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Breaking the cycle: How to make the case for radical prison reform

Against a backdrop of persistently high reoffending rates and the current mess being made of a world-respected probation service, steps in the right direction are emerging from the shadow justice team that should break into a confident stride come May. We...



Against a backdrop of persistently high reoffending rates and the current mess being made of a world-respected probation service, steps in the right direction are emerging from the shadow justice team that should break into a confident stride come May.

We have never needed it more. Academics, commentators and prison workers are sounding the alarm about a prison crisis. Under Chris Grayling, the coalition government have slashed frontline prison staff by 41 per cent, closed 18 prisons with no reduction in population and seen a 72 per cent increase in riot squad call outs. Deaths in custody are at a record high, with suicides increasing by 69 per cent in the last year. The scale of the crisis creates an opportunity for Labour to offer something that works.

Like Labour’s housebuilding pledge, a well-functioning justice system requires audacious policy and capital outlay initially, to save money and reduce reoffending in the longer term. The shadow justice team need to grasp this nettle and boldly reject calls to lock more people up. Here are some ideas on how to make the case for radical reform to the British public.

First, we should fund alternatives to custody. Rising prison numbers are the result of a political choice. Prison numbers doubled between 1993 and 2012, despite the British Crime Survey showing that crime is decreasing. England and Wales have the highest level of imprisonment per capita in western Europe. Yet prison is criminogenic: a traumatising environment in which, for example, men and women with two or more diagnosable mental health problems (over 70 per cent of prisoners) and drug and alcohol addictions (75 per cent) fail to be (re)habilitated. Most are victims before they are perpetrators. Rather than creating active citizens, prison sets people up to fail.

Community sentences are between 7 and 13 per cent more effective, enabling people to live with autonomy, with extra support, to facilitate better choices and to learn new skills without eroding connections to family and friends.

The British public harbours tough attitudes on criminal justice issues, but there is still support for community sentences. In November 2014, the Daily Mirror ran a poll: ‘Do you think we should be giving people short prison sentences?’ 88 per cent clicked ‘No, community sentences are a better option’. And 2012 YouGov polling for the Prison Reform Trust showed that people rated drug rehabilitation, intense community orders and mental health interventions far higher then imprisonment, when asked about crime prevention.

Second, we should be ‘tough on the causes of crime’. Our party is built on the battle for equality but the gap is widening between rich and poor under the coalition. Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett’s book The Spirit Level documents that the bigger the gap, the higher the crime rate. Our prisons are full of people from low-income backgrounds, criminalised for their poverty or led into crime because of it. One can choose to commit a crime or not, but we need to acknowledge the context in which those choices are made. Addressing inequality involves education, healthcare, housing, employment and training. If a Labour government addressed inequality head on, research suggests the crime rate would plummet.

Third, we should be relational, not sensationalist. The people in our criminal justice system are just that – people – who may have endured trauma and abuse. They are still part of our society and not in some way ‘other’. Labour can demonstrate compassionate leadership by pioneering a relational justice system, prioritising people not profit. Labour should devise prisons that habilitate and heal; places capable of creating citizens. There is an appetite for a relational state, for public services that address complex problems holistically, prioritising relationships and quality services over market-based, target driven agendas. Accordingly Labour can confidently set out plans for a justice system that is patient, persistent and offers human presence. For example, by reversing the staff cuts in prisons so that they are safe and truly restorative places.

Bold Labour policy, more concerned with the reform needed to reduce reoffending than appeasing tabloid headlines, could re-envision justice. Actually reducing reoffending means there will be fewer victims of crime. That is a vote-winner, and the foundation of just justice policy.

Sara Hyde works with women in the criminal justice system 

This article originally appeared  in the Winter 2014 edition of the Fabian Review


Sara Hyde

Sara Hyde is Chair of the Fabian Women's Network and a councillor in the London borough of Islington. She works with women in the prison system.


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