The Labour meltdown means that I have been neglecting to adequately cover significant Tory announcements.  There was last week’s education announcements from Michael Gove and I recommend this webcameron video for a summary of those (there are also these Platform essays from Reform and Policy Exchange).  There was also Monday’s announcement on prison reform by Shadow Secretary of State for Justice Nick Herbert.

There’s a new campaign page at that summarises Mr Herbert’s approach to prisons.  Here are the bullet points:

  • Conservatives would scrap the disastrous early release scheme, and build emergency prison places.
  • Double the sentencing powers of magistrates to 12 months and repeal any new restrictions on their ability to hand down suspended sentences.
  • Introduce honesty in sentencing so that convicted criminals serve a minimum sentence handed down to them by the judge.
  • Ensure sufficient prison capacity to hold all those sentenced by the courts – and reform prison regimes to break the cycle of re-offending.

Some key quotations from Nick Herbert’s impressive speech:

On overcrowding: "Some 17,000 prisoners are doubling up in cells – twice as many as when the current Government came to power. More than 1,000 cells designed for two people are occupied by three. That means that nearly a quarter of the entire prison population is housed in cells designed for one fewer person… In the last few months there has been no shortage of warnings about the scale of the crisis. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor has said "the system is stretched to breaking point". On Friday the previous Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, said "we are in a "critical situation." And putting it more bluntly, the current Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips, said the week before, "we simply cannot go on like this". I agree."

The government has failed to plan for increased prison places: "Only three new prisons in the past 10 years were commissioned by the Labour Government; the rest were commissioned by the previous Conservative Administration. In the year when the Government came to power, the number of new prison places was 4,716. By 2005, the number of new places had fallen to 940. During the current Lord Chancellor’s previous watch, prison capacity building fell by 86 per cent over three years."

With some notable exceptions prisons are not full of part-time offenders: "It has become commonplace to suggest that prison should be reserved for serious, persistent or violent offenders. But already the largest single offence category of prisoners is violent offenders (27 per cent of the prison population) – and this is growing as a proportion of the prison population. At least half the prison population are violent or sexual offenders. Prison is largely reserved for repeat offenders. Of those receiving an immediate custodial sentence, only one in ten are first time offenders. Most will have committed serious offences. Only 12 per cent of those sentenced to prison have no previous convictions… The prisons crisis is not, therefore, caused by the volume of people receiving short sentences, or the jailing of first time offenders. Prison is largely reserved for serious, violent and persistent offenders. Contrary to popular myth, our prisons simply do not contain vast numbers of non-violent, first-time offenders doing time for licence fee evasion or summary motoring offences."

Gordon Brown’s broken promise on foreign prisoners: "11,000 foreign nationals are now in custody – 13.5 per cent of the prison population – and whole prisons are now dedicated to holding this category of prisoner. If Gordon Brown kept his promise to deport foreign national criminals, considerable space would be freed up."

The Early Release Scheme is the wrong response to prison overcrowding: "If we are serious about dealing with violent, serious and persistent criminals, the right response to this increase is to accommodate the additional demand. The wrong response is to allow prison numbers to reach crisis point, and then try desperately to reduce them. But this is exactly the course that the Government is taking."

The Probation Service is overstretched: "As Lord Woolf warned on Friday, punishments in the community "only work if they’re properly resourced." Yet in an already overstretched probation service, some officers already supervise up to 80 offenders – and the Prisons Minister indicated last week that the numbers will fall further. Placing a bigger burden on the probation service by mandating greater use of community sentences, while simultaneously reducing the level of supervision, is not a credible policy."

Britain is not keeping enough people in prison for our crime rate: "There is no correct level of imprisonment. A prison population is partly the consequence of the crime rate, and Britain is a high crime country. Compared to the number of prisoners to recorded offences, we are below the developed-world average for prisoner numbers."

Overcrowding makes rehabilitation harder: "[Prisons] should be more than human warehouses: they should be places of education, hard work, rehabilitation and restoration. But prisoners in public sector jails spend on average 26 hours a week on purposeful activity – less than the Government’s (very modest) target of four hours per day. Such ‘purposeful activity’ can fall a long way short of the education, training and work programmes which are needed to rehabilitate offenders."

We need a revolution in the design of prisons: "Prisons would be designed around reducing recidivism. Safety and security should remain paramount, but prisons could look very different. They would embody a recognition that the majority of prisoners are deeply dysfunctional individuals with chaotic backgrounds. Most of them are young men who go off the rails early in their lives – growing up without fathers, excluded from school, taking drugs, joining gangs – who need firm but fair assistance and focused attention to help them take some control of their own lives and learn responsibility.  In 2003, over one third of the prison population were held over 50 miles from their committal court town and 12,500 were held over 100 miles away. Smaller, local secure units would provide better opportunities for re-settlement and reduce the extensive amount of travel between prisons. Building courts attached to new prisons would reduce delays and inefficiencies, as already happens in Canada. Special secure units could get prisoners off drugs and treat mentally-ill offenders."

We could sell the old Victorian prisons and build facilities for the 21st century:
"Policy Exchange’s research has shown that there is huge potential for remodelling the current prison estate and selling off some of the oldest Victorian prisons in inner city, high value locations, either building on a new site or rebuilding on the same site (with a smaller footprint) a modern prison that is cheaper to maintain."

At the end of his speech, Mr Herbert announced four reviews:

  1. Lord Kingsland will chair a review of sentencing;
  2. Edward Garnier MP will look at management of the prison estate and prison building needs;
  3. David Burrowes MP will examine new ways of managing prisons including education services;
  4. Henry Bellingham MP will look at life after prison – including improving the support networks for released offenders.

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