Yesterday (3 April) the House of Common's Justice Select Committee published a hard-hitting report, “Prison population 2022: planning for the future”. Members will have seen many of the headlines, particularly that the Committee has asked the Ministry of Justice to consider curbing prison sentences of less than 12 months – Justice Minister David Gauke has already announced that the MoJ is looking into restricting the use of sentences of 6 months or less.
However, the report is much more far-reaching. Committee Chair Bob Neill started his video summary by saying: “We have to rethink the way we use prisons” and went on to explain that the report is an attempt to look across the piece at our approach to prison policy going forwards”.
The prison population
The report sets out the growth in the prison population (from 44,246 in 1993 to 82,384 at the end of 2018); it notes that while the number of people in prison has remained roughly stable since 2012, the amount spent on prisons has fallen in recent years. The Ministry of Justice currently has a gap in its finances across 2018–19 and 2019–20 of £1.2 billion which the Committee equates to a reduction in the prison population of roughly 20,000 prisoners.
The Committee attributes most of the rise in the prison population to legislation by governments of all parties to increase sentencing powers in the face of concerns about a range of different offences. The Committee recommends that when changes to sentencing legislation are being debated in parliament, MPs are informed of the likely impact on any changes on the current over-stretched prison system.
The Committee’s report argues that continuing to plough funding into building prisons to accommodate prison projections is not a sustainable approach in the medium or long-term. It says there must be a focus on investing in services to reduce the £15 billion annual cost of reoffending and prevent offenders from continually returning to prison, thereby reducing the size of the prison population.
For this reason, the Committee endorses the MoJ plans to introduce presumption against short custodial sentences and goes further, asking the Department to “model the effects of abolishing sentences of fewer than 12 months”.
The Committee realises that people can only be diverted from prison to community sentences if there is sufficient confidence amongst judges and magistrates in these disposals and asks the MoJ to explore the value of judicial monitoring – similar to the way drug courts work in the US with a Judge reviewing an individual’s progress at regular hearings.
The Committee is also strongly critical of the current situation in our prisons which it describes as “an enduring crisis in prison safety and decency” that has lasted five years and is taking significant additional investment to rectify, further diverting funds from essential rehabilitative initiatives that could stem or reverse the predicted growth in the prison population. The Committee argues that there is a grave risk that we become locked in a vicious cycle of prisons perpetually absorbing huge amounts of criminal-justice related spending, creating a perverse situation in which there is likely to be more “demand” for prison by sentencers in areas where they have less access to effective community alternatives.
While the Committee says the MoJ has been right to prioritise the restoration of safety and decent living conditions in prison, it notes that this emphases has come “at the expense of rehabilitation and purposeful activity”. It urges the MoJ to refocus its efforts to maintain a dual approach to maintain safety and decency, as well as improve rehabilitation, noting that regime restrictions related to staffing shortages and other disruptions severely undermine the delivery of rehabilitative services including education, mental health treatment, substance misuse treatment and offending behaviour programmes.
In other words, it is not possible to restore safety and decency without investing in rehabilitation and ensuring that prisoners are out of their cells, working and learning, tackling their problems and planning for their release.
The voluntary sector
The Committee appears to have paid attention to the evidence submitted by Clinks and oral evidence presented by our Chief Executive Officer, Anne Fox. This is reflected in the strong emphasis on prioritising the funding of rehabilitative interventions and a mention that Prisons Minister Rory Stewart had praised the work of the voluntary sector co-ordinator at HMP Wandsworth, although, regrettably, the MoJ is not currently funding a roll-out of co-ordinators across the estate as we have recommended in our The Good Prison report.
The way forward
The report argues that we have to rethink the way that we use prisons in this country, noting that while we have one of the biggest rates of incarceration in the Western world, we also have one of the highest rates of reoffending. The Committee questions why we send so many people to prison with such little effect.
The Committee raised a number of issues including the overrepresentation of black prisoners and the ongoing scandal of IPP prisoners (those sentenced to indeterminate prison sentences via legislation abolished seven years ago) almost all of whom have served many years past their tariff and yet remain incarcerated.
The report also strongly criticises the MoJ’s failure to address offending behaviour and drive prison reform:
“The current overall approach is largely a collection of operational policies and lacks a coherent means of driving reform, including processes that link plans, data on outcomes, and the evaluation and dissemination of good practice. They are also woefully under-resourced…”
The Committee advocates a much more strategic, cross-government approach and calls for the Reducing Reoffending Group to commission an urgent systemic review of cross-departmental activity to reduce crime, in order to inform the upcoming spending review.
Finally, the Committee (encouraged by our Chief Executive and the Chief Inspector of Prisons, among others) urged the Government to prioritise prison reform. Although the Committee accepted the Government’s decision to abandon the Prisons and Courts Bill (to make more time available for Brexit) it recommended that:
“The Government must legislate in the next Queen’s Speech on the purpose of prisons and to strengthen the statutory foundations of the Prison and Probation Ombudsman and National Preventive Mechanism”.
We must wait and see how the Ministry of Justice responds to this call to rebalance the prison and probation systems and pace more emphasis on rehabilitation in the community.