Prisons with a reforming purpose

Article for ConservativeHome

The BBC's ‘Criminal Justice' drama depicts bullying and violence in prisons.  Channel 5's ‘Banged Up' sees David Blunkett in a mock jail, lamenting his failure to invest in turning around young offenders' lives.  When prisons are the subject of prime time drama and reality TV in a single week, you know something is up.

Labour's overcrowded prisons, awash with drugs, aren't working.  Reconviction rates have risen and the Government is releasing 30,000 offenders early in a single year.  No potential government could afford to ignore this crisis.  But for modern Conservatives, prison reform isn't just a necessity of political management.  It's a vital component of an ambitious crime agenda that aims to mend each broken link in the chain of our criminal justice system.  So, in March, David Cameron and I outlined our plans for radical reform to create ‘Prisons with a Purpose'.

Prisons are needed to punish and incapacitate serious and repeat offenders, and deter others. That's why this week we've said that anyone caught carrying a knife in public should expect to go to jail.  But no criminal justice policy can rely simply on catching more offenders and incarcerating them for longer.  Prisons must also rehabilitate offenders.  Our aim should be for criminals to emerge the other side of jail less likely to offend again.

The precondition of reform is ensuring adequate capacity, because no effective rehabilitation can take place in overcrowded jails.  That's why we are committed to creating 5,000 additional prison places explicitly to reduce overcrowding and take pressure off the system.  We will redevelop the estate so that new capacity is built in small, local jails, where prisoners can receive more effective rehabilitation, and be held closer to their families and the communities to which they will return.

But our plans go far beyond the logistics of prison capacity.  The current system needs fundamental structural reform.  Currently two-thirds of prisoners will be reconvicted within two years of release.  Simply put, re-offending has not been reduced because it is nobody's job to reduce it.  We will create accountability by transforming prisons into Prison and Rehabilitation Trusts and paying them by results, awarding a premium if they prevent prisoners from re-offending.

The cost to society of re-offending by ex-prisoners alone is a staggering £11 billion a year.  Analogous to the Party's welfare to work proposals, we will effectively take money currently spent on failure - in this case reconvicting and re-incarcerating a prisoner who re-offends - and use it to change behaviour and reward success.  Our ‘Rehabilitation Revolution' will unlock huge sums which can be invested in programmes to help offenders go straight.  And by reducing re-offending, we will reduce the prison population over the long-term in the only acceptable way: by making sure there are fewer criminals committing fewer crimes.

A common theme of Conservative reforms will be the devolution of power.  The Prison Service is one of the most centralised agencies of government, fostering a culture that stifles innovation and locking out the private and voluntary sectors who have so much expertise in the rehabilitation of prisoners.

We will give much more power and responsibility to prison governors, who will - following another key theme of our reforms - be able to contract with the private and voluntary sectors to run rehabilitation programmes, both inside the prison and out.

Prisons should be places of education, hard work, rehabilitation and restoration.  In place of the depressing warehousing of prisoners, we will create purposeful regimes, free of drugs, where prisoners are made to work and learn skills to make them more employable, as well as contributing into a Victims' Fund to make reparation for their crimes.  And under our sentencing reforms, prisoners will earn their release rather than being released early automatically, giving them a new incentive to comply with restorative regimes.

Our reforms will be the first systematic attempt by any Western country to put rehabilitation at the heart of penal policy, with incentives and responsibilities aligned to focus every agent in the system on the same goal.  They follow in the noble tradition of Jeremy Howard and Elizabeth Fry, reformers whose efforts helped shape the penal institutions of their day, when Britain truly was a pioneer in the field of prison reform.

Deep and sustained reductions in crime will only occur if we match effective social action with a criminal justice system which performs better as a whole.  Our prisons agenda demonstrates a radicalism which can also be seen in our policies to enhance the accountability of the police, electing police commissioners and giving the public a right to information through crime mapping.

In stark contrast, the Government's panic-driven attempts to prevent the judiciary from handing down short term prison sentences - as we see again today - are both wrong in principle and damaging to public confidence in the criminal justice system.  Today it is the modern Conservatives who are leading the battle of ideas, with the determination and vision to make Britain a safer place. 


Document type

Articles

Published

9 July 2009

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