Liz Truss urged to let judges give shorter jail sentences to reduce prison crowding
Liz Truss has been warned that efforts to improve prisoner rehabilitation will be scuppered by the Government’s refusal to consider reducing sentences.
The Justice Secretary has made a speech claiming it would be “reckless and endanger the public” to propose shorter sentences in response to address the soaring levels of violence and suicides in prisons.
But Lord Woolf, the former Lord Chief Justice and the author of the landmark report into the 1990 Strangeways riot, said that the high inmate population was undermining ministers’ efforts at changing other elements of prisoners’ experiences.
“I agree that there is no quick fix which is satisfactory,” he told the BBC’s World at One programme.
“But you must take care to ensure that everything that can be done is being done to reduce the numbers in prisons because the system cannot cope with the number it’s being required to look after.
“Again and again reforms are promised but they don’t succeed because of the pressure of numbers and the unrest that can be the consequence of that.”
Lord Woolf highlighted the prevalence of mandatory minimum sentences and guidelines which restrict the scope for judges to issue more lenient punishments.
He said: “The judges’ hands are tied. They’re tied by first of all the sentences which have been fixed by law; then, when there is no sentence fixed by law, their hands are tied because if a judge is trying to find the right sentence he has to follow sentencing guidelines.”
The number of prisoners in the UK has risen to more than 85,000, almost double the level of 25 years ago.
But in a speech this afternoon, Ms Truss said the reasons behind the surging population were more violent and sexual crimes, rather than harsher sentencing.
“I want to see the numbers of people in our prison go down but it has to be for the right reasons,” she said.
“That we are successful in intervening early and tackling the scourge of drugs. That we are getting better at turning lives around in our prisons.
“The wrong approach would be reducing sentences for serious crimes or letting people out early."
She added: "It’s not the sum of human wickedness that has doubled, it’s that we are driving that wickedness out from the shadows and we are putting it where it belongs: behind bars."
The Justice Secretary labelled the cross-party intervention from three former senior Cabinet ministers to try to reduce the prisoner population to 45,000 a “dangerous attempt at a quick fix”.
“This would be reckless and endanger the public. And it would restrict the freedom of an independent judiciary to choose the most appropriate sentence for each offender,” she added.
But Tory former prisons minister Crispin Blunt also highlighted the role of mandatory minimum sentences passed by Parliament in the “significant increase in the prison population”.
“We are hampering judges by telling them to impose very long sentences,” the Conservative MP told the Today programme.