The proposals for early release for some prisoners into community service are welcome. It is a sensible and necessary response to the very serious problems of overcrowding in our prison system. Many of our prisons are running at levels of occupancy very far above what is considered by the Inspector of Prisons to be safe limits. Overcrowding also has a major impact on the services which can be implemented in any prison – it affects rehabilitation services, education programmes and puts a strain on all aspects of the regime. So it is essential that the Government does something to tackle the problem, a problem which has been developing over the last decade at least.
These proposals it can only be one part of an overall strategy. It is very important that we divert people who do not need to be in prison before they get there and the Government’s introduction of legislation to divert fine defaulters and to increase the use of community service orders is most significant and more cost effective than prison. We also need to reconsider aspects of our sentencing policy and to think carefully about what to do with those addicted to drugs and those who are mentally ill who end up in our prison system. The review group set up to look at Thornton Hall said we need a strategic review of prison policy and this is both necessary and urgent. The number of prisoners in our system is at its highest ever and both short and long sentences have been increasing.
However, in the interim and while waiting for these to take effect, a proposal to release carefully selected prisoners who would be suitable to do work in the community is a welcome one. Allows people to pay something back to the community instead of the huge cost spent on imprisoning a person and gives the system some breathing space.
There is understandable concern whenever prisoners are not serving the sentence imposed by the courts. This course of action is necessary because the levels of overcrowding have reached levels which can no longer be tolerated. The problem is now very serious with the number of people being sent to prison at its highest ever and the number of people receiving longer sentences increasing. It is not a proposal, I am sure which has been made lightly but because of these serious challenges.
With regard to selection, no system can be fail safe, but with the input of professionals, psychologists, prison staff and so on, the risk to the community is much reduced. The vast majority of all prisoners are going to be released at some time into the future anyway so the decision is simply being made a little earlier for some. There may, for example, be cases where a person’s conviction related to their addition to drugs and that might have been resolved by them while in prison, with further benefit to be gained through release. What is essential however, is that for this proposal to work is properly resourced programmes within prison to facilitate rehabilitation and proper supports upon release through the Probation Service. This proposal has the potential to be far better than unsupervised, unstructured release back into the community and will also enable there to be some element of pay back to the community.
In addition, there is another aspect to this: the potential for beneficial effects to arise out of reducing overcrowding. Overcrowded prisons are not ideal places in which to facilitate change and rehabilitation. Even in the US which has some of the highest prison rates in the world it has now been accepted by a number of States and the US Supreme Court in the Plata decision that reducing overcrowding may actually improve public safety because prisoners in overcrowded conditions do worse and may pose a greater risk of reoffending on release. Overall, these proposals are sensible, but can be only one element of a multi-faceted solution to a multi-faceted problem.