Last week I visited Brixton prison - a local jail, mostly for remand prisoners, built in 1819. Prisons like this represented the cutting edge of contemporary design in their day. Today, the conditions are little short of shocking. Space is limited, there are no workshops and only a quarter of the inmates are engaged in any purposeful activity at all.
The current state of our prisons, and the Government's management of them, is a national disgrace.
A Victorian wing of Norwich prison was closed down last month by health and safety inspectors because sewage was leaking from broken drainage pipes.
Prison vans are arriving late at night to drop off remand prisoners from courts hundreds of miles away, because there were no spare cells anywhere closer. And then the same prisoners are being transported all the way back to court again in the morning for trial.
Some 17,000 prisoners are doubling up in cells - twice as many as when the current Government came to power. More than 1,000 cells designed for two people are occupied by three. That means that nearly a quarter of the entire prison population is housed in cells designed for one fewer person.
Last Friday, the jail population in England and Wales stood at 81,454, with 197 locked in police cells. This is just 93 below the all-time high recorded a week ago, and only 300 short of capacity.
In the last few months there has been no shortage of warnings about the scale of the crisis. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor has said "the system is stretched to breaking point". On Friday the previous Lord Chief Justice, Lord Woolf, said "we are in a "critical situation." And putting it more bluntly, the current Lord Chief Justice, Lord Phillips, said the week before, "we simply cannot go on like this". I agree.
Ignoring the warnings
The reason why the prisons are full is that the Government, not least the Lord Chancellor, repeatedly ignored warnings that more capacity would be needed. As long ago as 1992, in his report on the Strangeways riot, Lord Woolf warned that the prison population would double from 44,000 to well above current levels by next year, 2008.
In 2000, when the current Lord Chancellor was Home Secretary, his officials predicted that the prison population would be at current levels by this year. Two years later, the lowest Home Office projection for the prison population today was 5,000 above the current capacity. The Government were told that greater capacity was needed, and they simply ignored the projections.
Their great claim is to have provided another 20,000 prison places. This is disgraceful spin. Not only does this figure ignore the fact that 3,000 of the ‘new' places are actually from doubling up, it is also an attempt to rewrite history. Only three new prisons in the past 10 years were commissioned by the Labour Government; the rest were commissioned by the previous Conservative Administration. In the year when the Government came to power, the number of new prison places was 4,716. By 2005, the number of new places had fallen to 940. During the current Lord Chancellor's previous watch, prison capacity building fell by 86 per cent over three years.
The Government also tells us that they are providing an additional 9,500 prison places by 2012, but on their own projections, that will not be enough. Total capacity will still be 4,000 places short of their medium projection for the prison population by that time, and all this assumes that prisons will still be full to the gunnels, with prisoners continuing to be doubled up. As Harry Fletcher of the National Association of Probation Officers has said:
"They've had eight, nine years and really done nothing .... There's been no substantial building programme and no provision for probation."
It is now clear that the Government has no intention of meeting the demand for prison places. Instead, last week, the Lord Chancellor told the Howard League for Penal Reform:
"We are at a significant juncture in the future of the prisons system, not just in a day-to-day operational sense, but for the longer-term function and purpose of prison."
His signal was unmistakeable: the Government has chosen to manage the prison population downwards. The premise is that there are lots of criminals in prison unnecessarily, and the way to tackle overcrowding and free up space is not to send them there in the first place by making much greater use of community sentences. So let us examine this thesis.
Who is sent to prison?
When this Government came to office, the prison population of England & Wales was 61,000. The population has risen consistently over the last decade - rising by more than 20,000.
This rise has been partly caused by changes in sentencing which have seen an increase in average sentence lengths passed by both judges and magistrates, and an increase in the custody rate. Legislative changes most notably in 1998 and 2003 have also played a part.
The Howard League points out that
"About 78 per cent of people sentenced to immediate custody in 2003 had committed non-violent offences (i.e. offences that did not involve violence, sex or robbery)."
This might be taken to mean that prisons are full of largely non-violent offenders, but this is not the case. Magistrates handle over 95 per cent of criminal cases, including motoring offences. However, because the Crown Court has greater sentencing powers and sentences more serious criminals (who are more likely to receive a custodial sentence, and also more likely to receive a longer sentence), its effect on the prison population is far more pronounced.
