Prison Reform — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:17 pm on 21st January 2016.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Beith Lord Beith Liberal Democrat 1:17 pm, 21st January 2016

My Lords, I share the feeling, expressed around the House, of enthusiasm that this debate is happening, that it was so powerfully introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Fowler, and that it takes place at a time when the relatively new Lord Chancellor appears genuinely open to new thinking and radical reappraisal of some of the kinds of ideas that I pursued when I chaired the Justice Committee in the other House.

I want to try to analyse why the problem is as it is. We have to do something; we have far and away the largest proportion of our citizens in prison of any country in western Europe, at a time when there is enormous pressure on prison staff. Prison officers, instructional staff and others cannot really be expected to deliver very good results under that degree of pressure.

We all know that there are people who have to be in prison for public safety. However, we also know that the prison system is relatively weak in its record on rehabilitation. We know that it is of extremely limited deterrent value in relation to quite a few crimes and very many criminals, most of whom believe that they will not be caught and, if they are, that they will not receive a prison sentence anyway.

In the Justice Committee, I have had witnesses in front of me who said that they committed further offences in order to get back into prison; far from being deterred, they wanted to get back inside, in some cases because they could get access to drug treatment in prison that they could not get outside, and in others, frankly, because they did not really have anywhere else to go. At Christmas time or in the depths of winter, people were actually committing offences to get into prison. Another part of the problem is that the prison system pre-empts resources that cannot then be used to deal with the alcohol problems, drug addiction problems and failures in the care system and in the education system that put so many people into prison in the first place.

So why is the UK—this is true in Scotland as well as in England and Wales—set on a default course to the wrong place? Why is it that our system seems always to push up the prison population unless a real effort is made, as it is from time to time, to try to counteract it? These are the reasons I want to suggest to your Lordships.

First, it is institutionally dominant in the Ministry of Justice and the National Offender Management Service. Everything starts from the fact that we have this great big prison system and that the effects of that within any management structure are quite powerful.

Secondly, prison is treated as a free good in the criminal justice system. It is commissioned nationally, whereas all the alternatives to prison are commissioned locally. When a court has an offender in front of it and is coming to a decision about what to do, at the back of the mind there will always be the simple fact that, if some kind of community sentence is required with several elements in it, it has to be established whether that is available—whether it is available locally and whether there is a place for someone to take it on. If the sentence is custody, a van will roll up outside and it will be somebody else’s job to find a particular prison to put the person in, but prison will be found, with the resulting overcrowding if necessary. A commissioning system does not work well, because things are commissioned in completely different places, which creates an imbalance in the system.

The third factor is that the prison system has been exempted from the value-for-money questions which have been applied to every public service, including defence, which of course shares with prisons this crucial importance to the security and safety of our citizens. I was very pleased to learn that the Lord Chancellor has been to Texas. The Justice Committee certainly went to Texas; that surprises most people you mention this to until you explain to them that what happened in Texas, particularly with regard to drug-related offences, is that right-wing Republicans and liberal-minded Democrats found that they agreed that they could not go on as they had been, putting more and more people into prison. The Republicans said, “This is the taxpayers’ dollar—it’s our duty as state senators to make sure that money isn’t wasted in this way”. Therefore, they reached an agreement that they should put more money into family-based programmes, nurse-family partnerships, problem-solving courts and keeping people out of prison, particularly when drug-related offences other than large-scale dealing had put them there. In our system, we now need to apply to the prison system some of the value-for-money tests which are applied to every other aspect of our system.

The final factor is that prison and the length of a prison sentence is the only yardstick by which society, and particularly the press, measures and asserts how seriously a crime is viewed. If you read a newspaper article it will ask, “Did he get more than somebody else got for a slightly less violent attack?”. We use it as a measure and a yardstick. That will not do, because it does not lead to the most effective disposition for that offender—the choice of sentence for that offender which might make them much less likely to reoffend. We have to find ways to insist and demonstrate that crimes are taken seriously when the courts impose a demanding community sentence or a community element as part of a sentence which involves custody. That has to change.