Nick Clegg is right about prisons, but we’ve heard it all before

Nick Clegg is right about prisons, but we’ve heard it all before

23rd February 2015

Our prison system is breaking records, but they aren’t milestones we should be proud of. The population has exploded – up from 49,000 in 1994 to 85,000 today (officially 77,000 is the safe and decent limit). Suicides have risen to their highest level for seven years.  Only one youth prison is meeting its education requirement. And, as is well-rehearsed, our re-offending rate is unacceptable: almost half are back into crime within a year of leaving.

Prison costs £3 billion a year. I can think of no business which would continue to win the confidence of its investors with such rates of return.

Prisons should achieve three things for the people who fund them. First, the punishment of criminals by removing personal liberty. Second, the protection of the public by removing dangerous people from communities. Third, rehabilitation, so prison leavers go on to take responsibility and lead crime-free lives. This third purpose is so often fumbled by Governments, mainly because it is tough to achieve.

Nick Clegg was right to highlight some of this in a speech he gave today. But compare Clegg’s speech with those given by Justice Secretaries, Prime Ministers and Leaders of the Opposition over the years and you’ll find very little substantial disagreement between them. Meanwhile our prison estate staggers along.

Here are four questions the Deputy Prime Minster needs to answer from here.

1. What will you do to create credible alternatives to prison for sentencers?

One of the reasons people are given short prison sentences is because the main alternative – community sentences – is poor. We should learn from the United States and introduce Swift and Certain justice.

2. How will you stem the addiction and mental ill-health tides in prison?

Prisons are dumping grounds for those suffering from these issues, often because people don’t get effective help earlier. Until charities are unleashed and family breakdown reduced to prevent these issues emerging in the first place, and until rehabs are funded (we say through penny-on-a-unit treatment tax) to get people clean, this grim backstop will persist.

3. What is your plan to get offenders working in prisons?

Work rehabilitates people and there isn’t enough of it inside. As far back as 2009 I worked on this for the CSJ with Jonathan Aitken and little has changed since then.

4. How will you reduce the social breakdown that fuels crime?

Prisons pick up the pieces of social failure. Over half of prisoners are illiterate. Most young offenders have known chaos and trauma in childhood. Many have an addiction. Lots have been unemployed and reliant on the welfare system. These are the root causes of crime Tony Blair was determined to get tough on. The CSJ’s recent Breakthrough Britain 2015 series offers a plan.

Nick Clegg is right to want to improve the record on prisons, but we need to move beyond diagnosis and noble intentions.