STANDING ROOM ONLY

Cast your mind back to 2010, the year when David Cameron became Prime Minister by a whisker, with the help of the Liberal Democrats, or not as the case may be.  He appointed Ken Clarke to be the Justice Minister, with the laudable aim of reducing the prison population. By all accounts, easier said than done.  The prison population in May 2010 was 85,500, way too high for a civilised country.  Six years’ later, good news indeed, the prison population has come down by 258.  Yes, you read it here first!

So what does this statistic tell us about crime and punishment?  First and foremost, it tells us that the sentencing guidelines, used by judges throughout England and Wales, need to be revisited as a matter of urgency. Prison sentences are being passed where prison is not the answer, and prison sentences are way too long. And worse still, the number of overcrowded prisons is going up and spiraling out of control.

Another interesting and depressing statistic is the number of prisoners who re-offend after release.  Figures from the Ministry of Justice show that 8.6 per cent of adults released from custody were convicted of a further offence, which was committed within 18 days of leaving prison or detention.

The sad reality is that little or nothing is being done to rehabilitate prisoners prior to release or to offer them anything other than a life of crime. The Prison Service spends most of its time on crowd control, so is it any wonder that re-offending levels are so high?  The easy answer, for the Prison Service at least, is to keep prisoners under lock and key all day and all night long, allowing them out only to eat or a short period of exercise.

Perhaps it’s the sentimental old fool in me that believes there is no such thing as a lost soul. Everybody, regardless of background or education, has something to contribute.  It’s all about finding and exploiting it.  This benefits the prisoner, it gives him self-respect and a feeling of worth, and it benefits society by releasing a genuinely reformed person with something to offer.

On average, it costs over £30,000 a year to keep a prisoner in prison. This money could be better spent on rehabilitation, but that will only happen once the prison population comes down by half.  Michael Gove has promised to speed up  the release of prisoners, especially short term prisoners who shouldn’t be in prison in the first place, but I see no progress in that regard.  Another broken promise?

With chronic overcrowding, little can be done to reduce the level of re-offending, and nothing can be done to make life more tolerable to serving prisoners.  If you treat them like animals, or even worse, you can’t blame them if they behave like animals.

THE CLANG OF THE PRISON GATE

As candidates for the top job in 2020 jostle for pole position, those who fancy a flutter would be unwise to write off Michael Gove.  He is known as ‘Oiky’ by Private Eye, but that aside, he is very much the dark horse in the race and should not be dismissed lightly.

He had a good run at the Department of Education until Cameron, ever the fair weather friend, dumped him in favour of somebody more emollient, I can’t remember who, but presumably transgender and black to cover as many bases as possible.

After the General Election, Oiky came back as the Justice Secretary, something about which he knew absolutely nothing, and an ignorance he shares with a number of judges, but he’s taken to it like a duck to water.  His latest initiative to reduce the prison population is to cut substantially the terms of imprisonment which prisoners would otherwise have to serve, thus tackling prison overcrowding at a stroke.  Whether his initiative gets past Middle England and sees the light of day, only time will tell, but he has my support.

Those of you old enough to know better will cast your minds back to 1965 when capital punishment was finally abolished, much to the disgust of the ‘Hang ’em High’ Brigade.  I mean, if you hang ’em high, they won’t do it again, and what does it matter if the occasional innocent man is hanged if it’s all for the greater good.  But with the abolition of capital punishment, imprisonment became the ultimate deterrent and the ultimate punishment, but was never used as such.  Deterrence never works, as it assumes that those contemplating committing a crime consider the consequences, which they don’t. That leaves punishment.  It is depressing but true that sentences of imprisonment are increasing significantly in both length and severity because successive Home Secretaries see this as a vote winner.  How depressing to play politics with people’s lives!  It’s a fact, acknowledged by Gove, that the real punishment of imprisonment is in the first two weeks, the so-called ‘clang of the prison gate’, when a condemned man’s humanity is stripped bare, when he is prodded and pushed and abused by the system which is at breaking point.  That’s the real deterrent, and any sentence beyond the short, sharp shock is an expensive waste of time.

Finally, the use of imprisonment as a sentencing tool also needs to be examined.  Three quarters of all serving prisoners are serving a sentence of two years or less, so why are they there in the first place?  Surely it is not beyond the wit of man to devise a more appropriate punishment within the community.

THE PEN IS MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD

For far too long, our treatment of those convicted of crime has been too dependent on punishment and very little or nothing on rehabilitation. Although we claim to be a civilised country, we have the largest prison population in Europe, an unenviable statistic, where inmates are crammed together in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions with violence and tension bubbling just beneath the surface.

I remember five years’ ago, when David Cameron became Prime Minister, one of the many broken promises he trumpeted aloud during his first days in office was his intention to significantly reduce the prison population, which then stood at 82,000 inmates.  According to the Howard League for Penal Reform, it is now in excess of 86,000.  Some reduction, some promise!!  Why do politicians make these grandiose statements if they don’t keep them?

