Prison reform must go hand in hand with reducing the population

Nina Champion, Director of the Criminal Justice Alliance - 10 July 2018

As made clear by the Justice Secretary in today’s speech, the problems in our prisons need urgent attention. They are increasingly unsafe places to live and work. With record levels of self-harm and violence, it is unfortunately not surprising that 1244 prison officers – one in 16 – resigned over the last year.  And for the prisoners who live there, there is no choice but to endure these increasingly dangerous conditions.  

Measures set out by the Justice Secretary, such as rolling out in-cell telephony, are welcome. But these changes alone are not enough to make our prisons safe because they don’t address the fundamental cause – overcrowding.

There are too few staff and too few resources.  The Prisons Minister recently disclosed to the Justice Committee that a prediction analysis carried out by Ministry of Justice (MoJ) statisticians could see a significant increase in the prison population – up to an additional 10,000, by 2022.

There is an obvious solution that will make a significant difference to the safety of our prisons – reducing the population. Successive Justice Secretaries have acknowledged this need for a reduction but have not used the levers available to them.

In answer to my questions at today’s speech at the Centre for Social Justice, David Gauke emphasised his desire to try to bring down the prison population and said he would engage with the Criminal Justice Alliance (CJA) on this issue.  Today the CJA publishes a briefing setting out eight areas where the government could begin to reduce the prison population without compromising public safety.

The CJA estimates that these measures could reduce the population by 12,000, reducing the pressure on the system, making it safer and freeing up over £900 million over the lifetime of this parliament. This money could instead be spent on diverting people from the criminal justice system in the first place and providing effective rehabilitation services to prevent re-offending. These areas include:

Recalls: At the end of 2017 over 6000 people in custody had been recalled after leaving prison. In 1995 that number was 200. Over half have not been charged with a further offence, and instead were recalled for other licence breaches such as failure to keep appointments, or drugs and alcohol issues.

Remand: Ten percent of the prison population are on remand, but one in seven (nearly 1400) go on to receive non-custodial sentences.

Sentence creep: Average sentence lengths have increased, by up to 30% for more serious offences. This sentence creep is one of the main drivers in the increasing population. If sentences for drug offences, fraud and theft were at 2007 levels, there would be around 2000 fewer people in prison.

Short sentences: Around 5500 prisoners are serving sentences of less than 12 months, despite being less effective than community sentences. Introducing a presumption against short sentences could not only reduce numbers, but also reduce the ‘churn’ making local prisons easier to manage. We welcome the Justice Secretary re-confirming his commitment today to reducing the number of short sentences, but further action must be taken to ensure this happens.

Mental Health: The Bradley Review found that 2000 prison places could be saved if individuals on short sentences with mental health problems were given community sentences instead.

BAME people: The Lammy Review highlighted that if the prison population reflected that of England and Wales, there would be 9000 fewer BAME people imprisoned, the equivalent of 12 prisons. Even diverting just ten percent of these through implementation of David Lammy’s recommendations, would save 900 places.

Women: 1300 women were in prison for non-violent offences – theft, fraud or drug offences. Many of these women could serve their sentence in the community without posing a threat to public safety.

IPP: Over 3000 prisoners are still in prison on indeterminate sentences, 4 out of 5 have served beyond their tariff.

Some of the levers for change are within the gift of the Ministry of Justice, but others require cross-departmental working. CJA members work across the spectrum of the criminal justice system, as well as having expertise on issues such as housing and health.  We look forward to supporting the Ministry of Justice, and other relevant departments, to explore how to start reducing the prison population.