High prison numbers: Are sentencers to blame?

Helen Mills suggests that a broader perspective is needed when tackling increasing prison numbers

By: 
Helen Mills
Date: 
Wednesday, 23 March, 2016

Since his appointment in May, several predictions have been made about the kind of Justice Secretary Michael Gove will be. Expanding the role for the private sector in delivering criminal justice services, working within the confines of reduced financial resources, and his beliefs about redemption have all been cited as important influences for his tenure at the Ministry of Justice. Might, some have questioned, a combination of the latter two factors put addressing high prison numbers back on the table?

Gove’s responses to the Justice Select Committee last week end any such speculation. Whilst Gove signalled a desire to see a smaller prison population in the longer term, he was clear this was not something he would be prioritising now. Repeatedly asked about high prison numbers in England and Wales, Gove gave various iterations of ‘we’ll get to that later’. Judges, said Gove, make decisions (about prison) in each individual case. And it is not for him to ‘massage figures down.’ Lord Faulks, responding to a question about prison numbers the day before, similarly remarked:

If judges feel it is appropriate to sentence offenders to particular sentences, it is not for the Government to reduce those sentences simply to make the figures balance.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that, at a time when his focus is on introducing greater autonomy for prison governors, devising new metrics for comparing prison performance, and reconfiguring a cheaper (but not necessarily smaller) prison estate, the Justice Secretary is choosing to distance himself from prison numbers altogether.

It makes political sense. It doesn’t leave him or the reforms he champions, open to being accused of being soft on crime or on the side of offenders. At the same time it may satisfy some of those concerned about the numbers we imprison that at least a prison population of over 85,000 isn’t a badge of honour (unlike his predecessor).

That sentencers send people to prison also has an undeniable cause and effect logic. But saying our high prison numbers are a direct result of sentencing decisions is like saying earthquakes happen because the ground shakes; it is more a description of related events rather than one being an explanation of the other.

If there has been a move to more severe sentences, what has caused this? Such a change can’t have taken place in a vacuum. Prison numbers are never simply about sentencing or judges' decisions. As myself and my colleague Rebecca Roberts have explored in this report, there is something about the way societies are structured, and specifically the way they create, view and respond to lawbreaking and those at the margins, that is fundamental to understanding the numbers we imprison. This is demonstrated in research showing countries with higher levels of economic inequality tend to also have larger prison populations. And that more economically equal societies tend to rely on prison much less. As well as this study showing that prison populations tend to rise as social safety nets are reduced.

The prison population in England and Wales has approximately doubled in the last 25 years. I don’t deny sentences have got ‘tougher’ over this period. But this ‘toughness’ took place within a wider social context. Limiting discussion about this radically larger prison population to a conversation about sentencing policy, may optimistically, chart a course of adjusting numbers in prison by a few thousands. At best it would leave unaddressed the dramatic rise in prison over a generation. At worst, changes to sentencing policy, particularly investing in ‘more and better’ community sentences as an alternative to custody, risk expanding the size and scope of criminal justice in response to a range of social problems it is ill-suited to deal with, with little discernible effect on high prison populations. As our forthcoming work with the European Prion Observatory will show, a long-term trend of continued prison growth alongside increases in the number of community sentences has been the case for several countries in Europe.

Answers to our current reliance on prison won’t be found on a terrain concerned only with sentencing policy. We need to ask how we got here. The future prison population will depend on lots of things beyond the scope of judges’ sentencing decisions. Our continued high reliance on imprisonment should be causing us to ask questions about the kind of society we want to live in and the role of prison within it. Considering what can be done to intervene in penal excess requires thinking across a broader spectrum than sentencing as a ‘fix’ for prison numbers. It requires moving beyond the concerns of current policy agendas to incorporate a broader perspective about the social and economic circumstances and arrangements which might provide lasting gains regarding tackling prison numbers qualitatively different from those of a generation ago.


Helen Mills is Reseach Associate at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies.