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How to reduce the prison population in one easy step

Cutting sentences would take little more than political will. Ian Nicholson/PA Archive/Press Association Images

Alarm is spreading once again about the state of UK prisons, with reports that more than 15,000 assaults were committed by prisoners in 2013-14. Justice minister Chris Grayling might be quick to argue that the violence, suicides and staff shortage represent a “challenge” rather than a crisis but it’s time to think seriously about how to reduce the numbers of people in prison.

Attempts are consistently being made to address this problem but each falls flatter than the last. If we simply reduced prison sentences though, we could dramatically reduce overcrowding.

It is generally agreed that overcrowded prisons are bad for everybody – they lead to dangerous and squalid conditions for inmates, as well as staff, and prisoners often have to be moved around, away from their families and the communities in which they will live when they are released. In fact, overcrowding makes it almost impossible to do anything worthwhile with prisoners.

Programmes designed to bring about changes to reduce reoffending certainly take place, but despite the best efforts of many skilled and dedicated staff, there are far more people who need such interventions than there are programmes for them to attend. So much for the rehabilitation revolution.

If current trends continue, all UK prisons will be able to do is to detain people. And even that becomes harder as conditions deteriorate and people become increasingly frustrated and angry. As a report produced after the 1990 riots in Strangeways Prison in Manchester concluded, security, discipline and justice are closely linked. If inmates do not feel they are being treated fairly, a prison is likely to experience disorder.

Wrong direction

There are several options that have already been explored for tackling overcrowding. Each generally ends in disappointment.

Increasing capacity is a bad idea, for a start. There may be commercial vested interests in urging this course now that private companies are increasingly involved in the running of prisons but all the evidence suggests that new prisons quickly fill up. A society that is spending its money on more prisons while closing hospitals and cutting spending on schools and universities has lost its way.

Identifying people who ought not to be sent to prison is another option. Many would argue that those who are mentally ill or have learning disabilities should not be in this type of custody and some argue that few, if any, women should be in prison. But the government already claims to be committed to this and we haven’t seen an end to overcrowding as a result.

A new approach

It’s clear that we need a new approach to this problem. The size of the prison population depends, after all, not only on the number of people who are sent there but also the length of time they stay. And reducing the length of time an inmate stays is actually a much more reliable and efficient way of reducing the prison population than diversion or other approaches. That’s not to say the other approaches should be dropped, but we should at least try both.

If all sentences were reduced by 10% the prison population would – quite quickly – decline by 10%. In England and Wales this would mean reducing the prison population from 85,000 to about 76,500, which would already make a massive difference to conditions and increase the scope for working usefully with prisoners. It’s a perfectly feasible approach. All that is needed is political courage.

Consider a sentence of 20 months. This would be reduced to 18 months under the 10% proposal. Choosing the most appropriate length of a sentence is a matter of custom and practice – and it varies considerably between countries. No one could plausibly argue that 20 months is just right, but 18 won’t do. Even for the most dangerous offenders, it seems odd to argue that the public is protected by detaining someone for ten years but safety would be jeopardised by releasing them after only nine. And does anyone think that a potential offender would be undeterred by four-and-a-half years, but would be stopped by the prospect of five?

There are other simple steps that could be taken as part of such a move, many of them imaginatively advanced by crime and justice academic Ken Pease years ago. Courts sentence in months and years and favour round figures (three months or six months seems for some reason to be preferable to four months and three weeks), but if they sentenced in days, terms could be readily reduced. Why not sentence someone to 150 days (if we like round numbers) rather than six months?

All these suggestions protect principles of proportionate justice, while deterrence and incapacitation would be unaffected. And rehabilitation would at last be given at least some opportunity to breathe and to thrive.

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