Let’s invest in alternatives to prison that actually reduce reoffending

© Chris McAndrew / Wikimedia Commons

After a decade of Tory failures in our criminal justice system, driven by deep austerity, Boris Johnson this week announced 10,000 new prison places at a cost of £2.5bn. Building more and more prisons may get headlines, but it is not the solution. And it won’t make people safer for one simple reason: it doesn’t address reoffending. To reduce the number of victims of crime, we need a government with a strategy that addresses the causes of crime and invests in prevention and rehabilitation.

Figures I recently uncovered show that half of all women now going to prison were previously homeless. Is building more prisons really the solution? Surely the billions that Johnson claims will go on new prison places – let’s see if any of this is actually delivered or just pre-election spin – would be better spent on funding schemes that are proven to reduce reoffending?

The Ministry of Justice’s own figures show that reoffending costs £18bn per – and that those on short sentences are the most likely to reoffend. The reason is simple: prison is often the worst place to deal with the drug addictions, mental health issues and social problems that lead people to commit crimes in the first place.

Yesterday I visited an inspiring women’s centre in Manchester. WomenMATTA is an excellent example of the kind of alternative we need to replace the ever-growing reliance on prison sentences. It provides holistic support to women with a focus on reducing reoffending and identifying the root problem. When more than half of female prisoners are themselves victims of domestic violence and when thousands of women are jailed each year for shoplifting, there are clearly better ways of tackling reoffending than Boris Johnson’s plans.

But what have the Tories done to support women’s centres? Far too little. A female offender strategy announced last year was woefully underfunded, setting out just £5m and falling well short of what experts say is needed. The government’s own advisory board on female offenders told the Justice Secretary that at least £20m is needed. The money so easily found for new prison places would have been better spent there.

Or perhaps it could have been gone towards reversing the deep cuts to youth offending teams, whose budgets have halved under the Tories. This government slashed an eye-watering £73m per year at a time of growing concerns that more young people are becoming the victims of crime.

The Tories claim their plans are about making prisons more purposeful, to turn around the lives of prisoners. But it is the Tories’ reckless decision to axe thousands of prison officers that has left our prisons more dangerous than ever, with far too many prisoners locked in their cells for 23 hours a day. And despite the rhetoric, the truth is that there are still thousands fewer prison officers than when Labour left office, and prisoner officer numbers are again falling with tens of thousands of years of valuable officer experience lost.

If the government were serious about tackling prison overcrowding and allowing prisons to focus on rehabilitation, it would put an end to ineffective super-short sentences of six months or less for those serving non-violent and non-sexual offences. One in three people given a custodial sentence are sentenced to less than three months, with half getting less than six months. For women it is even more stark, with two thirds getting six months or less. Tens of thousands of crimes a year will be prevented by ending such short sentences for most offenders according to the Justice Ministry.

We need alternatives to custody that help people break free from the revolving door, that sees people in and out of prison and creating more and more victims of crime. Over the past year, I have overseen Labour’s consultation ‘Building an Effective Criminal Justice System’, focused on prevention, early intervention and effective rehabilitation with the aim of getting the number of victims down – always a priority for Labour.

There was some talk in favour of such an approach from the previous Conservative Justice Ministers, especially on reducing the use of super-short prison sentences, as has been done in Scotland. But despite the Tories knowing that Labour would back them in bringing forward the necessary legislation, all the talk came to nothing.

Of course, some offenders – including those who have committed rape, murder and other violent or sexual offences – will always need tough custodial sentences. But if we are to get the numbers of victims of crime down, we should be investing any new funds into what actually works. Greater investment for women’s centres, in problem-solving courts that tackle the root causes of offending, in effective community alternatives backed by legislation to reduce the use of super-short prison sentences, and a probation system focussed on reducing crime and not super-profits are what is needed. And that is where a Labour government will put its focus.

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