, as well as for community solutions which address the root causes of crime and cut reoffending.

Its chief executive, Pia Sinha, said this week: “Our wish list for prison reform under a new government would be to urgently address the overcrowding crisis by not just looking at ways in which capacity within prisons can be increased, but also to look at serious and viable alternatives to custodial sentences. All the evidence points to the fact that community and suspended sentences have a greater impact on reducing reoffending, as they address the root causes of crime.”

She continued: “A new government cannot simply build its way out of the crisis; it needs to be brave and look at how we stem the flow of people being unnecessarily imprisoned in the first place. This is an expensive and inefficient way to protect the public, and we need to follow the evidence rather than the rhetoric.”

The Howard League for Penal Reform campaigns for rehabilitation of offenders and restorative justice. Its chief executive, Andrea Coomber, said that prisons were a “waste of public money and human potential. . . With prisons across the country in a desperate state, it is time for politicians to come forward with a sensible strategy to reduce the number of people behind bars.

“Building more jails is not the answer. Prisons are a dreadful waste of public money and human potential; they cause untold harm to individuals, families, and communities, and don’t address the causes of offending.

“If it is serious about reducing crime, the next government will divert a lot of people away from the criminal justice system into properly resourced community services that address triggers such as poor mental health, and drug and alcohol dependency. It will invest in schools, hospitals, housing, and jobs; things known to stop crime.

“And, finally, it will initiate an honest and informed public conversation about sentencing policy. It is ever longer sentences — sentence inflation — that is the reason prisons are in this mess.”

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