How Lammy Can Help Us Rethink Our Prison System

Transforming our expensive and flawed prison system is one of the biggest challenges we face in Britain today and the government-backed Lammy Review - to be finally published on Friday this week - could be just the catalyst for change we need.
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Transforming our expensive and flawed prison system is one of the biggest challenges we face in Britain today and the government-backed Lammy Review - to be finally published on Friday this week - could be just the catalyst for change we need.

Originally commissioned by David Cameron, the Review was set up to explore and address the treatment of black, Asian and minority ethnic people in the criminal justice system in England and Wales.

That was before the most recent spate of violence in prisons up and down the country prompted calls for bigger prisons and more staff - but there's a problem.

Violence and overcrowding in prisons are very serious matters but we're fooling ourselves if we think that they are the only things wrong with the criminal justice system today. What's more, the claim that we can solve these issues - or others like use of drugs or persistently high reoffending rates - by simply allocating more money while ignoring significant underlying causes just doesn't hold water.

We need a total rethink if we are to make what is currently the most expensive prison system in Western Europe deliver an adequate return on investment. That is why Lammy's review is potentially so important - precisely because it will enable us to tackle the problems exposed by recent violence by understanding the nature of the system and how it treats those within it.

Lammy's preliminary findings provide a useful starting point and already evidence key points at which disproportionate and unfair outcomes occur. This need not be seen as an argument solely about discrimination and equality though - as vital as many of us believe these principles are.

Think about the economics, and look at it as simply arguing for supporting the system to do what it should be doing - protecting the general public and prison staff from harm, achieving justice for victims, rehabilitating offenders and ultimately reducing crime and making communities safer.

Take the youth justice system for example. Ministry of Justice figures from 2011 show it costs £47,000 a year to keep a 15 to 21-year-old in a closed Young Offenders Institution and almost £76,000 in a regular Youth Offender Institution.

These are huge amounts of money and yet we know that the system is not working: HM Inspector of Prisons recently declared all youth custody establishments to be unsafe as a result of deteriorating conditions.

As a society, we need to recognise too the social and financial costs of discrimination that, research clearly shows, starts before people from a BAME background even enter prison.

For example, sentencing disparities mean that, at Crown Court, black men and women are more likely to receive custodial sentences than their white counterparts, particularly for drugs offences, which are high in volume.

There are substantial disparities in the experience of being in prison too, with more black men held in segregation which in turn reduces their ability to engage positively with rehabilitation.

Start even earlier in the lives of BAME people caught up in the criminal justice system and you learn how a complex mix of educational, employment, health and social inequalities characterises the experience of whole communities.

Then factor in the cost to taxpayers of wasted lives stuck in a cycle of non-stop involvement with the criminal justice system, and we can see just how poorly served by the system we are.

If we want to tackle issues which recent headlines show extend across the prison system, we really need to work harder at understanding why approximately 25% of prisoners are from a black, Asian or ethnic minority (BAME) background, compared with 13% of the wider population, and why the proportion of black, Asian and ethnic minority people held in secure YOIs is now 45%.

This is a problem that won't be fixed by just building new prisons, employing new staff or simply providing better staff training. We must ask searching questions. Find out how and why such shocking disparities exist, understand and address the resentment they are bound to foster. We have failed - or been too frightened - to face up to the strategic challenge of race inequalities across the prison system and the wider criminal justice system but we can no longer afford to 'sweep' these issues under the carpet.

The Young Review Independent Advisory Group, which I chair was established to contribute to improving outcomes for young (18-24-year-old) BAME men in the criminal justice system. We have worked closely with the MoJ, HM Prison and Probation Service and the Youth Justice Board and given practical support to the Lammy Review.

As a member of the Lammy Review advisory group, I genuinely hope that the Review promotes the need for radically different approaches to avert a continuing downward spiral for our criminal justice system. I know he cares very deeply about the need to end the cycle of violence within prisons by improving prevention, diversion, desistance and rehabilitation.

I hope too that he highlights the continued under-representation of BAME communities within the criminal justice workforce, especially at senior levels. There is an urgent need to recognise the potential of involving voluntary, community and faith organisations led by and providing specialist services to people from BAME backgrounds, not least because we know this can provide an invaluable stepping stone, helping BAME offenders build positive lives as they re-integrate into their communities.

Though we know change can happen - pressure from the former Commission for Racial Equality led the CPS to tackle its own institutional failings and created a fairer organisation in the process - we also know we have to be realistic. The criminal justice system cannot change overnight as we know from our own 2014 review into improving outcomes for young black and Muslim men: racial and ethnic inequalities are entrenched within the criminal justice system.

More than anything I hope that government does justice to the Lammy Review recommendations and seizes this chance to build the foundations of a criminal justice system which delivers value, fairness and effectiveness for all.


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