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Lord Beith: It’s time we got a grip on prison numbers

2 min read

Former Justice Select Committee Chair Lord Beith writes following his recent Lords question on the impact of the total number of prisoners on Government plans for prison reform.


We have a problem with our prisons. Numerous reports have shown that the system is failing, often overburdened by huge numbers of prisoners putting pressure on outdated Victorian infrastructure.

The Government sees no need to reduce the number of prisoners, even though it is now at record levels and the highest in Western Europe. When I pushed the Government on this matter last week it was clear that Ministers do not believe that managing all these prisoners with reduced staff will prevent the delivery of more rehabilitation, despite the decisive evidence to the contrary provided in recent reports of the Chief Inspector of Prisons.

When Lord Faulks, who does not give much away, replied in these terms to my question in the Lords, he did not look entirely convinced of his case. The prison system consumes vast amounts of taxpayers' money without delivering enough rehabilitation. Some people do have to be locked up for a long time, but, as Lord Woolf and Lord Philips pointed out from their own judicial experience, governments have had a major effect on pushing up the length of sentences inappropriately.

It is time we looked more closely at why we have so many more men in custody than any of our European neighbours with similar crime rates. Mandatory sentences, IPPs, sentencing guidelines, recall from licence, political rhetoric and media misreporting have all played a part. We need to develop other ways of asserting that we take crime seriously than simply adding expensive additional years of custody to a sentence.

As Labour's Baroness Corston pointed out, there are now fewer women in prison because alternative and more effective provision was made available. We treat prison as a "free good" - it is always available to the court, while alternative provision to deal with drug or alcohol problems and monitor the offender may not be, because it depends on local availability.

If we do not get a grip on prison numbers, ministers with high-minded plans to cut re-offending are whistling in the wind.

Lord Beith is a Liberal Democrat peer & a former Chair of the House of Commons justice committee

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