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The Government loves to talk tough on crime and prisons. It’s an easy way of winning a Daily Mail editorial and distracting from whatever chaos ministers are overseeing elsewhere.
But that’s a harder gambit to play when the chaos is in the prisons themselves.
A shocking Times report this week suggests that kneejerk “lock em up” policies have driven the prisons system to “bursting point” with the extension of minimum sentences for a plethora of crimes taking place without any investment in the prison estate to accommodate those caught in their net.
Now we’re seeing the rotten fruits of those efforts, with people convicted of rape and burglary now set to avoid prison – ‘temporarily’ – as of next week due to chronic overcrowding caused by these policies. “Prisons are full” judges have been told.
Even sentencing will be postponed, with officials even talking about releasing current inmates.
The prison population is set to pass 89,000 next month, and potentially over 106,000 by 2027. The backlog in the courts is nearing a staggering 63,000. That means there is a pipeline of even more overcrowding on its way.
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What happened to ministers’ pledge of 20,000 extra prison spots? It appears to have been quietly shelved, with only a fraction of that number materialising. Justice Secretary Alex Chalk KC has even suggested the possibility of housing UK prisoners in Estonia by leasing foreign jail cells.
Steve Barclay, the Health Secretary, said today that the government has undertaken “the fastest rollout of prison places in a hundred years”. The fact that prisons remain overflowing at the worst rate in decades – even with an enormous court backlog artificially suppressing the prisoner numbers – shows that the current approach is not working.
We’ve had nine prisons ministers – nine – since 2018, so perhaps it’s no surprise that promises go down the pan as quickly as they’re made.
In the interim, individuals accused and convicted of severe crimes, including historic or child rape and other forms of sexual assault, could be let out on bail.
Can you imagine the hell and fury that would rain down on a Labour Government if this had happened on their watch?
Instead, ministers are able to shrug off the crisis because “the courts are independent”. The courts are, but funding of them is very much not. The same goes for prisons, minimum sentencing laws, funding for rehabilitation and policy on drug possession that locks up thousands of non-violent addicts.
There are currently at least three Insulate Britain activists in prison for non-violent offences.
Conservative-supporting papers that demanded tougher protest laws should think about the three rapists who may be spared jail and let out on bail because of the Government’s authoritarian approach to protesters.
In just one quarter last year, over 700 people were sentenced to immediate custody for possession of drugs Classes A-C – in other words, including drugs like cannabis, ketamine, LSD, Ecstasy/MDMA and magic mushrooms, according to the latest criminal justice statistics on sentencing in December 2022.
Most will end up behind bars for six months then chucked back onto the streets, their addictions often untackled amid the drugs epidemic in prisons themselves, Transform Drugs Policy notes.
Now the Government has made possession of laughing gas illegal, teens getting a 60-second high from nitrous oxide at festivals face being locked up too.
Andrew Neilson, Director of Campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform, believes the current prisons system is “holding the country back at significant cost to the public purse.”
“Successive governments have repeated the mistake of trying to tackle crime by growing the prison population, only to find that this makes matters worse. Prisons create conflict, thwart human potential, put a strain on police and hospitals and cost a fortune”, he said.
Instead of helping people to move on from crime, too often prisons do the opposite. Yet prison numbers will rise a fifth to 107,000 in the next four years – “all while being unable to safely or decently accommodate the numbers it already has.”
Jamie Klingler, founder of women’s safety campaign Reclaim These Streets, tells Byline Times, “Sunak tells us that as a “father of daughters” he deeply cares about women’s safety; yet in this country there is only a 1.7% chance of your rapist being convicted, and now in the very very unlikely chance that your rapist is actually brought to justice; he may not even face a custodial sentence.
“Women’s safety is nothing more than a PR exercise for policing in this country and the government.”
We need a ruthless approach towards violent criminals, but a very different approach to those who do not pose a physical danger to others: tackling the poverty and addiction that often fuels crimes like petty theft.
Ministers know our prisons need reform. They now need to be honest about it, and end the addiction to tabloid headlines as they announce ever-longer sentences that merely keep our prisons overflowing.
Events of the past week show that this Government is neither tough on crime nor the causes of it. They need to fix that before a catastrophe caused by their policies forces them to.
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