08:17, August 31 175 0 theguardian.com

2017-08-31 08:17:03
First thoughts  
 ‘Tough on crime’ created the prisons crisis. It’s time for justice to be rational

A good test of a country’s state of development is a visit to its prisons. Upcoming states may flaunt glitzy Gucci- and Versace-heavy shopping malls, but if their prisons are black holes of squalor and injustice, civilisation is a thin veneer. Increasingly, Britain fails that test, a country whose social fabric is in decline, and nowhere more than in its shameful jails.

The surge in prison numbers is terrible news, with prisons already grossly overcrowded, understaffed and underfunded. A 20% increase in violent assaults and escalating riots – this month in Hertfordshire, Wiltshire and Cumbria – are inevitable: expect worse to come. The rise in numbers is due to the courts sending more people to jail for longer, not more cases coming to court. The Ministry of Justice’s recruitment of more prison officers is now overwhelmed by extra prisoners.

The Howard League, monitoring prison conditions, says staff shortages mean large numbers of prisoners are locked up for 23 or even 24 hours a day, lying on bunks in tiny shared cells. Self-injury rates rose by 24% in the year to April 2017, assaults on staff rose 40%, drugs are rife, mental illness is endemic and illiteracy and innumeracy are sky high, with fewer courses or classes to fit prisoners for work outside.

Reported crime has ticked up in the last three years, which may or may not be a result of police forces dealing with budget cuts in excess of 20%, with 19,000 fewer officers, but must surely be swollen by high reoffending by ex-prisoners. However, the long-term trend since the mid-1990s has been an extraordinary fall in crime right across the western world. But in England and Wales, that fall in crime has been greeted by a doubling in prison population. Ah, say the Daily Mail-minded, that shows locking them up keeps crime off the streets! Not so. Studies across countries show no correlation between numbers in jail, severity of punishment and these universal falling crime rates. Even within the US, states with wildly varying penal policies all saw the same fall in crime.

Why? You can take your pick of criminologists. Some point to more young people staying in education longer. And better early years teaching and support for struggling families prevents later crime in adolescence. Others say it’s fashion: crime is for losers and it’s no longer cool among the young. Tim Harford’s Undercover Economist quotes research suggesting the pill and legal abortion means fewer unwanted children born to mothers who can’t cope.

Whatever the reason, Britain’s response has been abysmal. Falling crime was the great chance to reform punishment. Prisons could have become intensive mental care and education institutions mainly reserved for the violent, reducing reoffending. Community programmes for the non-violent could have treated them effectively with a good chance of employment. Instead, we doubled the numbers in prison, with less chance of rehabilitation.

Labour was seriously to blame, as David Walker and I record in The Verdict, our own review of the Labour years in government. Swept to power on “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”, Labour wrongly followed both strands. They were good on causes, with a major investment in early years, schools, youth offending teams, better further education colleges and a Connexions youth service. But Jack Straw, in charge of “tough on crime”, took a purely cynical political approach: Tony Blair liked “eye-catching” anti-crime announcements and Labour created over 3,500 new criminal offences in 50 criminal justice bills.

Michael Howard, as Conservative home secretary, started the populist surge when his notorious 1995 “prison works” speech sent magistrates and judges scurrying to give heavier custodial sentences. His “three strikes and you’re out” enforced locking up petty criminals after three minor thefts, and Straw stuck to it. The rise was rapid: in 1995 a first-time burglar had a 27% chance of jail, but by 2000 48% went to jail. The prison population swelled by two-thirds, to 83,887 by 2009, more per head than China. Indeterminate sentences swelled prison numbers too. Jack Straw had the effrontery to boast that crime fell in Labour years – with no evidence as to cause and no reference to other countries with the same results and a fraction of the number in jail.

At least Labour did improve prison conditions with new buildings, less overcrowding, no more slopping out filth and a bit more activity for inmates. But reoffending remained high. Since 2010, conditions have deteriorated badly with huge cuts. Overcrowding puts prisoners far from family. The severity of prison punishments means 3,000 years of extra prison time have been added to sentences within jail for minor infringements, very few of them violent. Chris Grayling, surely the worst ever justice secretary, who banned prisoners’ books, cut early release – though 99.9% of prisoners came back on time and later re-offended less. The parole board is so underfunded there is now a huge backlog of cases awaiting its decisions.

Easing numbers would be easy under any justice secretary not obsessed with Daily Mail opinion. The only two who tried effectively were Tory – Douglas Hurd and Ken Clarke, but both were soon removed when their practical commonsense approach offended their party’s bang-em-up ideology. Labour thought they could only win with “tough on crime” policies, and Straw was the Rottweiler to guard their right flank. Let’s hope that next time, a Labour government might dare to be pragmatic and evidence-based on crime and punishment.

Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist