Today David Cameron took a break from negotiations with the European Union to talk about the scandalous failure that is the prison system in England and Wales. Prison reform rarely captures the attention of Prime Ministers, but conditions have deteriorated so rapidly and substantially in the last few years that it has become hard to ignore.
That the speech took place at all was much more important than what was in it - the policies announced are all fairly small-scale and will have little to no impact if pushed through without comprehensive sentencing reform.
But let's start with the positives. It is important when a Prime Minister rightly says that the prison system in its current form is wasting both money and lives. David Cameron busted the perennial tabloid myth that prisons are holiday camps, clearing telling anyone who didn't already know that they are miserable places where many of the most socially excluded and mentally ill members of the community are locked in cramped, squalid and violent institutions. These messages matter and his intervention certainly gives Michael Gove the green light to make some changes.
Cameron's plans to give governors more autonomy, improve the quality of work in prisons and hire more teachers are welcome. So too is tasking Jeremy Hunt and Michael Gove to work on 'alternative provision' for those with mental health problems suffering in our prisons. But it is a nonsense to believe we can really make prisons places of education, hard work and rehabilitation without tackling the sheer number of people inside them, and sentencing reform was notably absent from today's speech.
The prison population currently stands at 85,634 - double what it was 25 years ago. Average sentence lengths have increased by a quarter in the last 10 years alone and the number of people on licence recalled to custody has risen by an astonishing 55% since the mid-1990s. At the same time budgets have been slashed and the numbers of staff cut by over a third. At the moment it does not matter how many excellent workshops or well-qualified teachers are waiting in the activity block - there are simply not enough staff to unlock a prisoner from his overcrowded cell so he can attend a maths class or his bicycle repair job.
The £1.3billion prison building programme has been sold (in part) as a solution to the overcrowding issue, but history has taught us that you can't build yourself out of a prison crisis. As soon as they are built they will be filled and leaving no choice but to keep open our decrepit Victorian institutions. We will be left with the same failing prison system, just bigger and more expensive.
Politicians frequently duck the sentencing reform issue by claiming they have no control over who judges sentence to prison, but they know this not to be true. Legislation, sentencing guidelines and political rhetoric all have a huge impact on the decisions judges and magistrates make. As the Howard League detailed in its response to the Spending Review, increasing the custody threshold, reviewing sentence lengths and reforming the Parole Board would greatly reduce the prison population in a fair and sustainable way. It would also save millions of pounds and create an environment where David Cameron's reforms could have a real impact.
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