Sentencing and the prison population
Justice Secretary Liz Truss made a pivotal speech on prison reform to the Centre for Social Justice today (13 February 2017), setting out her views on sentencing and the prison population. She highlighted four key areas which I summarise below:
1: Sentences are too long
After a somewhat disingenuous comment that our prison population rate is “mid-table” (it certainly isn’t if you look at our neighbours in Western Europe as opposed to the USA), Ms Truss argued that the main driver for prison growth in the last twenty years has been the exposure, pursuit and punishment of sexual offences and crimes of violence, and a toughening up of sentences for these crimes.
She (quite reasonably) argued that as a society we neither identified nor prosecuted enough domestic violence, rape or sexual abuse cases in previous decades and that the current approach is much more in line with the way that most people view these offences.
2: Prisons are too overcrowded to work
The Justice Secretary went on to say:
It is true that reoffending rates are too high and that our prisons are too violent. I acknowledge that. But the wrong way to address the problem would be to shorten sentences or to release offenders earlier. That would be reckless and endanger the public.
And, in the sentence, which made many of the news bulletins:
The answer to overcrowding is not to cut prisoner numbers in half. It is to make sure we have the right resources, the right workforce, the right buildings and the right regimes to reform offenders and turn their lives around.
She went on say that the Prison and Courts Bill, (to be published later this month) will (as the White Paper suggested) enshrine in law that reforming offenders is a key purpose of prison and that the Secretary of State has a responsibility for delivering it.
Liz Truss went on to say that her plan was to open up the prison system to more scrutiny and repeated the commitment to give governors more autonomy and invest an extra £100m a year and (try to) recruit 2,500 officers.
3: The wrong people are in prison
She went on to endorse the use of community sentences, particularly for offenders with mental health problems and said she was working with (close political ally) Jeremy Hunt to develop:
a more systematic, nationally consistent approach that provides quicker and more certain access to mental health treatment for offenders who need it. That will stop them getting into a position which leads to a custodial sentence.
She also seemed to endorse increased use of community sentences with drug rehabilitation requirements and the importance of family drug and alcohol courts.
4: Management of the prison population isn’t good enough
Having said that she did not want to make arbitrary cuts in the prison population, Ms Truss did identify two groups she wanted to move out of custody:
- Prisoners serving the now discontinued Indeterminate sentences of Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) – by setting up a dedicated unit at the MoJ
- Foreign nationals (by sending them back to their countries of origin)
The Justice Secretary concluded by saying:
I want to see the prison population go down because Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service has got better at reforming offenders. I want to see it go down because we have got better at intervening earlier. I want to see it go down because we have got better at managing the population inside our jails.
This was a coherent speech and although many will say she refused to countenance reducing the prison population by tackling sentencing, this is an accusation that can be laid at the feet of every Justice Secretary since 1993. However, we know very little more about the detail of what will be in the Prisons and Courts Bill apart from a welcome commitment to improve mental health services for offenders. It does, however, seem that we only have to wait a couple of weeks to find out some more details.
On a side issue, now that Ms Truss appears more confident in her role, it’s about time she started making speeches at venues other than Conservative Party Think Tank events.
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