Tuesday, October 10, 2006

New Labour and the prisons crisis

New Labour in opposition famously promised to be tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime. Indeed, that soundbite was coined by a promising young shadow home secretary by the name of Tony Blair.

As prime minister, Blair has certainly delivered the first part of the goods, presiding over a rapid expansion in the prison population, which has risen by a third during his time in office. The number of women and children behind bars has doubled, and Britain has more lifers than the rest of the EU put together.

As of the weekend, some 79,843 people were locked up in prison, just short of the 80,000 that the system can hold without serious risk to health and safety.

Home secretary John Reid has responded by announcing that some 500 places are to be made available in police stations, while foreign prisoners are to be offered payments of up to £2,500 to serve their sentences in their home countries.

But New Labour would do well to remember the second half of its early nineties slogan. Imprisonment is itself among the leading causes of crime.

This is how it works. A succession of populist home secretaries respond to the pressure of the tabloids for more custodial sentences for petty offences. The overcrowding that inevitably results puts paid to any prospect of rehabilitation for minor offenders.

Many prisoners are vulnerable people to begin with. Three-quarters have a reading age of ten or less. More than 40% are mentally ill. Prisoners are 13 times more likely than average to have been a child in care, 14 times more likely to be unemployed, and ten times more likely to have been regular truants.

Yet custodial sentences can lead to homelessness, unemployment, financial problems and broken families, all of which increase the chances of reoffending. Even the government’s Social Exclusion Unit recognises that. Result? Some 70% of those leaving jail are reconvicted two four years.

I recall interviewing the late Sir Stephen Tumim, HM Inspector of Prisons during the Major years. He made the argument that there are probably about 2,000 dangerous hardened criminals that really do need to be shut away for the good of society. Other than that, society should be asking itself what good imprisonment does in all other cases.

Sir Stephen – a very obviously upper class former judge – absolutely oozed Establishment liberalism, in a splendidly nice chap kind of way.

Off the record, he confided that he was rather hoping that the incoming Labour government everybody expected at the time would be rather more enlightened than the Tory administration of the day. If he were still alive, I suspect he would be feeling cheated.

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