Lord Marks: If Boris Johnson wants to stop people reoffending, he needs to address the causes of crime
Only when we end overcrowding, invest in services and transform prisons into places of rehabilitation can we break the cycle of reoffending that creates hundreds of new victims every day, says Lord Marks.
Boris Johnson is right about the need to stop people reoffending when they leave prison. But he’s completely wrong about how to achieve it.
Locking up more and more people for longer and longer sentences isn’t the answer. We know this because Conservative and Labour ministers have been trying it for 25 years. Wanting to appear tough on crime has led successive governments to legislate for and encourage longer and longer prison sentences, without any evidence that they deter people from committing crimes or help to improve public safety.
The result? Our prison population has almost doubled since 1993, and the UK now has more people in prison than any other country in Western Europe. The majority of prisons are over capacity – some by more than 50%. HMP Wandsworth, for example, has room for 935 people but currently holds more than 1,400.
This overcrowding has stoked the crisis engulfing our prisons. Riots, drug use, suicide and extreme violence have all become far too common. More than 300 people die in prison every year, and the past five years have all seen the highest rates of prison deaths since records began in 1978. Assaults, assaults on staff and self-harm incidents are all at record-high levels as well.
Overcrowding stops prisons from serving their central purpose: rehabilitating prisoners so they can lead lives free from crime on release. There aren’t enough prison officers to cope, so prisoners spend far too much time locked in their cells and far too little in purposeful activity such as work, education and training.
A quarter of prisoners are locked in their cells for more than 22 hours a day, their chances of being successfully rehabilitated ebbing away with every passing minute. It’s little wonder, then, that 48% of people who leave prison are convicted of at least one new offence within a year.
The solution is not to increase the prison population even further. Instead of reviewing sentences to make them longer, Boris Johnson should commission a review to reverse the decades of sentence inflation that have brought us to this crisis – something that the Liberal Democrats have been advocating for years.
He should also listen to the Liberal Democrats and others – including the recently departed Conservative Lord Chancellor David Gauke– and end the pointless short prison sentences that don’t work to cut crime.
Most prisoners receive sentences of less than a year, even though the Ministry of Justice’s own analysis shows that these people would be less likely to reoffend if they served their sentences in the community instead. Johnson’s Justice Secretary, Robert Buckland, understood this when he was the Prisons Minister; it’s a shame he hasn’t been able to convince the Prime Minister of it since joining his Cabinet. The Liberal Democrats have long been calling for a presumption against short prison sentences and an increase in the use of tough non-custodial punishments in their place.
If we reduce the number of prisoners, we can make our penal system far more effective at preventing crime. We can take the money wasted housing people who don’t need to be there – more than £100 per person per day – and spend it on the things that actually stop reoffending: education and training, healthcare, treatment for addiction, and suitable, stable housing after release. My Liberal Democrat colleague Lord German and I have set out proposals to do just that in our new policy paper ‘Turning Lives Around’.
Only when we end overcrowding, invest in these services and transform prisons into places of rehabilitation can we break the cycle of reoffending that creates hundreds of new victims every day. Boris Johnson’s ‘tough on crime’ nonsense, which flies in the face of all the evidence and merely panders to populist prejudice, would only take us further from that goal.
Lord Marks is the Liberal Democrat justice spokesperson in the House of Lords.