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My Lords, I am delighted that the gracious Speech contains measures to reduce crime and protect national security. As one who promoted the legislation on the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act in my Private Member’s Bill, I welcome the coalition Government’s intention further to legislate for reforms in the way in which offenders are rehabilitated in England and Wales. I congratulate the coalition Government on some of their major successes so far, and I do not mind if my noble friend Lord McNally takes credit for them.
The first three years of the coalition Government have seen some important steps towards achieving a fairer and more effective criminal justice system. The Government have abolished the discredited and unjust IPP sentence, legislated to reduce unnecessary remands in custody, reformed the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act and given legislative underpinning to restorative justice. Over the past four years, we have seen a dramatic and welcome reduction in the number of juvenile offenders in custody. Moreover, the rate of increase in the adult prison population has slowed down. In the past three years, between 2009 and 2012, the prison population has risen by an average of 1% a year compared with 2.5% to 4% a year during the period of the Labour Administration. I am particularly pleased to note that the Government are developing a determined strategy to divert mentally disordered offenders from the criminal justice system into medical and social care.
So far, so good, but we still face many serious challenges. Even after these welcome improvements, the size of our prison population remains a national disgrace. At the end of October 2012, 78 out of 131 prisons were holding more prisoners than they were built for, and over 20,000 prisoners were being held two to a cell in cells designed for one person. This country now has 153 prisoners for every 100,000 people in the general population compared with 102 in France and 83 in Germany. Far too many offenders are still sent into custody for short sentences and then released after no more than a few months. These sentences serve little purpose. They are far too short for sustained rehabilitation programmes, but long enough for offenders to lose their jobs and homes, which makes them more likely to reoffend.
On release, most of these prisoners do not receive supervision by the probation service, and the reconviction rates are much higher than those for other prisoners. I am pleased to see that the Government are now consulting on proposals to provide post-release supervision for short-term prisoners and I welcome the announcement made earlier by my noble friend Lord McNally. However, most of these offenders will be better dealt with by community orders. These orders can provide a longer period of supervision and of work to change offending behaviour than a short period of post-release supervision would provide. Our prison system still does far too little to prevent crime and rehabilitate offenders. We need to rethink an approach which spends such a high proportion of its resources on custodial measures which produce high reoffending rates.
The Government should legislate to make sentencing guidelines take into account the capacity of our prison system. This proposal was first made by the Carter report on the prison system in 2007, and it still makes sense. At a time when all other areas of public services have to work within the reality of limited resources, there is no reason why sentencing should be exempt. Requiring sentencing guidelines to take account of all available resources would concentrate sentencers’ minds on the evidence concerning the most cost-effective disposals available to the courts. Sentencing guidelines should scale down the number and length of prison sentences except for the most serious crimes. They should remove prison as an option for low-level non-violent crimes. Courts should be prohibited from using prisons, except for dangerous offenders, unless they have first tried an intensive community supervision programme.
We also need a strategy to reduce the use of imprisonment for women. Most of the women we send to prison are neither violent nor dangerous and most of them have few previous convictions. Imprisoned women have high rates of mental disorder, histories of abuse, addiction problems and personal distress arising from separation from their children. I was pleased to see the Government’s recent announcement that they are establishing an expert advisory board, to be chaired by my honourable friend Helen Grant, to develop policies for female offenders. I hope that with the assistance of the advisory board, the Government will set improved standards for women’s community sentences, resettlement and rehabilitation, mental health services, family contact and culturally appropriate support for foreign national women in our prisons.
We should also do more to keep restorative justice at the forefront of sentences, to help ensure that it becomes a central part of our criminal justice system. I greatly welcome the new provision in the Crime and Courts Act which provides for restorative justice in conjunction with deferment of sentence. The Government should build on this in future legislation by making restorative justice one of the statutory purposes of sentencing and by enabling courts to include specific restorative justice requirements in community orders and youth rehabilitation orders.
We should reduce the rate of imprisonment of people who have breached community supervision—for example, by missing appointments or being late back to their probation hostels. The number of people jailed for breach has escalated alarmingly in recent years as probation officers’ discretion over breaches has been restricted. The Government should consider introducing a graduated scale of punishment for breach of supervision, with prisons being used only for breach when less severe penalties have first been tried.
We should introduce tighter statutory restrictions on sentencing and sending young offenders into custody. This would involve reversing some of the measures taken by the last Labour Government, who legislated to enable courts to detain children at an increasingly younger age and for less serious offences. We should also raise the country’s unusually low age of criminal responsibility from 10 to at least 12. I hope to reintroduce my Private Member’s Bill on this subject next week. It would be more humane and more effective to deal with offenders under that age in family proceedings courts, as other European countries do.
A great deal remains to be done to eliminate racial discrimination from the criminal justice process. The disproportionate use of stop and search is even more extreme than it was when the Stephen Lawrence inquiry reported, and the proportion of the prison population from racial minorities is now higher than it was in the late 1990s. We should place a clear statutory duty on all criminal justice agencies to adopt numerical targets for reducing racial disproportionality in all their operations.
There is overwhelming evidence of the importance of providing practical help for offenders in order to reduce reoffending. I make no apologies for repeating the key statistics on this point to the House yet again. Getting offenders into jobs reduces their likelihood of further offending by between one-third and one-half. Providing accommodation for offenders reduces reconviction by at least one-fifth. Drug rehabilitation programmes cut the volume of reoffending by up to 70%.
Alongside the Government’s welcome proposals for post-release supervision for short-term prisoners, we should commission voluntary organisations to provide a national resettlement service for these prisoners to ensure that they receive support with their practical needs for accommodation, employment and drug rehabilitation on release. Such a strategy would help to move this country away from the unenviable position of having the highest prison population in western Europe. In doing so, it would help to concentrate resources on the measures that are most likely to protect the public by rehabilitating offenders and reducing reoffending.