We are seeing an unprecedented crisis in prisons across England and Wales. There are 88,126 people currently held in our prisons, only approximately 650 short of the operational capacity of 88,782. On paper this means prisons are all but full. In practice, most prisons are already overcrowded and hold well beyond the numbers of people they should be holding – putting strain on the services prisons should be delivering and the potential for rehabilitation.
As a result this time last week, the Lord Chancellor made an urgent statement to Parliament on the prison population and the Government’s response to the crisis. It is important to note that this problem wouldn’t have been a surprise to Government. An increasing number of voices, and government’s own projections, had been warning of the impending capacity issues for some time.
So what did the Lord Chancellor announce?
The most immediate solution put forward was an early release scheme. We were told this would be targeted and temporary for certain people near the end of their prison sentence to be released up to 18 days ahead of their release date. This announcement was an inevitable one given the strain on prison places and one which could make the most immediate difference. Of course the challenge will be whether enough people are assessed as suitable for the scheme to make a substantial difference and will enough support be put in place to make sure people are released with somewhere to go and not just onto the streets? We have seen early release schemes before – under the previous Labour government and also during Covid, although the latter led to far fewer people being released than originally anticipated. It will be important to watch the numbers and what impact the scheme can make.
There were other announcements too including an increase in electronic monitoring (tagging), an extension of the Early Removal Scheme to remove foreign nationals from the UK up to 18 months before they are due to be released, a review of the use of recall, and a welcome announcement to look at options to curtail the IPP licence period. The increase in people being held in prison on remand was highlighted as the big reason for the increased numbers in prison and, as a response, the Government announced they would consider an extension of the discount applied to sentences to encourage people being held on remand to plead guilty at the first opportunity.
Decades of sentence inflation – still the elephant in the room?
It is true that we have seen an increase in the remand population in prison but this is not the sole reason for the increased numbers. The prison population has almost doubled in the last 30 years and is predicted to continue to increase significantly. Yes remand plays a part in this as does the number of people recalled to prison after release, but the elephant in the room is that prison sentences have been getting progressively longer for decades. Yet people think the opposite has happened, likely influenced by the rhetoric often used to discuss sentencing and prisons. We need a different conversation about criminal justice, about the purpose of prison and about what causes crime and what reduces reoffending. And we need politicians of all parties to lead the way in this. Its time for a cross-party Royal Commission.
Importance of supervision
The Lord Chancellor in his speech also announced an extra £400m for more prison places and to legislate so that people convicted of rape and equivalent sexual offences will serve their full prison term. Whilst the detail of the latter is not yet clear, we would be very concerned if this meant that there was no period of supervision in the community as this is an important step and part of rehabilitation.
Presumption against short prison sentences
In many ways the most significant and more long-term announcement from last Monday was the Government’s commitment to legislating for a presumption that short prison sentences would be suspended and served in the community. This has been a longstanding call by many organisations who work in criminal justice as it is well established that short prison sentences are less effective at reducing reoffending than alternatives in the community and sweep people further into crime. In short they can do more harm than good. This is a really important commitment that we at Nacro and many others warmly welcome. However, it is critical to recognise that this will shift additional work onto the Probation Service, who, like the Prison Service, are already under severe strain. We all have a stake in ensuring this shift from short sentences to community orders is successful so we need to see sufficient support and resources go to probation to take on this additional work.
And we also need to take care not to fall into the trap of introducing ever more punitive elements to community orders. We see every day how mental health, substance misuse and chaos characterise the lives of many people who are stuck in the revolving door of prison. Sentences in the community give the opportunity to tackle the root causes of offending and help people overcome these challenges. Let’s use this opportunity to set people up for success and not to fail.
So in short, whilst it is disappointing we had to get to the point of crisis, we saw some welcome announcements and making these a success will be key. Yet, whether these announcements will be sufficient to tackle the levels of overcrowding and challenges in our prisons remains to be seen. The big question now appears to be can this moment lead to a transformation in the way we approach debate and policy-making on criminal justice so we follow the evidence of what works and recognise that an evidence-based effective prison and criminal justice system which is driven by prevention of crime and rehabilitation benefits us all?