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My Lords, the delay to this debate in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for which I join in thanking him, has made it all the more timely, because the Government have recently announced a programme of major reform of the treatment of offenders.
The dominant theme of this reform can be summarised as, “putting more people in prison for longer”. Serious offenders will not be eligible for release until they have served two-thirds rather than half of their sentence. Anyone who kills a child of less than school age will be kept in prison for the rest of his or her life. Causing death by dangerous driving will attract a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. Rapists and violent offenders will be sent to prison for longer.
An acknowledged motive for these reforms is to respond to what is perceived to be the views of members of the public and, in particular, the victims of crime. Victims of a wide variety of offences are to be given the right to seek a review of sentences that they believe are over-lenient. All these proposed measures will increase prison numbers, and the Government plan to create 10,000 new prison places to accommodate them.
I have connections with a charity now called Grit, formerly known as Youth at Risk, which aims to keep young people out of prison. Two others, Footsteps and the St Giles Trust, aim to stop offenders reverting to crime after they have been released. I strongly support the proposal of the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, for an independent commission that will review the way we try to achieve these aims. But I wish to explain, in the short time available, why I am so dismayed by the Government’s proposals to put more people in prison for longer. This echoes points made by the noble Lords, Lord Jay of Ewelme and Lord Beith. Anyone who has been following Channel 4’s admirable series, “Crime and Punishment”, will appreciate the devastating consequences of lack of resources.
Over at least the last 30 years, I have witnessed admirable initiatives—for alternatives to custody, for rehabilitation in prison and for helping those who come out of prison to avoid reoffending—foundering because of the lack of resources needed to implement them. Keeping a man or woman locked up in prison now costs close to £40,000 a year. Prison numbers should be kept to a minimum in order to free up resources for crime prevention and the effective rehabilitation of those who commit crimes. This means that sentences should be no longer than is necessary to serve their purposes.
What are those purposes? Section 142 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 provides the answers. They include protection of the public, deterrence, rehabilitation and punishment. Violent men—they are almost always men—who would pose a real danger to the public if at large, need to be detained, either in prison or in a secure hospital if, as so often, their violence is due to mental illness. But these cases must be identified on an individual basis, not by applying presumptions to all who commit particular categories of offence.
Making sentences longer does not normally increase their deterrent effect. What deters is the likelihood of getting caught. If that is slight, the length of the potential sentence will have little effect. A childminder who loses his self-control when kept awake by a screaming baby and shakes the baby to death will not act differently because he faces a lifetime rather than a mere 10 years in prison. The Home Secretary has said that she wants criminals to “literally feel terror” at the thought of breaking the law. It is wishful thinking to believe that she can achieve this by making sentences longer.
In my lifetime, the length of sentences has steadily crept up. A significant cause of this has been periodic legislation that has constrained judges to impose minimum sentences for certain categories of offence. Such legislation inevitably results in some defendants being sentenced to longer than the particular circumstances of the crime warrant, and in a ratcheting-up of the sentencing scale overall. I do not believe that the current government policy of lengthening sentences reflects informed advice that it will help rehabilitation or deter crime. The motive for it is to increase punishment in response to a perceived public demand for vengeance. Punishment is a legitimate object of sentencing, but there is no preordained scale that justice demands. The high cost of keeping defendants in prison to punish them has to be borne by all of us. If this were met by a discrete prison tax, I suspect that there would soon be a cry for a reduction in the length of sentences. The Government should be setting out to find the resources needed to improve rehabilitation by reducing the scale of sentencing and the size of the prison population. If they pay any heed to the unanimous voice of this debate, they will think again.