Prisons: Overcrowding - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 12:49 pm on 7th September 2017.

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Photo of Lord Low of Dalston Lord Low of Dalston Crossbench 12:49 pm, 7th September 2017

My Lords, I have thought for some time that we should look at the differences in practice exemplified by other countries with lower rates of imprisonment to see what can be learned from them. In 2012 the National Audit Office spoke of the potential benefit of conducting more research into prison population trends in other countries, and a report from the Criminal Justice Alliance identified some structural features of European criminal justice systems that appeared to be associated with lower rates of imprisonment. These uncannily anticipate all those advocated by my noble and learned friend Lord Brown in his masterly introduction to this debate. They include the greater use of suspended sentences and greater restraint in the imposition of imprisonment for breaches of a community penalty; lower maximum sentences and going rates for particular offences; much less use of mandatory minimum and indeterminate sentences; and the treatment of problems of mental health and drug dependency much more as matters for health and social care than for the criminal justice system.

All these approaches and more are adopted elsewhere. The numbers in prison are lower and the sky does not fall in. We should look not only at the prosecution and sentencing practice of other countries but at what they do instead with those offenders, particularly categories of offender who are no longer sent to prison.

Another report, entitled “A Presumption Against Imprisonment: Social Order and Social Values”, written by eight leading criminologists and academic lawyers and issued by the British Academy in 2014, came to very similar conclusions. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, referred to the guidelines issued by the Sentencing Council. These are based almost entirely on the symbolic significance of a prison sentence in reflecting the seriousness of the offence, with little or no regard for instrumental objectives such as making it less likely that the offender will re-offend, protecting the public, or making amends, for example through compensation, community service, or apology. With the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, I want to see the council’s guidelines reviewed in the light of the comparative evidence to which I have drawn attention.

The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 contains provisions that are designed to have an impact on the numbers held on remand if there is little likelihood of a custodial sentence, and a wider range of options for dealing with breaches of community sentences. These have been much less remarked on than the provisions designed to cut the legal aid bill. The Ministry of Justice is about to undertake a post-implementation review of LASPO, and I hope very much that it will give as much attention to the provisions in the Act designed to reduce the numbers in prison as it does to those designed to reduce the numbers receiving legal aid.