In 2005, the average custodial sentence in the Crown Court was 26 months - in magistrates' courts the average custodial sentence was only three months. The overwhelming majority of people in prison - as opposed to those sentenced to prison - were not sent there by magistrates and are not serving short sentences. More than a third (38 per cent) of prisoners are serving sentences of over four years, and another third (35 per cent) are serving sentences of between one and four years.
Over 87 per cent of sentenced prisoners are serving sentences of over twelve months (including indeterminate sentences). Only 8 per cent of prisoners are serving sentences of six months or less - the maximum custodial sentence in magistrates' courts.
It has become commonplace to suggest that prison should be reserved for serious, persistent or violent offenders. But already the largest single offence category of prisoners is violent offenders (27 per cent of the prison population) - and this is growing as a proportion of the prison population. At least half the prison population are violent or sexual offenders.
Prison is largely reserved for repeat offenders. Of those receiving an immediate custodial sentence, only one in ten are first time offenders. Most will have committed serious offences. Only 12 per cent of those sentenced to prison have no previous convictions. Over half of those sentenced have five or more previous convictions. Since 2000, the proportion of people coming before magistrates for the first time has fallen by 10 per cent. The number coming before magistrates with more than ten previous convictions has increased by 36 per cent. Given these realities, how are courts meant to deal with persistent offenders other than using custody?
The total number of people receiving custodial (and community punishments) dropped between 2004 and 2005. These sentences only increased as a proportion of disposals because minor offences attracting fines - such as low-level anti-social behaviour - are increasingly dealt with by non-judicial fixed penalty notices.
The prisons crisis is not, therefore, caused by the volume of people receiving short sentences, or the jailing of first time offenders. Prison is largely reserved for serious, violent and persistent offenders. Contrary to popular myth, our prisons simply do not contain vast numbers of non-violent, first-time offenders doing time for licence fee evasion or summary motoring offences.
This is not to deny that there have been upward trends in use of custody and sentence length. These trends have also been a product of public demand for tougher sentences. But such trends may themselves be a product of changes in the nature of offences coming before the courts. As Cindy Barnett, Chair of the Magistrates Association has said: "There is a rise in the seriousness and complexity of cases coming to court."
There are important groups of prisoners that could potentially be dealt with elsewhere. David Davis has already outlined our aim to have secure drug rehabilitation clinics as one alternative to prison for non-violent drug addicts. Severely mentally ill offenders could better be treated in dedicated secure units.
Today's ICM poll highlights public concern about women in prison, who could also better be detained in smaller secure units closer to their families, and not in large jails such as Holloway in London, as the Corston review suggested. But while this issue is an important one, the proportion of prisoners who are women - 5.6 per cent - is relatively low.
A far more significant burden on the system is due to the increase in foreign national prisoners. 11,000 foreign nationals are now in custody - 13.5 per cent of the prison population - and whole prisons are now dedicated to holding this category of prisoner. If Gordon Brown kept his promise to deport foreign national criminals, considerable space would be freed up. But the Government plans to remove only 4,000 such prisoners this year.
But, these groups of prisoners aside, the fact remains - as the Lord Chancellor explained last month - that the rise in the prison population over the last decade is because "there are now 60 per cent more violent and serious offenders in prison than in 1997, representing the bulk of the additional prisoners".
If we are serious about dealing with violent, serious and persistent criminals, the right response to this increase is to accommodate the additional demand. The wrong response is to allow prison numbers to reach crisis point, and then try desperately to reduce them. But this is exactly the course that the Government is taking.
Giving criminals a break
Overcrowding has already driven a string of bad policy decisions. Labour have foreshortened determinate prison sentences by introducing automatic release at the half way point, a policy which amounts to a deliberate dishonesty, damaging the trust which victims and wider society place in the courts, and encouraging criminals to hold the system in contempt.
The Chief Inspector of Prisons, Ann Owers, has warned of the danger of allowing unsuitable prisoners to be transferred early to open prisons. Under the Home Detention Curfew scheme introduced in 1999, more than 4,000 prisoners who were released early have re-offended, committing more than 7,000 crimes. More than 1,000 of those were violent offences, including one murder, 56 woundings and more than 700 assaults.
More recently, the End of Custody Licence scheme - where prisoners are released 18 days before the end of their sentence - will mean 25,000 prisoners released early in a year. The policy is "simply wrong" - not my words, but those of the former Lord Chancellor, just weeks before he announced the scheme. It, too, has undermined public confidence, but will only reduce the prison population by 1,200. We would immediately scrap the scheme, and the Government must not extend it.
