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Community penalties are now outperforming short prison sentences, according to statistics released today from the latest edition of the Prison Reform Trust’s Bromley Briefings Prison Factfile. If government succeeds in reforming the justice system, building on the success of community measures including diversion into health treatment where appropriate, and holding prison numbers to an unavoidable minimum, it could deliver on its promise of a “rehabilitation revolution”.

Ahead of the House of Commons’ second reading of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill on Wednesday 29 June 2011, the Briefing indicates that prisons will struggle to cut crime and further reduce reoffending unless the massive growth in the prison population is checked to enable governors and staff to work on the rehabilitation of serious and violent offenders.

The June 2011 edition of the Bromley Briefing reveals that:

  • On 17 June 2011, the prison population in England and Wales was 84,714. When Ken Clarke was last home secretary from 1992-93, the average prison population was 44,628.
  • Once a last resort in the justice system, use of custody is now so widespread that during their time at school 7% of children experience their father’s imprisonment. Estimates show that more children are affected by the imprisonment of a parent than by divorce in the family.
  • According to the government, the overall cost of the criminal justice system has risen from 2% of GDP to 2.5% over the last 10 years. That is a higher per capita level than the US or any EU country.
  • Court ordered community sentences were more effective (by seven percentage points) at reducing one-year proven reoffending rates than custodial sentences of less than 12 months for similar offenders
  • Prison has a poor record for reducing reoffending – 49% of adults are reconvicted within one year of being released – for those serving sentences of less than 12 months this increases to 59%. For those who have served more than 10 previous custodial sentences the rate of reoffending rises to 77%.
  • Over 70% of children and young people under the age of 18, and more than half of the women in prison, are reconvicted within a year of release.
  • Just 36% of people leaving prison go into education, training or employment.
  • In a recent Home Office poll only 11% of people believed that increasing the number of offenders in prison would “do most” to reduce crime. 55% of those surveyed thought better parenting would have most effect.

Plans in the bill include restrictions on the unnecessary use of custodial remand and increased discretion in response to technical breach of license. An urgent review of the indeterminate sentence for public protection (IPP) is welcome. The government will also take forward proposals to invest in liaison and diversion services at police stations and courts to divert some people with mental health needs and those with learning disabilities away from the justice system into appropriate treatment and care. There is scope to further advance plans to get to grips with the addictions to drugs and drink that fuel so much crime.

According to the Briefing:

  • In 2009, 55,207 people were remanded into custody to await trial. In the same year, an estimated 40% of people remanded into custody didn’t go on to receive a custodial sentence.
  • The recall population rose by 5,300 between 1995 and 2009, and accounted for 16% of the overall increase in prison population over the period.
  • On 17 November 2010 there were 6,375 prisoners serving an indeterminate IPP sentence or Detention for Public Protection. Of these 3,173 of those prisoners are held beyond their tariff expiry date.
The bill’s impact assessment states that the proposed reforms will reduce demand for prison places to 2,650 by 2014/15, which will result in a “broadly flat prison population over the spending review period”. Previously, the impact assessment of the justice green paper, Breaking the Cycle, stated: “We estimate that the package of proposals in Breaking the Cycle will lead to a reduction in demand of approximately 6,000 prison places by the end of the Spending Review period, leading to an estimated prison population 3,000 lower than it is today.”

Writing in the Introduction to the Briefing, Juliet Lyon, Director of the Prison Reform Trust, said:

“The bill presents the opportunity to get to grips with a distorted, often ineffective, system which places too much store on what imprisonment can achieve. But new clauses and more mandatory sentences, not subject to consultation, and a harsher tone could destabilise a carefully crafted bill by further inflating prison numbers. The big risk is in bashing an already beleaguered prison service for failing to cut crime whilst expecting it to do even more with even less.

“Politicians may be tempted to pepper speeches with references to toughness and punishment that win a few headlines. But most know that, when it comes to justice reform, there is more to agree on than to argue about. Over 1,200 professional organisations and people responded to the green paper consultation. There is a solid, mainstream consensus across political parties, justice professionals and the public on the need to take a more proportionate, effective approach. The government should have the confidence to act on it.”

Download a copy of the briefings here