David Cameron once promised to “hug a hoodie”, but Britain’s justice system has instead become more punitive, with a sharp rise in the prison population despite falling crime and convictions.
Crimes recorded by the police in England and Wales dropped 32 per cent to 3.8m in the decade to 2014-5, and the number of people convicted by the courts dropped 17 per cent in the same period.
But there was a 24 per cent rise in the number of prison sentences in those years, according to the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, a non-profit, independent researcher.
“It is a shrinking justice system that is becoming more punitive,” said Richard Garside, a director at the centre.
“Over the past decade, the police have recorded fewer crimes, and the courts have prosecuted and convicted fewer defendants. But those who are found guilty are more likely to get a prison sentence, and for ever longer periods of time.”
Britain has the most punitive system in western Europe, with more people incarcerated, as a share of the population, than in Germany and France, according to the Institute for Criminal Policy and Research.
The average prison sentence also stretched longer, from 12.6 to 16.4 months and prison numbers are up to almost 100,000 in the UK.
Penelope Gibbs, a former magistrate who set up Transform Justice, a group that lobbies for a more humane justice system, said sentence inflation was indisputable. “Sentences for sex, violence or murder have become far longer than 15 or 20 years ago even though the framework of the law hasn’t changed,” she said.
Meanwhile, there has been a steep drop in out-of-court penalties from roughly 750,000 in 2008 to fewer than 400,000 in 2014. Fines remain the most popular sanctions but their use has dropped proportionally, as has the number of community-based sentences.
Cuts to other social services, such as provisions for the mentally ill, have increased the burden on the prison system.
“There’s a huge number of people who would be better served in mental health units,” said Jerry Petherick, managing director of custodial and justice services at G4S. “It goes back many years.”
Meanwhile, the criminal justice system has seen sharp cuts under the government’s austerity drive.
Central government spending on criminal justice fell by nearly a fifth in England and Wales between 2010 and the last general election; police officer numbers were cut by 12 per cent and prison staff numbers axed by nearly a third.
This month, Michael Gove, the justice secretary, will table a parliamentary bill for “reform prisons”, modelled on academy schools, with league tables and provisions for failing jails to be taken over by more successful prisons.
The move was welcomed by G4S, which said the plans would give prison governors more control. “The Gove agenda is the right agenda, but there will be a period of adjustment as governors find their feet,” said Mr Petherick.
Older prisons including Holloway for women in north London will be closed and sold to housing developers with the proceeds used to build nine jails outside city centres. The prison regime will also be reformed, placing greater emphasis on education.
But Mr Garside said it was a “fantasy to think that prisons can be meaningful places of reform and rehabilitation”. “Prisons are harmful places of despair and misery, for male and female prisoners,” he said. “They are harmful places too for prison officers, who experience higher levels of stress, and earlier deaths than those in comparable professions.”
He argued the government should instead end what he sees as the unnecessary imprisonment of thousands of people for minor crimes.
“What we really need is sentence reform,” said Ms Gibbs. “To make prisons better, we need fewer people in prison because otherwise the resources are simply not available. It’s also much easier to turn people’s lives around outside prison rather than inside.”
But Mr Gove has said he has no intention of introducing “artificial” changes to sentencing policy to reduce the prison population.
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