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The only way to reduce the prison population is to recognise that prison is a dead end

Penelope Gibbs
15 Sep 2017

The clarion call to reduce the numbers in prison is being heard. Yesterday the Centre for Social Justice suggested that most tariff-expired IPP prisoners should be released, and fewer prisoners recalled for minor breaches of their licence conditions. The Lord Chief Justice in his last annual report said the “continuing rise in the number of longer term prisoners is an increasing concern” and the Lord Chancellor wrote “I want to see prison numbers come down. We need better custody that cuts reoffending and crime. And we need to ensure judges, magistrates and the public have full confidence in the other penalties available”.

The challenge the government has is that what happens in custody makes little difference to prison numbers. Better regimes and opportunities for work help prisoners, but will hardly effect the numbers coming in even in the medium term. Getting IPPs out of prison is worth doing, but the Ministry of Justice predicts that numbers will rise even if this is factored into their model. Because, ultimately, the most effective way of reducing the prison population is to change sentencing, and to do that the government would be wise to change the way it talks about it.

The Scottish government resolved to reduce the prison population a few years back and have succeeded. They have made bold moves such as implementing a legal presumption against short prison sentences and investing in local, public sector probation. But they have also adopted a different tone. The Scottish government does not talk of punishment as a deterrent, and does talk about prison as a last resort. Kenny MacAskill, the former justice minister who started this journey, wrote an amazing piece in the Scotsman the other day

“Prisons shouldn’t be short term respite for troubled individuals or an expensive punishment for those who aren’t a threat. It takes weeks to assess the requirements of those who have complex needs. When someone is serving a short sentence, the prison service has no sooner worked out their needs than they’re preparing them for release. Their needs are better dealt with in the community”.

Contrast this with comments this week by Dominic Raab, our minister with responsibility for sentencing, in relation to an increase in imprisonment for those caught carrying a knife:“We’re catching and prosecuting more of those who carry a knife or blade. Those convicted are more likely to go to prison, and for longer terms. Knives are a scourge of communities. Our message to those carrying a knife is that you should expect to end up in jail.”

Imprisonment is a strong punishment for those who carry knives, but there is no evidence it is a deterrent, and knife crime has gone up since sentences were made harsher. I met a humane, liberal judge the other day. She said that, faced with the choice between using a community sentence or a short prison sentence, she usually opted for the latter these days since the rhetoric about the effectiveness of probation was so negative. And next time that humane judge is deciding on a sentence for a first time offender caught with a knife, the words of ministerial encouragement to use imprisonment may be ringing in her ears. It is a truism, but language matters, and words can change behaviour, including that of judges.