They say a week is a long time in politics. Last week we learnt some important things about the crime committed in England and Wales over the last year and the way in which it was punished. This week we heard the prime minister's new law and order vision for the remainder of this parliament.
So reflecting on the week that has been, for starters we learnt that crime has fallen yet again, this year by a further 6%. Crime has been steadily falling according to both measures used in England and Wales - police recorded crime and the British Crime Survey. When both sets of data are heading consistently in the same direction then you can pretty much accept crime is falling. Why it is falling, well that's another debate because frankly no-one fully knows, but the answers probably lie predominantly outside the criminal justice system.
Secondly, we learnt that the chief inspector of prisons, reflecting on 2011-12, had a rather stark message for government: "if a rehabilitation revolution is to be delivered, with all the economic and social benefits that promises, there is a pretty clear choice for politicians and policy makers - reduce prison populations or increase prison budgets". The prisons inspector is arguably the best-placed person to give a view of our prisons system and its capacity to 'deliver rehabilitation' of anyone in England and Wales; his team published inspections of 63 prisons last year alone. Bluntly, if he sees a problem then we should pay heed.
On Monday the prime minister outlined a vision for crime and justice summed up under the slogan 'tough but intelligent'. This speech was an opportunity to regain the momentum promised at the start of the coalition government to drive forward a genuine rehabilitation revolution to cut crime, prioritise prevention and reduce the damaging levels of reoffending. The danger is the intelligent bit gets lost at the expense of sounding tough. Alongside a sensible recognition that community sentences can be more effective than short term prison, there was unhelpful media speculation of cutting the discharge grant of £46 given to prisoners on release. Cutting that small bit of cash, which can be all people have to live on for weeks, would be crazy and more costly in the long run, leaving those who want to start afresh at the mercy of drug dealers or old contacts who will promise them money to get by. So lets not rush to sound tough at the expense of intelligence. Instead, we need to focus scarce resources on what works such as drug and alcohol treatment, mental health care and meaningful employment and training opportunities.
So returning to the 'choice' outlined by the Prisons Inspector, this really is the challenge and one the prime minister did not address. Ministry of Justice budgets are being cut by 23% in real terms over the course of this parliament and the next Spending Review is widely expected to include significant further cuts to the justice budget, possibly an additional 10% up to 2017 which would have huge implications for the work of the police, courts, prosecutors, probation, prisons and the voluntary sector working with offenders and victims. Increased prisons budgets look extremely unlikely, so we need to think much more radically. There are lots of options and the recent report by Reform, Doing it Justice, on crime commissioners and local budgets is a good contribution to a debate that is only just starting in earnest.
However, if prison budgets are highly unlikely to increase and more probably to be squeezed further, that leaves the other option which is to reduce prison populations. The Criminal Justice Alliance has long argued that the use of prison needs to be reviewed. Prison serves the important functions of punishing those who have caused serious harm to others, and protecting the public. But today we use prison to punish more widely and indiscriminately than necessary, efficient or humane. As others have argued, prison should be for people who scare us, not who annoy us. And we use it to imprison people for longer lengths of time without access to rehabilitation programmes that can stop them reoffending and coming out ready to contribute to society. A quarter of the prison estate is overcrowded; little can be done to help people get off drugs and crazily scores of prisoners develop a drug habit whilst in prison released more not less likely to reoffend.
In order to ensure prison can function properly as a place of punishment and rehabilitation for those who need to be there, then fewer numbers overall would be welcome. We highlighted, simply as examples of inappropriate use of custody, parents imprisoned for truant children, those who failed to pay fines, and people in possession of cannabis.
Earlier this year, the Alliance published a paper 'Crowded out? The impact of overcrowding on rehabilitation', which detailed this entractable problem faced by a justice ministry that rightly wants to see meaningful work and rehabilitation at the heart of the prison regime, but is simultaneously facing severe budget restrictions so that there are fewer staff, fewer voluntary sector organisations and community groups, fewer chaplains and reduced access to courses or education and training. Our conclusion, and that of numerous experts who have looked at the prison system, is that reducing numbers of entrants to prison is an important start. It has been achieved across the youth justice estate and some of those lessons learnt from that can be applied more broadly.
So, where does this leave us looking into 2013? It is welcome that the new justice secretary has clearly stated his commitment to rehabilitation, and that the prime minister wants an intelligent approach to justice. The Criminal Justice Alliance looks forward to working with the government on this aim. Alongside a more intelligent use of custody, we know many of the answers lie outside criminal justice and within communities. As Cameron's 2006 'hug a hoodie' speech really understood, it the fight against crime we need a whole raft of organisations working on prevention and rehabilitation.
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