By Cherie Booth
Over the last few years, as a part-time judge, I have on occasion given custodial sentences to the guilty. I have no doubt that prison is the right place for those responsible for violent or serious offences.
But we can’t ignore, either, the troubling fact that the number of people in jail has more than doubled within the last two decades. The prison population, already at a record high at 84,000, is expected to continue rising.
Even the building of thousands of new prison places each year has failed to keep pace with this rise. The result is badly overcrowded prisons with all the extra problems this brings. As anyone who visits our jails also knows, they are packed not with violent thugs or master criminals but with those with mental health and addiction problems.
It is why the Howard League for Penal Reform believed there was an urgent need to take stock and examine anew the role of prisons in our society. The Commission on English Prisons Today, of which I am President, is an independent review by some of the country’s leading experts and practitioners. We were asked, by looking at evidence from around the world, to think radically about the purpose and limits of our penal system.
The Commission calls for a radical and transformational change of approach. We want to see the replacement of short prison sentences with effective community-based punishments. This will lead to a significant reduction in the prison population and allow the closure of some prisons. We also believe there has to be a clear acknowledgement that criminal justice is a blunt tool which cannot in itself provide lasting solutions to the problem of crime.
Given that the annual cost of keeping each person in prison is over £40,000 and yet re-offending rates for those leaving jail remain stubbornly high, there a strong financial case for examining whether there are more effective and better value-for-money options. With increased pressures on public finances likely, this is an argument which seems certain to carry more weight.
At the heart of the Commission’s recommendations are a call to devolve more power over our penal system – and the resources that go with it – to a local level which will help tackle the present public alienation from the criminal justice system. We would like to see an extension of community courts and restorative justice where the offender has to repay the hurt he has caused to the individual or community.
We also call for serious appraisal of the American concept of ‘justice reinvestment‘. The United States, of course, has the highest prison population in the world. But states and cities within the country are demonstrating that it is possible, by investing in community initiatives, to reduce the number sent to prison at the same time as reducing crime rates.
It is a recognition that a high crime rate frequently goes hand in hand with unemployment, dilapidated housing, poor health, lack of public spaces, and other social problems. In America, such areas are identified as so-called ‘million dollar blocks’, because of the cost each year of incarcerating a high proportion of the area’s residents. Justice reinvestment targets these neighbourhoods and diverts the money that would otherwise be spent on custody into investing in community based initiatives which tackle the underlying causes of much crime. They are proving very successful.
We believe a similar approach would pay dividends on this side of the Atlantic. With local authorities as lead partners, the Commission recommends that local strategic partnerships should be formed to bring together representatives from the criminal justice, health and education sectors. Prison and probation budgets would be fully devolved to their control, giving them funds for justice reinvestment initiatives. Such an approach would put communities back at the heart of the justice system and encourage the kind of social and institutional trust which goes hand in hand with a safer and more confident society.
With prisons, as with many other aspects of public policy, a new economic reality will face us with some tough choices. But if we learn what is working well elsewhere, there is a chance to refashion our penal system so that it works better for all of us. We must not let this opportunity slip away.
Cherie Booth QC is President of the Commission on English Prisons Today. A shorter version of this article appeared in the Independent yesterday.