As always, the Howard League keep a close eye on such matters, including a league-table of the most over-crowded prisons:-
This week there are 85,679 people in prisons and young offender institutions in England and Wales. The male prison population is 81,861 and the female prison population is 3,818. There are 45 more people in prison than last week, and 226 more people compared to this time last year.
The child custody population at the end of December 2015 was 929. This is a decrease of 62 since the last month and a fall of 27 compared to the same point last year.
The current CNA level is 77,139 meaning that 8,540 men and women are being held above this level. CNA (Certified Normal Accommodation) is the prison service’s own measure of how many prisoners can be held in decent and safe accommodation.I think it's fair to say that what unites commentators on the subject is that nothing will work unless the numbers incarcerated is reduced considerably. Polly Toynbee writing in the Guardian on Monday is as good a place as any to be reminded how and why we've got into the present intolerable situation:-
Successive home secretaries strove to outdo one another in populist punitive measures, with Howard followed by Labour’s draconian Jack Straw, David Blunkett and John Reid. Up and up went the overcrowded prison population. Briefly in 2010, it seemed Cameron wanted to follow in Hurd’s footsteps: appointing Kenneth Clarke as justice secretary was a good omen. But he was soon replaced with Chris Grayling. He will be remembered for banning books for prisoners, but worse were his legal aid cuts – and most destructive was a 30% cut to probation funding, and then privatising the service, now in ruins.The Guardian's editorial was essentially sceptical about the Prime Minister's motives and commitment and highlighted the fact that on the same day Downing Street chose to manipulate the news agenda by raising the prospect of immigrant camps springing up in Kent if Britain left the EU.
Still, at least Mr Cameron did give his prison reform speech. And, although it did not come entirely out of the blue – he said similar things back in 2012 and again in his party conference speech last autumn – he is now again on the record confessing that the British prison system doesn’t work and is a scandalous failure, insisting that prisoners should be treated as “assets to be harnessed” not as “liabilities to be managed” and promising the biggest shake-up of the system since Victorian times. It is a message that could and should have been proclaimed and acted on years and even decades ago. Mr Cameron nevertheless deserves credit for raising the standard of reform once more.
The fundamental reason for taking a new approach to prison is the consistent failure of the system to rehabilitate the offenders who are sent there. No one argues against prison for the most serious offences and most dangerous offenders. But sending too many people to prison for excessively long terms has helped to generate overcrowded prisons with all too few ensuing benefits to society once a prisoner is released. It does not help that, in a time of spending austerity, prison is an expensive way of doing something badly.
Mr Cameron's solutions, which include devolving control to governors, the building of six new model “reform prisons”, a new system of comparative performance league tables, more day release and tagging, and new ideas on prison education, are all worthwhile. It is important that they are all trialled and independently evaluated and that they are not allowed to become a new dogma unchallenged. Mr Cameron said little about prison officer training, which should also be reviewed. But the fundamental answer to the overcrowding that constrains so much prison reform is sentencing reform, which is in turn dependent on a properly financed system of alternatives to custody. Here, after years of reversal of the progressive thinking that Mr Cameron extolled on Monday, there is so far only talk, and not a lot of that.So, it should be clear that for prison reform to have any chance, there has to be sentencing reform, along with effective and properly financed alternatives to custody. As we all know, Probation has always been a central player in this as gatekeepers on prison numbers and as gold-standard providers of effective rehabilitation work. But of course we're being airbrushed out of the picture and destroyed as an effective agency by Graylings split and TR.
It was good to see at least one former Chief come forward and speak up in a letter that didn't pull any punches:-
Polly Toynbee is right (If Cameron really cared he would cut prison numbers, 9 February) that the probation service is in ruins. Once a viable alternative to prison, probation has been systematically destroyed by successive governments over the last 20 years. For the first 15 of those years, governments attempted to rebrand the probation service as the tough new community agency, there to protect the public. This was done by removing the requirement in a probation order to “advise, assist and befriend” offenders, abandoning the requirement that probation officers hold a social work qualification and removing the service from local accountability.
This was bad enough, but the last five years have seen far worse. In what can only be seen as an ideological drive, government has split the probation service in two: 70% managed by private companies under 21 contracts; 30% centrally controlled by the Ministry of Justice. As well as incomprehensible reorganisation, budget cuts and job losses have drained the lifeblood from the service. There are staff left who continue to attempt to provide a decent service to courts, offenders and communities, in spite of overwhelming odds against them. But many are leaving, disillusioned and exhausted by what has been done.
