At the end of a tumultuous year, PRT’s thoughts are inevitably with the people most closely affected by the events at Fishmongers’ Hall earlier this month—the families of all those who died, our colleagues and many other friends who were present.

Around 300 people will have died serving a prison sentence this year and they will also be remembered by those who loved them this Christmas. We should regret every death in prison—not all are preventable, but in the same way as the number of assaults and incidents of self-harm show us that our prison system is broken, so the number of deaths show us how far we have departed from a system that tempers justice with mercy.

The new government has much to do. It does not need to look far for good and accurate diagnosis of the problems facing the justice system, and prisons in particular. Successive reports by the Justice Committee in the last parliament laid bare not just the many serious failures to provide safe, decent and rehabilitative conditions, but also the failure to come up with a coherent overall plan of reform.

Beyond prisons, there are undoubtedly chronic issues to address in the reporting and prosecution of serious sexual crime, in the prevalence of violence involving knives, and in the failure to support people after they have left prison which is resulting in a tide of avoidable recalls to custody.

But none of these problems will be tackled by the increase in the severity of sentencing which the government has chosen to make the centrepiece of its message on law and order. How do we know that? Because every government this century has taken the same approach, using attention grabbing measures on punishment to divert attention from the infinitely more challenging task of tackling the underlying issues which lead people into crime.

Sentencing for serious crime has become much more punitive over the last 20 years—people who commit murder can now expect to spend almost twice as long in custody. The fastest growing category of sentence for people sent to prison is the over 10 years group. Not only are 2,000 people still waiting to be released from the discredited IPP sentence introduced in 2003 and abolished in 2012, for the first time, more people serving the IPP are being recalled to prison from licence in the community than are being released.

There is no evidence that this rapid and drastic toughening up of sentencing has reduced crime, or protected the public better. Nor is there any evidence that it has increased public confidence—the research suggests the public isn’t even aware that it has happened, perhaps because their politicians choose to ignore it too. So why expect a different result this time?

One consequence has always been certain and is certain again—yet more people in overcrowded prisons failing every test of what a civilized country should provide when it deprives a citizen of their liberty. A new year should be about new beginnings, not repeating the same mistakes of the past. Although the signs are not hopeful, a new government with a large majority should use its mandate to end this dreary cycle of penal policymaking.

Peter Dawson
Director of the Prison Reform Trust