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Prisons Minister: Our Criminal Justice System is “Much More Punitive than the Victorians Were”

How can the Government reduce the use of short prison sentences if judges lack confidence in community alternatives?

The Government wants to stop sending people in and out of jail on short sentences, but how can this be achieved with probation services in the state they are in?

British society is guilty of the “hypocrisy of liberalism” as it is “more punitive than the Victorians were” when it comes to our jails, according to the Prisons Minister Rory Stewart.

Speaking in a debate in Parliament’s Westminster Hall yesterday on short prison sentences, Mr Stewart said scrapping short jail terms in favour of community sentences for those stuck in a ‘revolving door’ in and out of prison – whose crimes are often fuelled by issues such as drug use, homelessness and mental health – had to be the way forward.

“Not simply do we incarcerate twice as many people as we did 25 years ago, but the crime rate has almost halved over the same period, so proportionately, the number of people incarcerated per crime is considerably more than it was 25 years ago,” he said.

“Typically, this is the hypocrisy of liberalism: we talk a liberal language, but in fact we are much more punitive than the Victorians were. In the Victorian period at the end of the 19th century, there were only four prisoners held in prison for sentences longer than two years. Now, for the first time, we have a very large number of young men serving 25 or 30-year prison sentences.”

Is this prison sentence really deterring this individual? Is it really rehabilitating them? Above all, is it really protecting the public?

Prisons Minister Rory Stewart

But, Mr Stewart did not directly address how his plans could be achieved while magistrates and judges lack confidence in giving people community sentences, due to the widely-condemned failures of the probation service.

Responsible for monitoring offenders on release from prison and those serving sentences in the community, probation was part-privatised by Chris Grayling in 2014.

It was most recently criticised last week by the National Audit Office, which found that the Ministry of Justice had “set itself up to fail” with the reforms.

All Mr Stewart said on the matter of probation in yesterday’s debate was: “We are improving unpaid work and investing in community rehabilitation companies to make sure that they have better supervision in place, that they are meeting people face to face and that they have a proper plan in place to follow them through.”

Responding to suggestions that crime would increase if those who currently go to jail on short sentences receive community sentences instead, Mr Stewart said evidence strongly suggests that sending people to prison for just weeks and months makes them more likely to reoffend, compared to those who receive community sentences for the same crimes.

He also said prisoners on short sentences are fuelling problems in our crisis-hit jails and “destabilise the whole prison system”.

This is the hypocrisy of liberalism: we talk a liberal language, but in fact we are much more punitive than the Victorians were.

Prisons Minister Rory Stewart

“They are the ones who disproportionately bring drugs into prisons, because they are the people who go in and out eight times a year – if a criminal gang is looking for somebody to carry drugs in, they target a short-term prisoner, not somebody who is in for 25 years and has no opportunity.

“They disproportionately have learning difficulties and addiction problems; they are disproportionately connected with violence against prison officers and against themselves.

“Short-term prisoners also absorb disproportionately more time in the system than should be attributed to them. That distracts the entire system from focusing on rehabilitating and working with the serious criminals, such as the sex offenders, violent offenders and murderers, who pose a significant threat to the public and who, because of the distraction of this cohort, are not getting the education programmes, work and protection that they require.”

Mr Stewart concluded by saying society should be “bold” in asking what it is trying to achieve through prison and community sentences.

“Is this prison sentence really deterring this individual? Is it really rehabilitating them? Above all, is it really protecting the public?”

But, with no extra funding, more cuts on the way and probation in a mess, the additional question remains: how can Mr Stewart’s vision be achieved?


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