The Howard League on Justice priorities

Andrew Neilson (@neilsonandrew) Director of Campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform kicks off a new guest blog series setting out his top three priorities for the new Justice Secretary.

If I were Justice Secretary

If I were the incoming Secretary of State for Justice, I would probably be cursing my lot in life.  The Ministry of Justice is not a protected spending department and whoever wins the next election, the axe will swing swift and deep once again.  The job at MoJ will not be prize pickings for anyone with a sense of self-preservation and ambitions for higher office again.

Following time-honoured ministerial advice, I would focus on no more than three priorities while at Petty France.


Priority one: Curb sentencing inflation

It is time the nettle is truly grasped and demand on the prisons is curtailed.  I would spend most of my time persuading ministerial colleagues that prison numbers must be brought down.  I wouldn’t rely on a chaotic and artificial market in probation to do this but introduce real sentencing reform focused on the courts.

Forecasts suggest the prison population will continue to rise and the average length of time served has increased by 24% in the last ten years.  This simply isn’t tenable going forward.  I would introduce measures to reverse this inflationary trend and to curb the power of magistrates to send people to prison for short sentences.


 Priority two: Women and children first

If our sinking penal system is the Titanic, then the old cry to the lifeboats should sound again.  The numbers of women and children in prison are small and the youth custody population in particular has seen a substantial decline under the Coalition’s watch.  Pioneering approaches with these groups could presage a better future for everyone that currently goes to prison.

The Corston agenda should be implemented in full and the women’s prisons closed for good.  I would reverse the mad plan to build a giant child prison and look again at shrinking the child population further.  A radical drop in numbers would force the case for closing inadequate and antiquated child prisons.


Priority three: Put evidence and justice at the heart of the system

We need more evidence to underpin the decisions made at every level of the criminal justice system, not least of which is sentencing.  I would create an institute for evidence-led policy, like the National Institute for Clinical Excellence.  Let’s see more use of scientific methodology, such as randomised control trials.

All too often the justice system is full of injustice.  I would strike a blow against this by addressing the scandal of prisoners still serving the abolished indeterminate sentence for public protection (IPP).  A system to fast-track the review of cases would target the unacceptable situation where the entire IPP population with a tariff of less than two years is now post-tariff.

Finally, there have been some contentious changes to the Incentives and Earned Privileges (IEP) Scheme in prison.  Despite some recent progress on the issue of books (I wonder why), it is high time the meddling of ministers in such matters came to an end.  I would reverse all the changes made to prison regimes by the previous incumbent.


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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