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Ian Birrell

  • Award-winning columnist and foreign reporter. Contributing editor of The Mail on Sunday and weekly columnist in the 'i' paper. Writes regularly for many other papers, platforms and magazines. Frequent broadcaster and speaker at events. Co-founder wth Damon Albarn of the Africa Express music project and executive producer of 4 albums...Read more
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Short sentences prove prison doesn’t work

Published by The Times (28th June, 2018)

This is a depressing time for prison reform campaigners. Ministers have announced they are building two new jails ready for another surge in prisoner numbers as new offences are created, crime rises again and sentences grow steadily longer.

England and Wales already imprison more people than other countries in western Europe, despite a small fall in those stuffed behind bars. Numbers doubled in two decades as grandstanding politicians sought to satisfy populist pressures.

More recently budgets were slashed as the Ministry of Justice took the biggest hit amid austerity, even cutting support for effective community-based rehabilitation. The inevitable result was a sharp rise in violence, drug abuse, suicide attempts and self-harm among inmates.

Forget any idea that prison works for most offenders. Recidivism rates remain stubbornly high as issues of poor education, broken families, addiction and mental health are left to fester. Ask yourself why knife crime is soaring when sentences have been stiffened? Or even why domestic abusers should get longer terms? Yes, their brutality is vile but evidence shows a spell in prison does little to tackle core problems.

Yet there is a small glimmer of hope. David Gauke, the sixth justice secretary in eight years, has discarded plans for new prisons for women, proposing instead pilots for new residential community centres. The prisons minister, Rory Stewart, dared to state the obvious — that short sentences should be scrapped: ‘The best way of protecting the public is to significantly reduce, if not eliminate, the under 12-month prison population, because people on community sentences are less likely to reoffend than people put in prison.’

Hallelujah! Who cares if this dawning of reality is driven by financial concerns? So were groundbreaking reforms in the US instigated by Texan Republicans a decade ago to divert resources from prison building to rehabilitation and treatment programmes. Conservatives saw there was nothing tough about locking up offenders for a few months to watch TV. Far smarter to force them to confront personal demons or educational deficiencies so they can play a role in society.

Such progressive ideas, with a presumption against three-month sentences, have been introduced in Scotland. Now there are plans to extend this to 12 months following a fall in prison numbers and reconviction rates. The Scots prove politicians can take a stand against public desire for retribution. Perhaps their Westminster counterparts are finally growing backbones too.

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