The Government has also been trialling the use of residential properties to house offenders on licence - frequently without informing local residents and causing them great distress when they suddenly learn that the semi next door has become a de facto open jail.
Now the Government is planning to go further. Tony Blair at least talked about being tough on crime. Gordon Brown's strategy to reduce prison overcrowding is to give criminals a break.
The Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill, currently in Committee, proposes to remove the right of magistrates to impose suspended sentences, even though suspended sentences are usually given out by magistrates to those who have received every other possible sentence. As one magistrate said:
"How are we supposed to sentence the sixth-time driving while disqualified, or the third-time drink driver? Common Assault is the usual charge in Domestic Violence cases, and that too is summary-only. Take away the deterrence and what do we have?"
The same Bill also plans to restrict the recall period to 28 days. This is the time that an offender has to serve in prison after being recalled for breach of his conditions. The Magistrates' Association has described this proposal as "a licence to re-offend".
The open-ended sentences (Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection) which Tony Blair paraded as a badge of honour are to be restricted. Legislation has already been prepared for Northern Ireland to implement the new rules on indeterminate sentences. Judges would only be able to give an indeterminate sentence where the offence would have carried a fixed term sentence of four or more years. Otherwise, judges will only be able to impose an ‘extended sentence', under which prisoners are automatically released even if they pose a ‘significant risk' of causing ‘death or serious injury' by re-offending.
It has become fashionable to blame IPPs for the prison crisis. There are now over 3,000 such offenders being held on these sentences. But no-one is seriously suggesting that they should not have received a custodial sentence at all. Those prisoners who receive IPPs would otherwise have been given determinate sentences resulting in the same prison time as the minimum tariff received under the IPP - so they would have received a sentence of double the IPP tariff, and the vast majority would still be in custody today. The issue which I believe we need to address in relation to IPPs is not the principle, but the procedures for rehabilitation and the failure of the Government to ensure that offenders can get on the courses necessary for them to be released.
And in an effort to manage down the prison population over the long-term, Jack Straw announced last week that "some method must be found of linking resources to the setting of the sentencing framework." This would represent a profound shift in criminal justice policy, and potentially undermine the principle of consistency in sentencing. Sentences should fit the crime, not jail capacity.
Of course, the effect of Parliament's decisions on the sentencing framework must be understood, because there will be resource implications. I believe that there should be a new, formal mechanism whereby the impact of proposed sentencing changes is assessed by an independent body, so that the Government and Parliament are properly informed about the decisions they take, and to ensure that they understand what resources will be necessary to deliver those changes. But that is entirely different to proposing that sentences should be limited by the resources made available by the Government after the framework is set. Government must accept its responsibility for sentencing policy, not walk away from it or undermine it through administrative incompetence.
The problem with community sentences
In the same way, the case for community sentences must not be driven simply by a desire to deal with prison overcrowding. In his speech to the Howard League last week the Lord Chancellor said that for people currently serving prison sentences of less than twelve months, "community sentences will, in many cases, be a better alternative."
The Government has willed the greater use of community sentences for as long as it has been in office. Four years ago, the then Home Secretary David Blunkett talked about tough community sentences to "reduce the prison population at the lower end". But fettering the discretion of magistrates is another matter entirely, and wrong in principle. Indeed, we have argued for an increase in their powers, so they can, if required send offenders to prison for 12 months, a power in the Criminal Justice Act 2003 which the Government has left unimplemented.
Sentences of six months or less represent the majority of offenders sentenced. Reducing the number of short-term prisoners (those serving less than six months) further would mean weakening 23,000 sentences - or nearly two thirds of all custodial sentences.
A preference for community sentences cannot be an act of faith. In their current form they are usually unsuitable alternatives to imprisonment, not least because they are insufficiently robust. Over the last ten years the number of Community Rehabilitation Orders that have terminated having run their full course has steadily declined. In 1995, 72 per cent of all community orders ran their full course. By 2005 this figure had fallen to 58 per cent.
The Government's flagship Intensive Supervision and Surveillance Programme is officially described as:
"the most rigorous non-custodial intervention available for young offenders .... [I]t combines unprecedented levels of community-based surveillance with a comprehensive and sustained focus on tackling the factors that contribute to the young person's offending behaviour."
Fine words. But the programme has a failure rate of almost 90 per cent.
40 per cent of unpaid work requirements for male offenders are not completed. Research suggests that the attendance rate is no better than 60 per cent. If this is ‘Community Payback', the community is being short-changed.
