PODIUM: We should not be so swift to lock people away in jail

Richard Rhodes

Richard Rhodes

First published in Opinion

Cumbria’s Police and Crime Commissioner Richard Rhodes argues the country’s criminal justice policy needs addressing to prevent crime in the first place rather than simply locking up criminals in prison

We all have views on the issue of prisons. Home Secretary David Waddington surmised that ‘Prison is an expensive way of making bad people worse’, while Michael Howard famously opined that ‘Prison Works’.

Ex- prisoners on the streets of Cumbria told me recently that, on release, they immediately spent their resettlement grant of £46 on drink. They had no home, no job and were separated from their families. Alcohol was their only solace and so they stole to get it.

They tramped the streets, were cold, wet, and hungry with nowhere to sleep.

Some will say that is exactly what they deserve, but actually these former prisoners soon reoffend in order to be returned to the ‘comfort’ of prison - food, warmth and routine.

The current prison population is 85,000. The last Government introduced measures to facilitate early release to reduce numbers. It failed.

The Coalition Government promised to reduce the prison population by 3,000 to fund criminal justice reforms. That, too, has failed.

This is not a party political problem. What does appear to be imperative, however, is the apparent need to appear to be ‘tough’ on crime! We imprison a higher proportion of the population than any other western democracy apart from the USA.

The cost of a prisoner is about £40,000 per year. Approximately 65 per cent reoffend within two years of release.

Seventy per cent of those in custody have literacy skills equivalent to a child of 11. Seventy per cent of prisoners have at least two mental disorders. Suicide and self-harming rates are high. Prisons have become dumping grounds.

In Cumbria’s only jail - Haverigg – older prisoners complain that the regime is too soft . They told me when they were last there it was much tougher – that didn’t deter them from committing crime, did it?

Sentences served in the community – unpaid work, now Community Resolutions – attempt to reduce the prison population as well as ensure lower reoffending rates compared with custodial sentences.

Serious offences deserve long sentences but it has become increasingly clear that short custodial sentences for lesser offences don’t work.

The recent government initiative to provide supervision on release for all custodial sentences is long overdue.

Having spent more than 30 years sitting as a magistrate, I am sensitive to the issues which sentencers sometimes face. Invariably, the only reason for imposing short custodial sentences is to relieve the rest of us of the ‘company’ of persistent offenders.

Community Resolutions and post release supervision rely much on the quality of the Probation Service. Changes under way aim for supervision of high risk offences to be handled by a newly configured National Probation Service. Supervision of lower tier offenders will be commissioned to Community Resolution Companies, be they public, private or charitable.

If the new system doesn’t work, there will be a need for more prison places as reoffending rates will rise.

Our criminal justice policy needs to be brave. We have to spend money on preventing crime in the first place, rather than just spending £40,000 a year on locking people up afterwards.

We need to develop a greater range of community sentences and promote restorative justice to make criminals face up to the impact they have on victims.

In Cumbria there is much good work going on by Third Sector groups, such as Manna House in Kendal, Gateway in Carlisle and CROPT across the county, but they all depend on charitable hand-outs.

Custody for criminal offences cannot be a ‘soft’ option and it should only be used when all else fails or issues of public protection are at stake.

But as Churchill said: “The true measure of a civilised society is how it treats people accused of crimes”.

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