The Centre's Director, Phil Bowen, responds to the announcement of measures to tackle the acute population pressures in adult male prisons in England and Wales, reflecting on a similar crisis in 2007.
History does not repeat itself…
…but it rhymes, and last week’s prisons announcement had unwelcome echoes of a similar crisis in 2007. That summer, I was part of a Home Office team which watched the number of prison places and the number of prisoners dance daily toward and away from each other over the course of months. Every day, we were left thinking that the next morning would be when the prisons were finally full. With the daily numbers plastered over our office walls, we tried to devise short term fixes to get out of prison capacity problems of the mid-2000s.
Ultimately, like we saw last week, the Government was forced into an early release scheme to alleviate some of the pressure. So, it is no surprise that last week’s early release sounded some familiar notes: political anxiety about the media backlash and a likely sense of buyer’s remorse; an internal debate swinging between loosening criteria to let more people out followed by contrary tightening for public safety; and a worry that, inevitably, some of those released will cause harm to others.
There are aspects of last week’s announcement that are substantially different to fifteen years ago. There is a darker backdrop— a Crown Courts backlog that remains persistent and a probation service struggling to keep its head above water. But there are points of light too— the Lord announced his intention to legislate for a presumption against sending people to short prison sentences and his desire to do something on sentences of Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP). This is perhaps, and hopefully, the greatest dissonance between 2007 and 2023. In 2007, once the crisis abated, there was no fundamental reappraisal of the broad structures of justice policy. Avoiding such a re-examination in 2023 may be impossible. Last week, the BBC Radio 4 programme, the Moral Maze, held an episode about prison reform that included voices from traditionalists, retributivists, progressives and abolitionists. While their solutions could not have been more different, they did all agree that the current system is broken.
If that consensus holds, it may help prepare the ground for change. So, what would a re-examination look like? I, for one, am constitutionally sceptical that the answers will only be found in Whitehall or by placing new laws on the statute book. So one place to look for inspiration may be in our youth system- without the need for all encompassing new legislation or radical new top-down policy thinking, our localised, innovative (and better resourced) youth justice system has driven reductions in the number of prosecutions and the number of children in prison and done all of it without it increasing crime. To be clear, it is not a system without problems— in particular, our youth custody estate is not fit for purpose and the unmerited disparities in both treatment and outcomes and treatment of particular groups, black boys especially, remains unacceptable. But by focussing not only on the evidence of what works and seeing the future potential of children currently in trouble with law, youth justice practitioners and policymakers have been able to deliver positive system change. Or maybe the answer lies in listening to the tunes and beats of the hundreds of small sanities, those evidence-led projects which seek to change outcomes and which we chart on our map of justice innovation.
While I still believe history does not repeat itself, I do hope its rhymes will be different and lighter in the future.