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Offender Management and Treatment - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:28 pm on 3rd October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Beith Lord Beith Liberal Democrat 2:28 pm, 3rd October 2019

My Lords, I very much agree with the noble Lord, Lord Judd, and I also agree with all those Peers who have thanked the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for introducing this debate. Perhaps I should also put in a word for the Supreme Court, without which we would not be allowed to sit here and have this debate, especially as it was bumped off by the original decision to prorogue.

Until 2015, I was chairman of the Justice Committee in the House of Commons—a post which was then taken over by my excellent successor, Bob Neill. The Justice Committee warned repeatedly of fundamental weaknesses in the transforming rehabilitation programme, both before it was introduced and in the light of its evident failings.

The committee also warned of the folly of constantly increasing the prison population when resources were not provided to ensure that this massive prison population—the largest, proportionately, in western Europe—was housed in prisons which were safe for both staff and prisoners and had effective and sustained programmes of rehabilitation. Now, as the noble Lord, Lord Judd, just mentioned, we have a Government who want to create 10,000 more prison places and are already talking about proposals for sentencing which, on their own admission, would lead to an increase of 3,000 in the prison population. Such increases almost inevitably lead to further sentence inflation, as other offences are judged in relation to those for which the sentence has been increased. There is a ratchet effect, which is very serious.

I want to highlight some important recurring themes in that committee’s work which I think are relevant to what we are discussing today. First, prison is a very expensive resource. In its report Prison Population 2022, the committee states:

“There is a grave risk that we become locked in a vicious cycle of prisons perpetually absorbing huge amounts of criminal-justice related spending”,

and that that spending diverts funds from,

“essential initiatives that could stem or reverse the predicted growth”.

This is a cycle that leads to more crime, not less; more victims, not fewer.

Under my encouragement, the committee went to Texas, which may seem surprising, as Texas is generally thought of as a place of somewhat harsh penal policy. We went to talk to people who across the aisle—Republicans and Democrats—were working to reduce the prison population and divert some of the money being spent on prisons into measures to tackle drug-related crime. When we questioned the Republicans in particular on why they were taking that approach, they said, “This is the taxpayers’ dollar. We are Republicans. We care about how the taxpayers’ dollar is spent. If it is not being spent effectively to deliver the results that taxpayers want, we have to change it”. That was the basis for a fundamental rethink of the whole policy on prisons. Policy needs to be evidence led, and the evidence is that overuse of prison and custody does not lead to better rehabilitation.

A second theme of the committee’s work was that we need to build greater confidence among sentencers in alternatives to prison. That requires investment of a larger share of resources in community sentences, not a draining away of those resources into the prison system. The committee has pointed out the cost and unsuitability of custodial sentences for many women prisoners, who have a greater chance of rehabilitation through women’s centres in the community.

Part of the problem is that prisons are commissioned nationally on a demand-led basis, not by bodies also responsible for community sentences and all the services essential for rehabilitation. The result is that, when sentence is being passed, if it is a custodial sentence, there is never any doubt that a place, however unsuitable, will be found somewhere in the prison system, and there will be a van outside which will take the prisoner away to that custodial place. There may be real doubt, on the other hand, as to the availability of suitable community supervision, drug treatment, employment training or any of the other features which a non-custodial sentence would require. The split commissioning model has failed, and we need to pull those disparate commissioning bodies together to provide custody for those for whom it is essential and robust community-based alternatives in which sentencers have confidence.

The public also need confidence that sentencing is effective. There is plenty of evidence that, presented with the full facts of a case, members of the public are less likely to opt for longer sentences and more likely to recommend community alternatives than judges and magistrates currently do. We have got stuck with the idea that the use of custody and longer sentences is the only way that society can express its abhorrence of serious crime, the only mechanism to rate a crime as serious.

It is a necessary function of the criminal justice system that crime is punished, and society needs to have means to express its abhorrence of serious crime and ways to identify some crimes especially as intolerable and requiring a severe response. However, to use the length of prison sentences as the sole yardstick of social disapproval, the sole mechanism to classify the seriousness of particular forms of crime, is to destroy any possibility of using limited resources rationally to prevent further crime. Good, effective and robust community sentences need to be available. If another year added to the sentence offers no better prospect of preventing that offender from returning to crime, it is taxpayers’ money wasted.

Many victims of crime will tell you that their priority for the criminal justice system is that it ensures that others do not have to go through what they have been through. They want to stop reoffending and the recruitment of more people into criminal behaviour. That is what the system does least well, and that is why we need to get it right.