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Alex-CavendishFI
Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

If Alex Cavendish were Justice Secretary

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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.

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.

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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.

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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.

Please use the comments section below or follow the conversation on Twitter, using the hashtag #nextGrayling

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One Response

  1. To be honest I’m sceptical of the ongoing wave of ex-offenders positioning themselves as the voice for those in prison and on probation. Even worse are those that propose to be experts on crime, prisons and probation just because they served time. People seem to forget that every probation officer in the land will already advocate alternatives to custody and the increased use of short term sentences. I’m sure we don’t need ‘old lags’, Catch22, UserVoice, Working Links, St Giles Trust or Sodexo to tell us what we already know from practice experience.

    If I read correctly the author of this blog was released from prison last year. I could pick a handful of people from my caseload that have more interesting and innovative ideas, they just haven’t written a blog yet or tried to cash in on their experiences.

    Personally I don’t think being in prison makes a person an expert in this area. I served time in prison once myself so I could tell you the pitfalls of the system too, and it didn’t make me an expert either. What’s made me an expert is the costs and benefits of the journey of keeping out of prison, and for many this takes a lot more than a year to achieve.

    I’m still not overly impressed by this blog series and the current addition hasn’t told us anything we don’t already know. Interesting points about IPP sentences which I mostly agree with, but the practitioner in me knows there are some prisoners that are rightly serving an IPP sentence. We hear the unjust IPP stories but this doesn’t mean we ignore the existence of those IPP prisoners that are dangerous and are over tariff because they’ve spent their time in prison without any attempt to develop or demonstrate change, and despite opportunities being offered to them. Legislation since 1997 has struggled with how to sentence grave offenders and the current EPP sentence is not a perfect solution either.

    I would challenge the view that ‘rehabilitation and resettlement becomes the main focus of a custodial sentence’. This is mostly correct but there does need to be emphasis on public protection, risk management and victim support too. There also needs to be a recognition that no matter how caring, woolly or progressive we try to be, there will always be a level of punishment involved in locking a person in prison and this cannot be ignored as also being a main focus of imprisonment.

    I did like the point about reforming the CCRC. As with most speakers on this they leave out the fact that there are many with unsafe convictions that received community sentences or have sentences that long expired. Reform of legislation and procedures should allow these to be examined too. The failing really is not in the revising of these cases but in the amount of unsafe convictions in the first place because of unfair practices at all stages of the CJS process. It is this unfairness that needs to be addressed first.

    So far I wouldn’t support Sue Hall or Alex Cavendish to be Justice Secretary. By the current exit polls we could have the current failure for quite time longer. Maybe I’m approaching this from the wrong angle and should instead begin writing my memoirs as former prisoner turned Probation Officer and CJS expert. Maybe then I’d get to knock a bit of sense into Grayling and get a cushy consultancy position at the Probation Institute.

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