Now that Theresa May is on her way out of Downing Street, it is inevitable that the country is going to hear much more from Boris Johnson on all kinds of issues as he vies to be Prime Minister.
Days before May’s resignation, he was already sharing his views on Britain’s “soft” prisons and justice system. He decried parole boards as “slaves to political correctness” and accused them of taking risks with public safety.
“It is becoming more and more regular for prisoners to be let out early – even when they have been convicted of the most serious and violent crimes,” he tweeted. “People must feel safe on our streets and that punishment fits the crimes. People must have faith in the criminal justice system.”
His indignation was triggered by pictures of drug dealer Luke Jewitt, who was allowed out of jail mid-way through a nine-year sentence and was photographed on a visit to a spa. There was nothing unusual about this because it is standard practice for most sentences to be served half in prison and half under licence in the community.
Jewitt’s treatment is an example of how the system works and, according to Michael Spurr, who until March was head of the prisons service, the system is anything but soft. Delivering the 17th Tyburn Lecture at Tyburn Convent in London last week, Spurr (pictured) told his audience that Britain’s prison population of 82,000 people was not only the highest in Europe but was growing. It has surged sixfold since the 1950s and now there were “more people serving time in prison for very serious offences than we had 25 years ago”.
Inmates were also serving longer for serious crimes than at any time since the Second World War, with tariffs for life sentences rising from a minimum of 12 years three decades ago to more than 20 years today.
In the last decade such growth in the prison population has corresponded with huge pressure on the service, which has been compounded by austerity-era prison closures and understaffing, with 10,000 jobs lost between 2012 and 2015, and appalling over-crowding.
Prison life has grown more terrible as a result. Assaults on prisoners and staff have increased dramatically and drug abuse is commonplace. More than one in every thousand prisoners commits suicide each year, while one in four female inmates self-harm.
In the community, meanwhile, 250,000 people are on probation, an increase of 40,000 in just a few years – but with no extra Government funding.
The service is over-stretched, yet politicians fear “getting it wrong” on crime and punishment. This is fuelled perhaps by a sense among the public that they are not safe, that their lives are not protected and that violent crime, in particular, is out of control. At present, knife crime and the terror threat most vividly underpin such insecurities, while a decade ago there was hysteria over the release of paedophiles that gave rise to attacks from lynch mobs and vigilantes.
Spurr dates the first major politicising of crime and punishment, however, to shock at the murder of the toddler Jamie Bulger in 1993 by two boys who were just 10 at the time. Amid the soul-searching, home secretary Michael Howard pledged to deal robustly with violent offenders. The future prime minister Tony Blair, meanwhile, vowed to be “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”.
Certainly, there is statistical evidence to show that the country is indeed tough on crime when it is serious, since the prison population has doubled since the 1990s, and some sentences are “indeterminate”. Yet it is a cause of concern that comparatively minor offences, such as drug-taking, which may be a major factor in gangland murders and some terrorist offences, go largely unpunished.
Sociologists would agree that the causes of crime are many and complex, but surely cultural changes such as rampant individualism, the flight from responsibility in marriage and child-rearing, and the loss of a common sense of morality must be significant and ought to be taken seriously.
Indeed, the crucial role of the family not only in preventing crime but also in rehabilitating offenders was recognised in a report by Lord Farmer in 2017, opening the door to imaginative ways of lowering the prison population.
Church leaders, who have different motivations from politicians, are particularly keen on such initiatives. In 2018, Bishop Richard Moth of Arundel and Brighton launched a report called “A Journey of Hope” to explore how sentencing policy in England and Wales could be reformed. It called for victims to be placed at the heart of the criminal justice system while also setting out a case for reducing the prison population.
When the Government later announced that jail sentences of fewer than six months would be abolished, the bishop was delighted. He noted that “while this move might not be politically popular, it is certainly the right thing to do”.
But for any prison reforms to work surely society must be willing to change too. Soon there may not be a choice. In order to continue jailing criminals at the present rate a lot more prisons would have to be built and staffed. Whatever tough and trite statements come from our most ambitious politicians, this is hardly likely to happen.
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