As Lord Woolf warned on Friday, punishments in the community "only work if they're properly resourced." Yet in an already overstretched probation service, some officers already supervise up to 80 offenders - and the Prisons Minister indicated last week that the numbers will fall further. Placing a bigger burden on the probation service by mandating greater use of community sentences, while simultaneously reducing the level of supervision, is not a credible policy.
The Lord Chancellor is well aware of the limitations of community sentences. In a BBC interview last year, he said:
"I wish it were possible to deal with criminals outside prison, but most people who end up in prison go there because community punishments have failed."
How, then, can he possibly justify his plan to replace the use of imprisonment with community punishments?
If we are to prevent people from being imprisoned we need to focus on making community sentences far more robust. They should have a sufficiently punitive element to command public confidence, for instance by making them visible - something the Government has repeatedly talked about and never delivered. But they should also have a strongly supervised rehabilitative element. New technology may allow more robust semi-custodial sentences to be developed, but these should be a supplement to the sentencing options available to courts, not a substitute for custodial sentences which a court would otherwise wish to impose. In the absence of robust community punishments, prison is - and will remain - the only option for most of the offenders currently sent there.
What is the right size of prison population?
There's a new popular analogy about, which suggests that building more prisons is like motorway widening - it doesn't work. You spend a lot of money on construction, more cars arrive and you get congestion again.
Whether or not this is true of road-building, it's not a sensible analogy to apply to prisons. Building more roads makes travelling by car more convenient and so stimulates demand. By contrast, there's no reason to believe that providing prison places make the courts keener to send criminals into custody. Nor does it stimulate the supply of criminals - clearly it does the exact opposite.
An even sillier argument is, I regret to say, being advanced by the Lord Chancellor, and it does him little credit. He raises the spectre of US levels of imprisonment on our shores, resulting in the simply ludicrous projection of 400,000 people being incarcerated here.
The much quoted statistic about our own prison population - currently about 148 prisoners per 100,000 population - tells us nothing about what the ‘correct' level of incarceration should be.
There is no correct level of imprisonment. A prison population is partly the consequence of the crime rate, and Britain is a high crime country. Compared to the number of prisoners to recorded offences, we are below the developed-world average for prisoner numbers.
What the UK figure per head of population really tells us is how far we have to go before we get anywhere near US levels of incarceration of nearly 740 per 100,000. No one is seriously proposing to go there, and to suggest otherwise really is to set up - appropriately - a Straw Man.
A new approach
The Government's first duty is to protect the public, and that duty requires it to provide adequate prison capacity. But prison has a number of purposes, not just to punish, deter and incapacitate offenders, but also to rehabilitate them. It cannot punish or deter effectively if sentences are foreshortened. But it is in respect of rehabilitation that prisons are failing most.
Nearly one fifth of prisoners have been convicted of drugs offences, and drug use is rife in prisons. A 2005 Home Office study found that a quarter of prisoners said they had used drugs whilst in their current prison in the past month.
Half of prisoners are at or below the level expected of an 11 year old in reading, two thirds in numeracy and more than three quarters in writing.
Many will leave no better prepared for outside world. The Social Exclusion Unit found that only one in five prisoners were able to complete a job application.
The current prisons system is simply not equipped to deal with the scale of these challenges. Short sentences in overcrowded jails with little provision of rehabilitation programmes provide little or no opportunity to reform offenders.
The need for adequate capacity
The first issue is capacity. As the Prison Service Annual Report says:
"Crowding ... dilutes the resource available for constructive activity. High throughput and frequent daily movement impact directly on regime delivery by diverting staff resources and making it more difficult to assess prisoners and allocate them to appropriate interventions."
Overcrowding puts intense pressure on prison management and disrupts the smooth-running of prison regimes. Prison overcrowding leads to ‘churn' - where strain in the system due to high levels of occupancy causes a regular process of shifting prisoners between facilities, interrupting any training programme they might have been on. And far too often health and education records and sentence plan documents do not follow the prisoner. Overcrowding also puts a huge strain on staff. The number of prison officers has risen at only half the rate of the increase in the prison population.
In July, the Chief Inspector linked prison overcrowding with a rise in prison suicides, which have risen from 68 in the whole of 2006 to 81 so far this year. The vast majority of prison suicides occur in overcrowded prisons and inmates in overcrowded prisons are twice as likely as those in uncrowded prisons to take their own lives, suggesting that as many as 4 out of every 10 prison suicides could be avoided if prisons were not overcrowded.
