The former lord chief justice, Lord Woolf, yesterday warned that building more prisons would not solve Britain's jail crisis.
The judge, who headed the inquiry into the Strangeways prison riots 15 years ago, predicted that building more prison places would prove a hugely expensive short-term answer as they would quickly be filled and the "cancer" of overcrowding in the system would continue.
The home secretary, John Reid, has promised to build an extra 10,000 prison places in the face of a record prison population of 80,000 in England and Wales and prisoners held in emergency police and court cells at a cost of £5m a month.
Lord Woolf said there were also concerns among judges that the transfer of responsibility for prisons to the new Ministry for Justice from May 9 will mean court budgets will be squeezed to pay for the escalating costs of dealing with prison overcrowding. He told MPs on the Commons home affairs select committee that he learned during the Strangeways inquiry that "overcrowding was a cancer eating away at the heart of the prison service". The cancer had persisted and was reflected in poor reconviction rates of those leaving prison, putting the public at risk.
Lord Woolf said prison places were so expensive that they needed to be reserved only for those who "really deserve and need it". He suggested that the Sentencing Guidelines Council should be told by the government how much money was available for prisons for the next five years and asked to draw up guidelines that keep the prison population within those resources.He said: "The judge should know how much the sentence he is imposing will cost the public, and if there is a suitable cheaper option then he should choose that. We have not got over the message just how expensive incarceration is. The cost of sentences should be set out in clear and realistic terms." Lord Woolf, who sat as a judge in the criminal courts for 25 years, acknowledged that the confidence of judges and magistrates in community punishments had deteriorated, partly because of an overstretched probation service. He accepted that violent crime had to be dealt with severely, and denied that he was as "out of touch" as some tabloid newspaper editors had claimed.
Lord Woolf reminded MPs that he had suffered his own home being burgled and he and his wife had been mugging victims while they were abroad. But he said the competition between the political parties over who was the toughest on crime had fuelled a more punitive attitude amongst the public towards crime.
(c) The Guardian