According to statistics, over 40% of prison inmates are re-offenders, a depressing statistic.  But help is at hand.  Michael Gove, the newly appointed Lord Chancellor, has set about reforming almost everything within his remit with revolutionary zeal, and for the most part, he gets my vote.  One of the reforms he proposes introducing into prison life is the right of inmates to possess as many books as they like (files excluded). Admittedly he had a strong nudge in the right direction by a ruling in the High Court that a ban on books was unlawful, but he has embraced the ethos of Vitruvian Man by treating prisoners as assets, not liabilities.  “Every individual has something to offer,” he said,  “every one of us can earn respect. People who are currently languishing in prison are potential assets to society. They could be productive and contribute.  If we look at them only as problems to be contained we miss the opportunity to transform their lives and to save ourselves and our society both money and pain.”  Wise words indeed.

The 10th May 1933 still sends a shudder down the spine of the heirs to Vitruvian Man, the night on which indoctrinated German students burned thousands of Books in Berlin, egged on by the Nazi Illiterati.  One of the most famous German authors of the time was Helen Keller, and she wrote an open letter to the students:  “History has taught you nothing if you think you can kill ideas. Tyrants have tried to do that often before, and the ideas have risen up in their might and destroyed them.  You can burn my books and the books of the best minds in Europe, but the ideas in them have seeped through a million channels and will continue to quicken other minds.”

We all know that the pen is mightier than the sword, and a better educated prisoner is less likely to re offend.  He is more likely to offer a real prospect in his life outside, and one that will benefit not just him but society as a whole.

I hope Gove will not stop there, as there is so much more he can do with prison reform.  First and foremost, if he is to pay more than lip-service to Cameron’s broken promise, is to significantly reduce the prison population, and this can be achieved, almost overnight, by directing judges not to send so many convicted criminals to prison for even the slightest demeanour.  Since we abolished hanging back in 1964, imprisonment became the sentence of last resort, supposedly the ultimate deterrent.  But it is now used routinely and far too often, with sentences getting longer and longer, and tempting though it may be, we can’t blame the judges.  They are the victims of political gerrymandering as successive governments play to Middle England and their wish to see more and more draconian sentences.  As for Middle England, it’s an unrepresentative class of petty-minded and bigoted individuals with ‘holier than thou’  attitudes and a “throw away the key” mentality. I remember one Middle Englander telling me that if we hanged them, they wouldn’t do it again. Compelling logic if nothing else.

For my part, I deplore these rehearsed  ‘bleeding heart’ speeches by relatives of the victims of crime on the steps of the court.  They know little or nothing about the criminal justice system, they are preyed upon by police officers and social workers who have their own agenda, and it suits all of them to parade their bigotry and prejudices for all to hear. And nobody wants to hear them, nobody could care less.

Most judges administering the criminal justice system have been in practice at the Criminal Bar for at least twenty years, often longer, so they know the system, they know what is right and wrong, what is fair and unfair, so I say to Gove and Middle England, let the judges get on with what they are paid to do, and if they get it wrong, there’s always the Court of Appeal.

So I say to the government, tear up the sentencing guidelines, stop interfering in the judicial process, remember that the judiciary is supposed to be independent of the executive, and above all, stop sending so many offenders to prison.  It doesn’t work, it’s expensive, and in the long run, it’s counter-productive.

HANG ‘EM HIGH

First things first.  Very exciting news.  Following my blog (Jack It In) about the folly of prosecuting journalists involved in alleged misconduct in public office, the good news is that the CPS have taken on board my submissions and will not seek a retrial following the successful appeal of one of the journalists. The bad news is that Ms. Saunders, the misdirected Director of Public Prosecutions, has taken charge of an intensive review of all similar prosecutions in the light of the critical judgment by the Court of Appeal.  She and a team of lawyers will be working through the Easter break to decide whether to proceed with a further eight pending trials.  I can hardly contain my excitement! If I were she, and I am not, I’d take my advice and jack it in, lock stock and barrel.  It is doing her and the CPS no credit whatsoever in trying to argue the unarguable, and with a total bill to date of £20 million, time to cut and run.

As the countdown to the General Election gathers pace (yawn yawn), the two main parties vie with each other over crime and punishment. It is a sad reality that so-called right minded people, also known as middle England, see successive governments as soft on crime, and demand ever more draconian measures to punish offenders.  It is also a sad reality that rehabilitation is a dirty word, as it is akin to going soft on crime, and is definitely not a vote winner.

The statistics are instructive. When this coalition government was cobbled together in May 2010, the prisons were grossly overcrowded, with a total of 85600 prisoners serving  custodial sentences.  The coalition government undertook to reduce the prison population to save costs, and 80000 was the primary target.

There are essentially two obvious ways to achieve this objective: the first is to send fewer people to prison, and the second is to release them under licence into the community once they have served the custodial element of their sentence. Neither is working, as the prison population is as high as ever.  All the problems associated with overcrowding are still with us, and still middle England bays for blood, or at least longer and longer custodial sentences.

My old chum Harry Woolf, the former Lord Chief Justice and now Lord Woolf of Barnes, is scathing about successive governments and their refusal to tackle these problems.  He is reported as saying: “Most politicians believe there are no votes in prisons and mistakenly think there are votes in being toughest on crime.”

It is worth remembering that a civilised society is judged by the way it treats its most disadvantaged citizens.  Overcrowding, poor hygiene, lack of facilities, violence, little or no rehabilitation and more, all combine to create a flawed system where the rate of re-offending is frighteningly high, and so it goes on, a self-perpetuating shambles which, according to Lord Woolf, no politician wants to address.