The lack of purposeful activity
The second issue is the lack of purposeful activity in prisons. They should be more than human warehouses: they should be places of education, hard work, rehabilitation and restoration. But prisoners in public sector jails spend on average 26 hours a week on purposeful activity - less than the Government's (very modest) target of four hours per day. Such ‘purposeful activity' can fall a long way short of the education, training and work programmes which are needed to rehabilitate offenders. The Government's spending on educational and rehabilitation programmes in prisons next year will be £170 million, less than 10 per cent of the prisons budget. Victor Hugo said that "he who opens a school door, closes a prison". A focus on extending educational opportunity is as important in our jails as outside in the drive to tackle crime.
Prisons for the 21st Century
The third - and related - issue is the age and condition of prisons. Of the 141 prisons in England & Wales, more than 30 are over 100 years old, and almost one in six are more than 150 years old.
When discussing prison reform, we have to ask fundamental questions, just as the Victorians asked the same questions. Are our prisons the right size with the space and layout to deliver effective rehabilitation programmes? If not, improved prison regimes better suited to rehabilitation should also stem from new prison design.
The Victorian prisons were built around the need for new forms of regimes which were aimed at reforming the character as well as holding criminals securely. Working in prisons was the most advanced form of public service (rather like the police from 1829). Jeremy Bentham, John Howard, Elizabeth Fry - these were the most progressive thinkers of their day. All of them were pioneers in the field of prison reform.
We need to see a similar revival of public interest in creating effective penal regimes today and encourage those civic and business entrepreneurs with vision and experience to enter this debate. Hilary Cottam's proposals for a revolution in prison design are an inspirational attempt to re-think prisons that have a holistic approach to the offender, going beyond containment and control.
Prisons would be designed around reducing recidivism. Safety and security should remain paramount, but prisons could look very different. They would embody a recognition that the majority of prisoners are deeply dysfunctional individuals with chaotic backgrounds. Most of them are young men who go off the rails early in their lives - growing up without fathers, excluded from school, taking drugs, joining gangs - who need firm but fair assistance and focused attention to help them take some control of their own lives and learn responsibility.
In 2003, over one third of the prison population were held over 50 miles from their committal court town and 12,500 were held over 100 miles away. Smaller, local secure units would provide better opportunities for re-settlement and reduce the extensive amount of travel between prisons. Building courts attached to new prisons would reduce delays and inefficiencies, as already happens in Canada. Special secure units could get prisoners off drugs and treat mentally-ill offenders.
The Lord Chief Justice has spoken of the high cost of imprisonment, and we must be acutely aware of this. The cost of keeping a criminal in jail is now estimated to be more than £49,000 a year. But simply counting the cost of incarceration allows us to make no judgement at all on its value. Nor can the figure sensibly be viewed in isolation.
The cost of re-offending, borne by the criminal justice system and society more broadly, is immense. In 2002 Tony Blair's Social Exclusion Unit said that the cost to the criminal justice system of dealing with the recorded crimes committed by ex-prisoners was "staggering and widely felt", estimating it as at least £11 billion a year. As re-offending rates have since risen, the value today is likely to be even higher.
Re-offending rates have soared under the current Government, from 57 per cent in 1998 to 65 per cent in 2004. If, through improved prison-based rehabilitation and post-release supervision, we can reduce recidivism to the levels inherited by Labour, this would yield annual savings of around £1.4 billion in the criminal justice system, in addition to the wider savings for society from reduced crime. Reaching the far lower reconviction rates in the 30-40 per cent range, as the smaller prisons in Holland achieve, would produce even greater savings.
We could also make savings if we look to redevelopment of the prison estate, unlocking the land value of some of our biggest, oldest and least suitable prisons. Policy Exchange's research has shown that there is huge potential for remodelling the current prison estate and selling off some of the oldest Victorian prisons in inner city, high value locations, either building on a new site or rebuilding on the same site (with a smaller footprint) a modern prison that is cheaper to maintain. Six years ago the Carter Report called for such change, but nothing has happened.
Carter proposed building large super-prisons, but this is the wrong approach. We need to look at small, local prisons where the planning obstacles would be fewer and there would be more realistic availability of land. Our Prisons Review, to which I will refer, is currently considering these options. I am determined to pursue a redevelopment policy wherever it is feasible.
