13:32, February 19 192 0 theguardian.com

2019-02-19 13:32:04
The Guardian view on criminal justice: when prison doesn’t work

The overcrowded prisons of England and Wales are in an awful state after eight years of austerity. In this time, five justice secretaries have failed to come to grips with the problem and moved on. Ian Acheson, a former prison governor, has described jails as “dystopian hellholes where it is easier to score your next fix than to get a shower”. Nearly 190 kilos of drugs were seized inside prisons in 2017; one in five prisoners tested positive for drugs. The prisons minister, Rory Stewart, has proposed airport-level searches of both body and baggage for anyone entering a prison – officers as well as visitors – to stem the problem in the 10 worst-affected jails. Partly as a result of the availability of drugs, levels of violence inside remain shockingly high. In a prison population of 83,500, there were 32,000 assaults recorded last year, and five murders. Even more aggression is directed inwards: there were 87 suicides and 50,000 incidents of self-harm.

Mr Stewart proposed last month that all prison sentences of under three months be abolished. His boss David Gauke, the justice secretary, has gone one better and now proposes to abolish all prison sentences of less than six months, while retaining long sentences for those convicted of violent crimes.

Mr Gauke cites evidence that prison increases the chances of reoffending compared with community sentences. A short sentence, he argues, consumes disproportionate amounts of resources in the initial processing of a prisoner and leaves none over for any kind of meaningful rehabilitation work. In the last five years, almost 50,000 people a year have been sentenced to six months or less and two-thirds of them have gone on to commit a further crime within a year of their release. Much of this offending appears to be thefts and robberies driven by addictions of various sorts. Though Mr Gauke didn’t complete the thought, prison is far more likely to aggravate a problem with substance abuse than help to cure it, as the drug statistics show.

His energy and optimism are welcome here. Anything would of course be better than the malign incompetence of his predecessor Chris Grayling, who attempted to privatise much of the probation service with predictably disastrous results. But it is clear that Mr Gauke has tried to think his way through an intractable problem and to come up with solutions that balance the need for punishment with that for rehabilitation.

The punishments he hopes to impose depend on technology, some of which actually exists. He hopes to use a combination of electronic tagging systems, which are to be deployed all around the country this summer, with rather more hypothetical alcohol monitoring systems. Pilot schemes have shown some success with treatments for alcohol abuse: only two-fifths of those treated reoffended in two years.

These are potentially humane and effective steps, especially if they were combined with proper social support for offenders. But there’s the rub. Mr Grayling’s devastation of the probation service and the generally brutal impact of austerity on social services make it look unlikely that such support can be found. Another privatised probation company went bust last week, as the probation inspectorate reported it had been fiddling statistics to meet unrealistic government targets. It is good news that another Conservative minister has realised prison does not often work; but keeping offenders out of prison won’t work either, without a government willing and able to resource it properly.

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