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England & Wales: Pledge to reduce prison numbers

21st October 2010

Justice Minister Kenneth Clarke has pledged to stem prisoner numbers in England & Wales, and reduce the current prison population of 85,000 by 3,000 in four years. This will be achieved through sentencing reforms and the "rehabilitation revolution"; cutting current high reoffending rates among ex-prisoners is critical to this goal. this is part of the Ministry's goal to make savings of £2 billion by 2014-15

"A 3,000 cut in the daily prison population, to 82,000, implies more than 10,000 fewer offenders going to prison each year because most serve short sentences of six months or less," report Alan Travis and Afua Hirsch in today's Guardian.

It is the Ministry's hope that by helping offenders get off drug addictions, carefully managing their mental health and ensuring they move into work fewer number will slip back into a life of crime, thereby reducing re-offending rates and creating greater public safety. 

Scaling back on prison building is part of the programme, with plans to build five 'supersized' prisons, each holding 1,500 inmates, now halved. The provision of increased alternative sentencing options is also part of the plan.

Practical aspects of the plan include:

  • Diverting more prisoners with mental illness to appropriate facilities
  • Speeding up the risk assessment and parole of 1,300 inmates serving indefinite sentences
  • Reducing the use of remand for those charged with crimes that would not normally attract a prison sentence
  • Reducing the number of foreign nationals in prison
  • Recalling released prisoners only for serious breaches of their licences rather than technical lapses, as happens now.
  • Increasing the discount for early guilty pleas from 33% to 50%.
  • Introducing programmes that are paid by results

The article also quotes Juliet Lyon of the Prison Reform Trust, who praises the government for recognising that they cannot build their way out of the prisons crisis. "Deferring prison building, together with the justice secretary's determined plan to reduce any needless custody, should benefit victims and society," she said. Calling for investment in community solutions and mental healthcare, she stated: "This could be the first government to prove that closing prison works."

Elsewhere, in her blog Frances Crook of the Howard League welcomes the announcement that plans for a super-sized prison are to be effectively abandoned but warns that probation budgets must not face similar cuts. She refers to experience in Canada:

"The example of Canada in the 1990s proves instructive. The Canadian government reduced public spending by a fifth and as a result reduced the country’s prison population by 11%. By reducing the unnecessary use of custody and investing in community interventions, the Canadian government both saved money and saw crime fall across the decade, with drops ranging from 23% for assault and robbery to 43% for homicide."

She concludes: "There is an opportunity to strategically reduce prison numbers, while changing the way we respond to crime and people who commit offences. But if the Ministry of Justice approaches the next few years as a simple cost-cutting exercise, then that opportunity will be lost and the justice system will be left unable to cope and effectively crippled for the foreseeable future."

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