David Howarth writes … Now is the time to reform our penal policy

Last month the Howard League for Penal Reform launched its Take Action 2010 campaign, with the general election in its sights. The campaign reflects a growing consensus among experts and campaign groups that penal policy has reached a crisis point.

The Howard League’s campaign covers four policy areas – investment in the community not prison, ending short prison terms, justice for children, and creating a scheme of real work inside existing prisons. All four of these themes echo Liberal Democrat thinking and I very much welcome the campaign.

Billions of pounds are spent on maintaining our prisons and building thousands of new prison places each year. Since 1995 the prison population has increased by 32,500 and the Government has further plans to increase the capacity of the English prison system.

The ‘core capacity programme’ aims to deliver around 12,500 prison places by 2012. This will result in the total capacity of the prison estate being increased to 96,000 by 2014.

Instead of tackling the underlying causes of crime by investing in communities and prevention, we spend ever-increasing sums on simply trying to manage the problem. Prison serves only as an expensive plaster not the cure.

Talk of a crisis in this area is not exaggeration. The prison population is now rising towards 85,000 people, each of which cost the government £41,000 per year to maintain.

On a recent visit to Feltham YOI I witnessed first hand 272 children and young adults who had been remanded to custody. This means that these children had been sent to prison before being sentenced, and for many before even being convicted of a crime.

Most important of all, 75% of young people are reconvicted within just one year of release from prison. It is clear that prison neither deters nor prevents further crime. Among adults, over 60% of those sentenced to a year or less will go on to reoffend within two years of release.

There must be more effective options than prison for many offenders, and there are. Many other types of sentence have a far better record at reducing reoffending, and thus at protecting the public from crime. These include restorative justice, which has been shown by a systematic review commissioned by the government to reduce reoffending by nearly 30%. Drug and alcohol treatment outside prison also work to prevent crime.

Reoffending rates for all ‘community’ sentences, even including the less effective ones, are lower than for custodial sentences. The one year reoffending rate for community orders was 37% in December 2007. This compares to a rate of 47% for adults released from prison and 75% for children.

Community sentencing is also cheaper. It costs £100 per day to keep a low-risk drug-addicted individual in jail. A robust community sentence such as the Drug Treatment and Testing Order costs only £25-£37 a day to deliver. Transferring resources from prison sentences that do not work to non-custodial sentences that do work will mean less crime at a lower cost to taxpayers.

As the Howard League has described it, prison is a one size fits all response that comes close to fitting nobody. Crime and social disorder are complex problems that need to be tackled with reference to the local community and circumstances of the individual. This is cheaper, more humane and most importantly more likely to work.

I was also struck by the Howard League’s support for the idea of justice reinvestment, in which criminal justice commissioning budgets are devolved to local level, so that local authorities can shift money from the budgets that pay for prison places to social services and other forms of early intervention that we know cut crime in the long term. The idea has also drawn support from Alan Beith’s Justice Select Committee in the House of Commons and from a committee of inquiry set up by the All Party Parliamentary Local Government Group, of which I was a member.

The idea of joining up government at local level is one that chimes with the Liberal Democrat approach to politics and is certainly a direction that policy should take in the future.

The Take Action 2010 manifesto is a document that outlines the most serious problems with the English and Welsh penal system. It tackles our need to make spending cuts and our need to make the penal system more effective with fewer resources. It is an interesting and imaginative contribution to the election debate and it is all the evidence you need to realise that no party should get into government this May without some answers to the difficult questions the Howard League raises.

* David Howarth is Lib Dem MP for Cambridge and the party’s shadow justice secretary.

You can sign up to The Howard League’s Take Action 2010 Campaign here.

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