Government incompetence has wasted billions of pounds that could have been invested in prison accommodation and rehabilitation programmes. Its offender management strategy has been an expensive failure. The National Offender Management Service, soon effectively to be scrapped, has absorbed hundreds of millions of pounds in a wasteful bureaucracy. The shelving of C-NOMIS, which has already cost £155 million, will undermine the central purpose of NOMS - to co-ordinate the ‘end-to-end management of offenders'.
Since last October at least £29 million has been spent on Operation Safeguard to use police cells for emergency prison accommodation - enough to build a jail for over 250 prisoners. The use of every court cell is more expensive than a superior room at the Ritz. The prison ship Weare, was bought by the Home Office for £3.7 million, sold off at loss, and another one is expected to be purchased again.
So there could not be a better time to re-think the prison agenda. Penal reform is a key component of our mission to make Britain a safer society, which is why in July David Cameron asked me to lead a Review to look at all these issues. I am fortunate to be working closely with Edward Garnier, the Shadow Prisons Minister, who sits as a part time judge and has seen the criminal justice system operate at first hand. He has visited 30 prisons, YOIs and Secure Training Centres throughout the country and has built a deep knowledge of these issues.
I have divided the Review into working groups across four main themes.
The first working group, led by Lord Kingsland, is looking at sentencing. It is developing policies to restore honesty in sentencing in order to reassure victims - and send a clear message to criminals. It is exploring ways in which judges could hand down minimum as well as maximum sentences, with no possibility of parole until the minimum has been served. This group is also looking at the role, effectiveness and potential of non-custodial and semi-custodial sentences, the role of restorative justice, and the role of the Sentencing Guidelines Council.
Working in partnership with the sentencing team, the prison capacity and estate working group, is led by Edward Garnier MP. This group is looking into the management of the national prison estate - how many prison places we are going to need, where they should be, and how we will plan for them. It is considering issues of prison redevelopment and redesign with a focus on international examples of best practice.
The third working group, led by David Burrowes MP, is looking at ways to reform how prisons are run, with a far greater emphasis on education, training and work to reduce reconviction rates. It is considering the most effective prison regimes and rehabilitative programmes for reducing re-offending - gained from international experience. It is examining the role of community, faith and voluntary organisations within the prison system and investigating the quality and scope of drug, alcohol and mental health provision in custody.
Henry Bellingham MP is leading the fourth working group looking at life after prison. It is analyzing ways to improve the support networks for released offenders, enhancing their ability to choose to lead productive lives after release. It is also covering the issues of probation and post-release supervision and will be recommending ways to improve the monitoring of all, especially dangerous, offenders.
One purpose of this speech today is to let you all know what we are working on, and to invite submissions. I am intensely interested in what is happening in our prisons and, as well as visiting as many as we can over the next few months, our Review teams have been thinking hard about these issues and trying to meet with as many experts and outside groups as possible. We welcome all input and particularly value the insights of those who work or have spent time in our prison system - including ex-offenders.
As David Cameron has said, driving down crimes requires a multi-dimensional approach. We need to strengthen families to make society more responsible and we need more effective, accountable policing to better detect and deter crime.
But we also need the penal system to do its job properly, both when criminals are imprisoned and then when they are released back into our communities.
To date, the debate on prisons has been unhelpfully polarised. At one end, people say we should lock offenders up and effectively throw away the key. That is plainly wrong. At the other, people say that we should reduce the prison population through far more use of community sentences, regardless of their effectiveness. That is wrong, too. Prison is already largely reserved for serious, violent and persistent offenders. You do not cut crime by cutting the prison population. You cut the prison population by cutting crime. So the immediate goal should be to reduce the reconviction rate, not the prison population.
(I discount the views of Mark Oaten MP who said that prison should be abolished altogether: it is the prerogative of the Liberal Democrats to advance barmy policy ideas every so often, and it is important that they should continue to do so.)
I am arguing for a new approach, one which accepts the role of prison in dealing with crime in an increasingly violent society, but also recognises that the current prison system isn't working.
I want to see the most fundamental shake-up of prisons for two centuries, one in which we renew and re-organise the estate, fundamentally re-assess what prisons are doing, and place an absolutely determined new emphasis on rehabilitation. Our goal, to use a phrase coined by my colleague Edward Garnier, must be prisons with a purpose.
The Government's approach to prisons is bankrupt. It is the Conservatives who have the vision, radicalism and determination to drive penal reform for the 21st Century, to break the cycle of re-offending and make Britain a safer place.