Saturday, 10 October 2015

Government should take a holistic approach to crime and punishment

The Prime Minister and the Justice Secretary Michael Gove are making the right noises about prison reform, wrote Nigel Morris in yesterday's Independent. England and Wales would save public money by reducing the prison population ("it costs more than £30,000 a year to keep an offender locked up"). In the short term, more use of electronic tagging could reduce the prison population, as could extension of restorative justice schemes. In the longer term, using prison to reform inmates as well as punish them, would save even more. Admittedly, staff numbers, both in prison and in probation services, would need to rise in the short term but would fall as reforms bore fruit.

However, as Mr Morris also points out, there is a strong resistance among conservatives (on both sides of the gangway -  witness the extraordinary number of imprisonable offences created by the Blair-Brown governments from 1997 on) to anything that smacks of going soft on crime. It does not help that while he is attempting to reform prisons, Mr Gove's own Department earlier this year imposed a scale of court charges which is likely to encourage dubious guilty pleas. The criminal legal aid budget has been cut. The MoJ is also poised to reduce the number of courts, thus imposing travelling costs on more defendants and witnesses. These are all likely to swell the prison population.

Mr Gove needs to stand firm on his own reform plans, but also reverse those policies which have reduced access to justice.

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