14/02/2017 06:47 GMT | Updated 15/02/2018 05:12 GMT

While Major Sentencing Reform Is A Political Step Too Far There Are Safe Ways To Reduce Prison Numbers

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Liz Truss's bark is worse than her bite. The trouble is that it is the bark that gets the attention and influences what happens.

The Secretary of State for Justice made a speech on Monday about her plans for prison reform that was widely trailed in the Sunday papers. The media salivated at her apparent toughness; but the speech was both more nuanced and more sensible.

Prison sentences have been subject to inflation due to political pressure throughout the Labour years and continued under the Coalition and this government. Liz Truss is right to point to the increase in men serving sentences, often long sentences, for sex crimes. Longer prison sentences have led to double the number of people, almost all men, in prison in the past twenty years. Labour built more prisons but that expansion of the estate encouraged even more people to be sent into the system. The lesson is that 'talking up' prison and talking tough leads to increases in the number of people sent to prison.

I don't need to reiterate the dire state of prisons yet again. Everyone knows they are awash with violence, drugs, assaults and the result is more crime inside prisons and when people are released.

A speech by a secretary of state faced with such appalling challenges should point the way to greater safety, purpose and public confidence. I welcome the commitment to recruit more staff. I have visited two prisons in the last week where recruitment is being based on values as well as competency, which is an exciting development. I welcome the work being done with the Department of Health on improving mental health gatekeeping so that people can be diverted to appropriate services.

But, the elephant in the room is the one thing that she has refused to do and the one thing that will make a difference. It is the one thing that was used to hit the Sunday headlines. She has to reduce the number of prisoners. Prisons will not be safe and purposeful if they are grossly overcrowded. It will not work.

I recognise that major sentencing reform is probably a political step too far. Even Michael Gove balked at that. But there are, under the radar, changes that can ease the pressure and lead to a controlled and safe reduction in prison numbers.

The Howard League is urging smoother release on parole, end the merry-go-round of recalls to prison for administrative reasons, and, put a stop to adding extra days of imprisonment for breaking prison rules. None of this would solve the deep-seated problems, but it would give a breathing space and consequently save lives.

I hope that Liz Truss is true to her word and makes prisons safer and purposeful. I will keep pressing for prisons to work for the few who need to be there, but this can only be achieved when they are reserved for the few, not the many.