My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, for facilitating this timely debate and I endorse his comments, particularly with regard to IPP prisoners. The prison system in England and Wales has been characterised for the last 30 years by overcrowding, building programme challenges, disorder and the absence of any reductionist strategy. The number of prisoners incarcerated in England and Wales has risen by 1,200 since May 2017 to over 86,000, despite the fact that fewer cases are coming before the courts. That is not because more criminals are being caught and sent down, but because a higher proportion of offenders are getting prison sentences and those sentences are getting longer, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope, mentioned a moment ago.
Projections show that numbers in custody are likely to increase by another 1,600 by 2022. If so, at least one more prison will be needed. Incidentally, our priority in Wales is to secure our first women’s prison. The latest statistics show that not only sexual and violent offenders are getting tougher punishments from the courts. In 2010, less than a quarter of people convicted of theft went to jail, but last year the corresponding figure was almost 30%. Average prison terms as a whole have risen from under 14 months to over 16 months over the last seven years, as has been noted.
Research is needed to clarify whether the courts are hearing more serious cases or seeing more prolific offenders. The reduction by half in the police cautioning rates suggests that in all probability, more less-serious cases are coming before the courts than was the case seven years ago. Since 2010, the proportion of indictable crimes resulting in a community order fell from 25% to 20%. For so-called either-way offences, it fell from 42% to 37% over the same time period. It seems that these options are less attractive to the judiciary.
Violence in prisons is at record levels, including a 20% increase in assaults over the past year. The Howard League reports that 264 men and women have died in the 10 most recently opened prisons since 1997. There have been 8,188 recorded incidents of self-injury and 3,952 recorded assaults.
In a poll published last week, when asked what would be the most effective way of cutting crime, just 7% of respondents said “jail more people”. The majority advocated more police on the streets, better parenting, greater discipline in schools or better rehabilitation, yet successive Governments over the last 30 years have opted for building ever more jails as their solution. We desperately need a new fundamental review of the whole strategy of preventing crime, rehabilitating offenders and building communities at peace with themselves. We need radical new thinking and we need it very soon.