Whether there are too many people sent to prison can be debated, but that there are too many people in prison for the system to manage decently is generally agreed. Little by way of improvement in conditions for staff and prisoners can be achieved while this remains the case. It is not a new understanding and has been regularly argued by penal reformers and chief inspectors of prisons for many a long year.
More recently, with rising numbers of deaths of prisoners and incidents of violence, the topic has achieved greater urgency. Fatalism, though, rules the day and little is done. The issue is closed off by fear that the press will hound liberally minded politicians, while the belief that the judiciary must be free to pass sentence, within the limits set by parliament, is sacrosanct. Building more prisons might be a solution, except the expense is substantial and seemingly as fast as they are built they are filled. The result is stalemate. Neither sending fewer people to prison nor reducing sentence lengths is regarded as feasible.
But perhaps there is a way forward?
Banks are secure buildings too. Yet key to their success is that they do not keep all of their customers' deposits in their vaults. A proportion is held sufficient to meet daily demands for cash. The rest is released, on suitable terms, to be employed more usefully. The proportion of deposits held is low. I believe around 10 per cent. Northern Rock excepted, anxiety amongst depositors is minimal, and branch closures are a regular occurrence, as new ways of handling money evolve.
Obviously, to propose reducing the prison population to 10 per cent of its current level and closing prisons would be viewed as ambitious if not absurd. But there seems no good reason why the population should not be substantially reduced on the same basis as banks treat their deposits. The Ministry of Justice has invested substantial sums in recent times in developments that amount to the equivalent of banking diligence: risk assessment tools and electronic monitoring.
These days we can have a reasonable idea who are the prisoners likely to be reconvicted within a specified period. Meanwhile, developments in electronic monitoring offer the possibility that those in the community can be tracked with some accuracy. Releasing, subject to recall, the 20 per cent least risky prisoners more or less immediately upon sentence, would free up space rapidly. Applying this formula to the current population would see a reduction of around 16,000 with potentially dramatic effects on over-crowding and its evils.
Providing services prisoners need
The approach would free resources to provide the services that the remaining prisoners need in order to have some chance of returning to the community and avoid future involvement with the criminal justice system. There need be no redundancies as it is acknowledged that services within the prison barely function now as staff are so overstretched. Staff who wished could work in the community providing oversight of those on licence, who would still be prisoners and could be recalled, if giving cause for concern, until their official release date.
Importantly, the proposal does not involve interfering with the discretion of the judiciary. They would remain free to pass whatever sentence they deemed the offence and law-breaker deserved. The difference now would be that how much of that time required the occupation of precious prison space would be determined by a risk assessment immediately upon reception at the prison.
If local authorities were handed the responsibility for prisons, with the understanding that the land and buildings were theirs to be used as they thought fit, a decline in numbers and an acceleration in prison closures would soon occur. It has been noted before that the cost of imprisonment to the public is too easily concealed behind its funding out of general rather than local taxation, while the fact that this costly provision can be dispensed by the judiciary with no financial constraint hardly encourages parsimony.
Ultimately as people see that a smaller prison population can be achieved with little appreciable risk to the public, work on reducing prison numbers further with corresponding benefits for all concerned could be accelerated.
To those that argue that the proposal is unfair and not what the public expects, the reply would be that we punish people by drawing attention publicly to their misdeeds and placing restraint upon them for the period deemed appropriate. That will remain the case. The restraint will not be so intense for some, it is true, but this is already so. Prison regimes vary widely from maximum security to open conditions. Release arrives at very different times too as risk status correlates highly with social advantage.
Nothing in these proposals is new. The technology and knowledge exists and at some level is practiced already. What is lacking is a framework within which to view their more purposeful implementation. For those on both the left and right the ideas derived from banking could provide the necessary impetus to downsize, stop building and ultimately transform.
Chris Hignett is a former probation officer who worked in London