Alex Cavendish is a social anthropologist and author. He is also a former prisoner who was released in 2014. He is an active participant in the debate surrounding crime, prisons and probation and is the latest contributor to the current guest blog series setting out the top three priorities for the new Justice Secretary. You can read Alex’s blog here and follow @PrisonUK on Twitter.
Defusing prison tensions
At the moment our prisons are a ticking time bomb that could explode into violence without warning. Frontline staff shortages and overcrowding are contributing to this explosive and toxic environment. If I were Secretary of State for Justice my first priority would be to ensure that no prison in England and Wales has less staff than it needs to operate a safe, normal regime.
I would also scrap the controversial Prison Service Instruction (PSI 30/2013) on Incentives and Earned Privileges that has caused so much ill-will among prisoners. At the same time, I would re-empower governing governors by returning to them as much local autonomy as possible over how individual prisons are managed on a daily basis.
Launch a debate about imprisonment
As Justice Secretary, I would seek to reduce the prison population as a matter of urgency. Having been in prison myself, I believe that far too many non-violent offenders, including children, women, elderly people and those living with mental health conditions are currently imprisoned. This is a trend that needs to be reversed.
I would also bring forward legislation to abolish all remaining Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection (IPPs) and convert them to determinate or extended sentences, thus ending the injustice of keeping several thousand prisoners imprisoned, often years beyond their minimum tariffs. This flawed penalty was abolished by Parliament in 2012, yet politicians missed the opportunity to retrospectively ditch a sentencing regime that even Labour’s former Home Secretary David Blunkett (who introduced it) has since admitted has led to “injustice”.
There needs to be a public debate about the effectiveness of alternatives to custody – such as community penalties and restorative justice. In particular there is a need to avoid short prison sentences which are known to be particularly ineffective at reducing reoffending.
At the same time, I would ensure that rehabilitation and preparation for resettlement on release becomes the main focus of any custodial sentence plan.
Reorganise the Criminal Cases Review Commission
The Criminal Cases Review Commission (CCRC) is vastly under-resourced and overwhelmed with pending applications. We all know that sometimes our criminal justice system gets it wrong and that miscarriages of justice do occur. When particularly serious cases are flagged up in the media there is widespread outrage, but there are many other people serving prison sentences whose convictions ought to be re-examined and at present the CCRC is not fit for that purpose.
I would also ask the Law Commission to advise Parliament on a change the law in order to widen the remit of the Commission to consider cases where there may be ‘lurking doubt’ about a conviction, rather than the current test – that a conviction may be ‘unsafe’ – which is used to refer applications back to the Court of Appeal.
The purpose of this blog series is to stimulate a debate about where our criminal justice system should be heading.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on what the justice priorities should be.