Prisons: Overcrowding - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:09 pm on 7th September 2017.

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Photo of Lord Hope of Craighead Lord Hope of Craighead Convenor of the Crossbench Peers 12:09 pm, 7th September 2017

My Lords, there are far too many people in prison who ought not to be there at all. I have been concerned for some time about what can best be described as inflation in the length of the sentences being imposed by the courts. In England and Wales, the average length of a custodial sentence in 2007 was 12.4 months. In March 2017, it was 16.6 months—an increase of about one quarter over the decade. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, pointed out, the tariffs for life sentences have increased too. In 2005, the average tariff in England and Wales was 15.7 years. By 2015, it had increased to 21.2 years. These are shocking increases. Why has this happened and what purpose is it serving? The Sentencing Council should be asked to examine the phenomenon of sentence inflation, to consider whether these increases now serve any useful purpose and to find ways of reversing the increases where they do not.

As for rehabilitation, the effect of overcrowding is that the opportunity for effective rehabilitation is greatly reduced. On the other hand, many more prisoners are being recalled now for breach of licence conditions than ever before. The Transforming for Rehabilitation programme, introduced by the previous Government in February 2015, requires all those sentenced to a custodial term of less than 12 months to be subject to supervision for 12 months on release and to be eligible for recall. Since that date, there have been nearly 15,000 recalls of people serving these short sentences. This means that the number of people in prison on any day for breaching licence conditions has increased from 150 in June 1995 to 6,500 in March 2017—another shocking figure.

After all, the majority of those recalled are being sent back to prison for technical reasons only, such as failing to attend appointments with probation officers. They have not reoffended. They are in prison for a few days only, before being released again. The only purpose of this is to prevent reoffending by further rehabilitation. But what is the point of recalling prisoners for breach of conditions when, due to lack of resources, the rehabilitation element is largely absent?

This, like the IPP problem to which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, has drawn attention so frequently, is a policy—no doubt well meaning—that has gone badly wrong. The good intentions that lie behind these measures are not being matched by a commitment to provide the funding necessary to make them work. The Government need to address the reasons for these rises in prison numbers as much as they need to address the physical problems the overcrowding gives rise to.