The probation service in England and Wales was once a world leader. Now it lies in ruins. To achieve the reduction in the prison population that Toynbee rightly advocates, there will need to be a viable community-based organisation, in which courts, victims, offenders and the public can have confidence. Sadly, there is no such organisation at the present time.
Former Chief Probation Officer, Northumbria Probation Service
A lot has been written about the subject over the last few days, which must be a good thing, because prisons normally prove extremely easy for governments to forget about. The trouble is there is more than a suspicion that what this is actually all about is an opportunity for business chancers and other privateers to get a further step in the door. This from Clinks:-
At the forefront of Clinks’ strategy will be how we ensure the voluntary sector has the ability to be strategically involved and operationally useful in these reforms. But we also want to help join the dots, supporting the Ministry of Justice and NOMS to think about: how David Lammy’s review into racial bias and the work of the Young Review can help address better outcomes for BAME people in prison; how we use what we know about good quality trauma-informed services for women; better approaches for young adults; supporting people with multiple needs including homelessness, mental ill-health and issues with addiction; how we can embed the role of arts in the rehabilitation of people in prison.A thorough trot through the issues and well worth reading in full, but just like most commentators on the subject, astonishingly virtually no mention of probation at all, and we all know what a roaring success TR has been for the charity and voluntary sector.
So there’s a big ask of the voluntary sector to get involved in another large-scale reform, a lot of unknowns, but potentially a significant opportunity to see some pro-active change which as always we’ll approach with an open mind.
Before this post becomes too long, I want to highlight a new-comer in the shape of a well-respected prison lawyer, Chair of their association indeed, Andrew Sperling and his first blog. It's extremely good and well worth reading in full and I've no doubt the promised part two will be just as worthwhile. Again, probation doesn't get a mention, but I'm assured it will at some point, along with TR:-
Cameron has been consistent in his theme of 'breaking the cycle' of reoffending. It was the title of a Green Paper in 2010 and the same phrase is scattered throughout his recent speech.
There is another cycle that he will need to break if he is to make any meaningful progress. There is a repetitive dance which politicians and media have been doing for considerably more than twenty years which has resulted in year or year rises in the prison population. It has increased by over 100% in 20 years; from 41800 in 1993 to 86000 in 2013. It has remained relatively stable since, probably because there are no spaces left. During the same period the number of recalls has increased by over fifty-five times. There has been a ten percent increase in the number of prisoners serving indeterminate or life sentences; they now make up nearly 20% of the prison population.
The Labour years were marked by a determination by successive Home and Justice Secretaries to show that they were not soft on crime. They deliberately courted tabloid newspapers to establish their credentials as tough sentencers. In the first nine years of Tony Blair’s term as Prime Minister there were more than 3000 new criminal offences created. The scope of offences attracting indeterminate sentences was massively expanded by the implementation of the imprisonment for public protection sentence in 2005.
Politicians have been led by the punitive clamour of tabloid newspapers to ignore the very clear evidence that prison does not work to reduce reoffending for the majority of people who end up in prison. The most recent Ministry of Justice Summary of Evidence indicates that short term prison sentences are less effective than community penalties in reducing reoffending. The desire to keep the press on side has killed off meaningful prison reform for generations.
Cameron and Gove have both recognized that our reliance on incarceration is unsustainable and that something has to change:
“I think politicians from all sides of the political spectrum are starting to realise the diminishing returns from ever higher levels of incarceration. For a start, under this Government we’ve already cut crime by around twenty-five percent in the last five years while keeping the prison population largely flat. And the truth is that simply warehousing ever more prisoners is not financially sustainable, nor is it necessarily the most cost-effective way of cutting crime.”The real test will come when the next high profile crime incident takes place. The response to individual dreadful acts has consistently been to call for more punitive sentences - not just for that individual perpetrator but across the board.
No politician wants to have to justify prison reform policies in the face of a public outcry over a terrible murder. But they may have to do so if the tide is really to turn.
This is what politicians are supposed to be for - to take measured, evidence-based decisions in the public interest. They have to lead. They have to be willing to challenge or ignore loud voices with different agendas. Gove and Cameron will need to be immune to these pressures if they are to make progress where others have floundered.
The goals which they have set themselves will fail unless the prison population is reduced significantly. There will not be an amnesty or a mass release of serving prisoners. Instead, sentencers will have to be supported and encouraged to stop sending people to prison who do not need to be detained to protect the public from harm. The level of recalls to prison needs to come down dramatically. Unsustainable numbers of prisoners are returned to prison for technical or non-dangerous licence breaches. The Parole Board need to develop more effective ways of getting through cases and releasing people who can be released safely.