My Lords, we are dealing with a problem that successive Governments have failed to solve for over half a century. The cause of that problem is that we send far too many people to prison for far too long: far longer than is necessary for rehabilitation and far longer than is needed to provide an effective deterrent.
How about punishment? That is a legitimate object of imprisonment. The man in the street and, particularly, the victims of crime want to see criminals pay for their wrongdoing, and depriving them of liberty is a legitimate way of satisfying society’s demand for vengeance. But the man in the street is not best placed to decide how long criminals should be kept in prison by way of punishment. That is not a simple task, and ultimately it is Parliament that performs it by laying down a framework of maximum and minimum sentences within which judges exercise relatively limited discretion. In performing that task, Parliament should have regard to the heavy cost to society of keeping people in prison to punish them.
As your Lordships have heard, there has been a phenomenon over the last 40 years of “sentence creep”, brought about largely by well-intentioned but misguided legislative intervention. What is needed is a change in the public attitude to keeping people locked up in prison: a recognition that the cost to society of this form of punishment is prohibitive; that the cost of each year that a man spends in prison simply by way of punishment is depriving us of resources that could otherwise be used to meet urgent social needs, including those that prevent young people turning into criminals. To bring about this change in attitude calls for leadership and courage on the part of Government. The aim should be, for a start, to halve the number of those in prison. IPP prisoners should be released. Old men who no longer pose any threat should not be held in expensive custody. Most importantly, legislation should reverse the trend of requiring ever longer sentences.
This is the ideal time to do that. Current legislation that deals with sentencing extends to over 1,300 pages. The Law Commission has recommended a simplified sentencing code but its recommendations are only procedural. It makes no recommendations in relation to maximum and minimum sentences. These should be reduced, and in some cases removed, to send a signal that the current scale of punishment in this country is unnecessarily severe and beyond our means. Finally, consideration should also be given to a period of prescription for all save the most serious crimes.