Opinion: Making Prisons Work

On 30th June, Ken Clarke announced a big re-think of prisons policy. He argued that locking more and more people up isn’t working, that short sentences do nothing to rehabilitate offenders, and that more use should be made of community penalties.

This is music to Lib Dem ears and a welcome change from the macho posturing of recent Home Secretaries – but has he got his facts right?

Whilst a clear majority of those sentenced are given sentences of less than 12 months, short-term prisoners make up less than 10% of the prison population for the simple reason that they are not there very long. (On 31st May, 2010, 7,853 out of 85,009 prisoners were serving sentences of 12 months or less. This is out of 70,980 who are actually serving sentences, most of the rest being remanded whilst waiting for trial or sentence.)

So handing out fewer short sentences will only make a marginal difference to the total prison population. What’s more, the idea that the courts are sending petty offenders straight to prison without even giving community penalties a go is simply wrong.

In my experience as a barrister, judges and magistrates have a good understanding of the benefits of trying to rehabilitate offenders through unpaid work, drug treatment courses, or training sessions with probation officers. The problem comes when someone is given a community penalty but repeatedly fails to turn up, or just keeps on offending.

There comes a point when the courts have to be able to say enough is enough. Very few prisoners doing short sentences are first-time offenders, most are people for whom community penalties have been tried, and failed. This change in the political rhetoric is welcome, but will make little difference to numbers.

To understand the real reasons behind the explosion in prison numbers you need to look at the other end of the scale, at the numbers serving sentences of life and “imprisonment for public protection”.

The latter, (known as IPPs) were created by Parliament in 2003. Under this regime, offenders who pose a significant risk of causing serious harm to the public must remain in custody until the parole board believe the risk has passed. Such a system is surely right in principle: focusing, as it does, on the twin aims of rehabilitating the offender and protecting the public.

However, to work, it needs proper planning. In case after case before the parole board prisoners have not been offered the courses and training to address their offending. As such, they cannot show they have reformed and their release is delayed by years.

The impact on the prison population is dramatic. In 2005 there were 5,807 prisoners serving life sentences or IPPs. By May 31st, 2010, the figure stood at 13,033 and was rising fast. The cost to the taxpayer is huge, at over £40 000 per year, per prisoner. Put bluntly, a failure to invest in rehabilitation within the prison system is costing society a lot of money and making us less safe.

One of the most interesting ideas in Ken Clarke’s speech was the proposal to introduce minimum and maximum sentences.

Done right, this could be revolutionary. The time someone would actually spend in custody would be determined not just by the crime they had committed, but by the progress they made after sentence.

If, for example, a prisoner works hard to address his offending behaviour through courses organised by the probation service he will be released after the minimum term. On the other hand, someone with a poor disciplinary record who regularly tests postive for drugs and fails to engage with probation will serve the maximum.

Just letting prisoners out early to cut the numbers (as happened under Labour) was wrong. Linking early release to rehabilitation, however, is the right way to go about both managing the prison population and protecting the public.

The problem, of course, is that in the short term this requires investment in the probation service to allow it to provide training and work for all prisoners so that the process of rehabilitation can be a success. At a time of savage budget cuts I am pessimistic about this.

But the alternatives are even more costly – high rates of re-offending and a prison population spiralling out of control.

* Tim Starkey is a Lib Dem member, and a barrister specialising in criminal and prison law.

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • The problem is that so many prisoners are kept in the ‘churn’, moving between prisons, due to overcrowding etc… that the course they might be trying to complete is either disrupted or simply not available in the new prison.

    Having spoken to a number of prison officers, the churn is viewed as the biggest problem for prison-based rehab. and other forms. Coordination is therefore key, not just a prisoner successfully completeing rehab. but also being allowed to complete it.

    All the points you make I agree with, but we need to recognise that some prisoners really want to complete rehabilitation but can’t before they are moved on.

  • Michelle Taylor 8th Jul '10 - 3:31pm

    Alas, if only parole boards and courses were currently any good. I know this source is biased, but I think the issues raised within are worth looking at before we embrace bureaucracy and Rehabilitiation Courses:


  • In 2005 there were 5,807 prisoners serving life sentences or IPPs. By May 31st, 2010, the figure stood at 13,033 and was rising fast. The cost to the taxpayer is huge, at over £40 000 per year, per prisoner.

    Perhaps it would be cheaper to outsource part of our prison service. It might well be cheaper to imprison people on long sentences in Portugal or Slovakia, rather than here.

  • A Probation Officer by trade I am currently a manager in the Prison Service who took some time out earlier this year to be a Lib Dem PPC.

    Contrary to Michael Howard “Prison Works”, Labour was always supposedly committed to reducing the prison population. However,every attempt only served to drive up prison numbers. They fell into a common trap – making community sentences more punitive or restrictive does not reduce the prison population. Perversely, every attempt to toughen up or rebrand community sentences only leads to higher failure rates and increases in prison numbers. The fact is that there is little to deter sentencers from sending people to prison – the existence of punitive community options only leads them to pass more onerous community options on people they would not have sent to prison anyway. When Community Service was launched as an alternative to custody in the 1970s a study illustrated that had the sentence not existed over half of those sentenced to it would have actually received a fine not custody. In the past ten years the number of hours Unpaid Work/Community Payback/Community Punishment/Community Service (all names since 2001) sentenced for comparable offences has increased by about 50%.

    Whereas before the 2003 Act it was only possible to combine Unpaid Work, Supervision and Curfew in a Community Sentence the law since then has given 12 possible requirements to be passed in combination. In addition, in the event of breach the act removed the right of Magistraes to fine or take no action when an offender had done well but hd a technical breach or a temporary relapse. The 2003 act stipulated that more onerous requirements had to be added in the event of a breach – this even applied in drug rehabilitation cases where an offender might have attended daily for six months but missed just two appointments in that time. The modern Community Order is symptomatic of Britain operating a Criminal Justice trap rather than a System.

    The Suspended Sentence Order was a disastrous addition to the 2003 Act. This enabled sentencers to pass all the requirements and programmes of a Community Order but tie these to a Suspended Prison term. Furthermore the legislation states that breach should lead to custody apart from in exceptional circumstances. This is yet another Order where less serious offenders are “up-tariffed” in the sentencing regime as at least three quarters of offenders receiving SSOs would not have been otherwise sent to prison.

    To conclude, this review must look further down the scale and re-define what Community Sentences are designed to acheive. The SSO should be abolished and the power not to punish or to fine for breach of Orders restored, there should be alimit on the number of requirements an Order can contain. In my experience many offenders have limited lifetime acheivements – to successfully complete a modest community sentence has a much greater rehabilitative effect than failing to complete a more complex onerous Order. The policy must give people the opportunity to succeed in rehabilitation.

  • Tim Starkey 9th Jul '10 - 11:51am

    Thank you everyone for some really interesting comments.
    Henry – you are right about the problem of prisoners being moved round constantly between prisons. In my experience very little consideration is given to the needs of prisoners to attend courses and the availaibility of those courses when thet are shifted from prison to prison – changing this is essential.

    Howard League Intern – I agree with you that short sentences are often not very effective as virtually no meaningful work at rehabilitation gets done in the time the prisoner is inside. In my view, short sentences should not be used except as a last resort. On the other hand, courts must have a sanction for repeat breaches of community orders or repeat low level offending. If prisoners know they will always be given another chance there is less incentive to comply with orders or with the law.

    Michelle – thank you so much for providing the link to prisonerben’s blog. It is fascinating stuff and a useful insight for anyone with an interest in this topic. As you say it is biassed, but his comments about the gross innefficiency of the parole board are in keeping with my own experience. I support IPPs in principle but think they need to be made to work much better in practice. Partly, as I wrote earlier this about making courses available to prisoners, but also this is about dealing with the lengthy delays in the parole board process.

    Dan – very interesting comments. A lot of rhetoric (including from the Lib Dems) has been about using prison less but making community penalties harder. Instinctively, most people like the sound of that – but the realities can be a bit more complex – as your argument shows.

  • Andrew Wimble 9th Jul '10 - 1:31pm

    Reducing the number of people serving short term sentences may not make a huge difference in practice but I still find the change of rhetoric very welcome. Acutally I think reducing the number of people serving short term sentences now may make a big difference in the number of people serving longer sentences in the future. I do not have the figures but I suspect that it is fairly rare for somebody with no criminal record to suddenly do something that earns them a long prison sentence. Most people are likely to start of of petty criminals and go through a series of ineffectual community penalties and short prison sentences before they graduate to hardened criminal. Finding more effective ways of dealing with petty offenders now should help to reduce the number of more serious offenders in the future.

    The catch is for alternatives to short prison sentences to work they have to be properly funded. Supervision orders do not work with nobody to supervise and treatment orders do not work without places on treatment programs. With the current spending constraints I just dont see how the currently ineffective community penalties are going to be made to work

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