New Commons Report Warns of ‘Enduring Crisis’ in Prisons

Ministers should consider abolishing sentences of under a year to help ease the “enduring” safety crisis behind bars, according to a Commons report.

Justice Secretary David Gauke is already looking at the possibility of scrapping jail terms of six months or less, with exceptions made for violent and sexual offences.

The move is backed in a new report from the Justice Select Committee.

It said: “The scale of the prison population crisis is such that it requires a fresh and decisive response.”

The committee suggested the approach could go further, urging the Government to “model” the effects of abolishing sentences of less than 12 months in England and Wales.

Plans are already in place to introduce a “presumption” against custodial terms of under a year in Scotland.

Mr Gauke signalled a departure from the Tory “prison works” mantra as he revealed his vision for “smart justice” earlier this year.

Short custodial terms would be replaced by “robust” community orders under the blueprint.

Penal reform campaigners are in favour, but Tory MP Philip Davies labelled the plans “stupid” last month after obtaining figures showing criminals jailed for six months or less have committed more than 50 previous offences on average.

A safety crisis has swept through much of the prisons estate in recent years, with assaults and self-harm at record levels.

The committee warned it was a “grave and worsening” situation, which was unlikely to improve with the current prison population.

It said: “We are now in the depths of an enduring crisis in prison safety and decency that has lasted five years and is taking significant additional investment to rectify, further diverting funds from essential rehabilitative initiatives that could stem or reverse the predicted growth.”

Over the past 25 years, the prison population in England and Wales has almost doubled in size, the report said.

At the end of last week, there were 82,417 inmates in jail.

The nature of the prison population is rapidly changing, with a higher proportion of offenders behind bars for serious violent or sexual crimes and an increase in the average age of inmates, according to the committee.

It called for a focus on services to reduce the £15 billion annual cost of re-offending, and suggested ministers should consider whether judges could be given a role in monitoring those they sentence to community punishments.

The assessment also raised concerns that support given to 10 jails chosen for a £10 million safety drive could be at the expense of others in “serious need”.

Prisons Minister Rory Stewart has pledged to resign if the scheme fails to achieve a reduction in violence and drugs at the selected establishments.

Conservative MP Bob Neill, who chairs the committee, accused the Ministry of Justice and Treasury of taking a “crisis management approach” to prisons.

He added: “Throwing money at the prison system to tackle multiple issues takes funding away from external rehabilitative programmes that could stem or reverse many of the problems.”

Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said the report provides a “unanimous endorsement of the Government’s wish to abolish pointless short prison sentences”.

Liberal Democrat justice spokeswoman Wera Hobhouse said: “Our prisons are in crisis. They are so overcrowded that they are failing at their central purpose: to prevent crime and keep communities safe by rehabilitating offenders.”

Prisons Minister Rory Stewart said the report “sets out the scale and complexity of the challenges facing the prisons system”.

He added: “Our clear focus is on rehabilitating prisoners to reduce crime and keep the public safe, but this can only happen if prisons are safe and decent.

“That is why we are investing significantly in improving conditions and security, and developing a long-term strategy to deliver prison places and reduce violence.”

Welcoming the committee’s support for “our ongoing work considering options for sentencing reform”, Mr Stewart said: “While prison will always be the only place for serious and violent offenders, there is persuasive evidence showing community sentences are often more effective in reducing re-offending than short spells behind bars.”

Mark Leech, Editor of The Prisons Handbook for England and Wales said:

“I am absolutely with this in principle, but my problem is that it’s predicated on having an effective probation service in place to monitor the replacement community sentences – and the fact is, as HMI Probation made clear just two days ago, that we just don’t have that.”

Lord Burnett, the Lord Chief Justice, told the Constitution Committee that statutory changes, including some “exceptions to the general rule”, may bring widespread revisions of Sentencing Council guidelines.

He also pointed out there may be cases where properly monitored non-custodial sentences can be effective.

He said: “It is perhaps a little bit simplistic to suppose that all offenders are affected in the same way,” adding: “A curfew for an 18, 19, 20-year-old is quite a punishment, possibly, and the technology now enables that to be monitored properly.”

Lord Burnett added: “I hope that when there is a debate about sentencing – and it no doubt will extend a good deal beyond the question of whether there should be fewer or very few sentences of custody at less than six months, or a year, or whatever figure people identify – I hope that it will be informed by a really deep understanding of the impact of sentences on offenders and offending, and also that it will be informed by a proper look at what is going on around the world.”

Read the Report

Michael Spurr: Reflecting on 35 years in the Prison Service.

Women jail staff are as likely to be attacked as their male colleagues after long-standing “norms” disappeared from life behind bars, the head of the prison service has warned.

Reflecting on changes during his 35-year career in the system, Michael Spurr noted that for a long time, male inmates would not hit female officers.

But, giving evidence at the Commons Justice Committee, he said: “Over the last 10 years, that has changed – there’s pure equality.

“If you are in the wrong place at the wrong time you get hit, for things that are quite trivial today compared to previously, which would have been dealt with potentially by an expletive rather than a punch.

“Those are norms that are changing.”

Mr Spurr also flagged up the influence of technology and social media as he outlined how changes in society have filtered through to prisons.

He said: “Social interaction isn’t as it was. People are so used to engaging in media.

“When you allow people out of cell, unstructured time with adults engaging with one another was the norm.

“Younger prisoners find that much more difficult.”

Issues relating to mental health and drug use in the community have a bearing on what goes on behind bars, added Mr Spurr, who will leave his role as chief executive of HM Prisons & Probation Service next year.

At the same evidence session, Prisons Minister Rory Stewart admitted he faces a battle to keep his job after he pledged to resign unless a drive to tackle violence and drugs at struggling jails succeeds.

Mr Stewart declared in August that he would quit if there was no improvement in safety standards at 10 establishments hit by “acute” problems within a year.

Describing the latest estate-wide violence statistics as “very, very worrying”, he said: “I have promised to resign unless we turn that graph round on violence in those 10 key prisons.

“At the moment, that graph is going in the wrong direction for me.”

Latest prison safety figures for England and Wales show there were a record 32,559 assault incidents in total in the 12 months to June, up 20% from the previous year.

Assaults against staff increased by over a quarter (27%) to 9,485 incidents.

Mr Stewart said he believed there are some “green shoots”, but he told the committee: “It’s going to be a tough fight because we are having to work with a situation that is not just violence in our prisons – assaults on police officers are going up, assaults on ambulance workers are going up.”

He re-stated his belief that very short custodial sentences can be counter-productive.

He said: “The wrong kind of short sentence may feel good in the short term because you feel you are banging someone up.

“But just putting someone in prison for a few days, a couple of weeks – it’s long enough to damage them, it’s not long enough to change them.”

In other comments, Mr Stewart disclosed that an electronic tag which allows GPS monitoring of offenders in the community has now “gone live”, and floated the idea of setting up charitable foundations through which local residents, particularly those in “quite wealthy communities”, could contribute “philanthropically” to their local prison.