Our thanks to Elizabeth for this piece in The Times of 19.2.19, by David Gauke MP, Justice Secretary, and Shaun Bailey, a British politician and youth worker who is the candidate of the Conservative Party for the 2020 London mayoral election:
What do we want from our justice system? To some people this is a pretty straightforward question. Our courts and prisons should be there, first and foremost, to mete out strong punishment to offenders, providing justice for individuals and communities affected by their egregious, criminal behaviour. For those who espouse this “hard” justice approach, lengthy jail sentences are typically the answer — and those long custodial sentences deter further crime.
Although this answer is seemingly simple, its fundamental problem is that our penal policy is clearly not working. Between 1993 and 2008 our prison population nearly doubled, rising from 45,000 to 83,000 — about the level now.
Much of this increase is driven by higher sentences for serious sexual and violent offences — and so it should be. Prison will always be the correct place for serious offenders and this government has been right to insist on tougher sentences for certain violent and sexual crimes.
However, across the board, and for all kinds of different crimes — many non-violent — prison sentences have crept up. In fact, when it comes to the length of prison sentences we are taking a more punitive approach than at any point during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership.
The trouble with this is that reoffending rates, particularly for certain types of crime and criminal, have remained stubbornly high. It is clear that the use of custody can only be part of the solution. Indeed, there is very compelling evidence that sending people to prison for a short time does not serve society well. It does not reduce crime.
Youth workers too often see the devastating impact of an overly prison-focused approach. There are young, naive, petty criminals entering prison with a GCSE and leaving with a PhD in criminality. There are also those who lead such troubled lives that prison is only one short stop in the revolving door of addiction, theft and the criminal justice system.
Then of course there are those who need mental health support more than prison, whose chaotic lives are further destabilised by being locked up for a few months or weeks as they lose their benefits, housing, employment and sometimes even their families.
Tellingly, almost two thirds of offenders sentenced to less than 12 months in prison go on to reoffend in the first year after release. This is almost double the reoffending rate of those given community or suspended sentences.
A policy approach purely focused on more and more imprisonment is one that does not serve the interests of society, and wastes taxpayers’ money. In the 21st century we should not be thinking in terms of what is “hard” or “soft”. We should be having a conversation about what works — “smart” justice that delivers empirically the best possible outcomes for society.
That is why we shouldn’t treat prison as a holding pen for society’s problems. If someone commits a serious crime it should be met with serious time. But for more minor offences we should look to keep many people, especially our young people, away from prison plugged into their communities instead. We need to keep them close to jobs and opportunity and use their brush with the law to show them a better path.
Tougher community sentences can help provide a solution. We need a community-based regime that can impose greater restrictions on people’s lifestyles and stricter requirements in terms of accessing treatment and support. And critically, these sentences must be enforced. For example, we have the option to use a GPS tag on an offender, meaning we can track them and provide greater reassurance for victims.
Ultimately we must boost our probation service to help deliver safe, effective and enforceable community sentences. We need to think more imaginatively about what punishments work in the modern world — ones that are punitive, for a purpose, and that make us all safer by reducing reoffending. If we follow the evidence, we will ultimately deliver for the public by making them safer.
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