Labour has just committed to a presumption against short prison sentences and to more funding for community services to reduce use of prison.
They are the last major party to get there, but better late than never. A cynic might say that with Labour trialing the Tories by an astounding 15%, the Labour Party position on Brexit in chaos and Corbyn's ratings the lowest for any Opposition leader since records began, this isn't a promsie they will need to make good on. But it's certainly, in Sir Humphry's terms, a 'brave' policy to oppose Johnson's pledge to increase sentence engths and build 10 new prisons. I suspect that most voters, in the febrile atmosphere of the Election, will back Johnson on this. The run up to a bitterly fought Election isn't the ideal time to introduce voters to the nuances of criminal justice policy. Recall that Labour won in 1997 with 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime'. Of course, that was wicked New Labour. Still - they won, eh?
Does Burgon's policy stack up? Not really. The number of prison places taken up by offenders serving sentences other than for sex and violence (excluded from Labour's policy) would be around 2,500 on MoJ figures. If one assumes, on past experience, that some sentencers will use the override of discretion (implied by the word 'presumption') and that others will impose over 6 months in order to get a custodial sentence, the policy will save maybe 1,500 places. Some relief for hard pressed locals but not enough to significantly reduce overcrowding.
As for investment in community services, the time lag involved in building up the services and then persuading sentencers to use them means there would be little result on the ground for 2 or 3 years. Moreover past experience suggest that simply increasing options in the community doesn't necessarily have a big effetct on prison numbers.
Plainly what Labour are not going to do is question the huge increase in the proportion of offenders sent to jail, and in the length of sentnces, that has occured since 1997 (most of it under, as it happens, Labour).
Finally, Labour's (and Johnson's) plans to increase police numbers will result in an increase in numbers convicted and sent to prison. At present we are seeing a big drop in numbers sentenced because of cuts 'upstream' in the police and CPS. Reversing those cuts will liberate pent up demand. This would be more than enough to cancel out the relief for reducing use of short sentences.
So while Labour's policy may be the right thing to do, the timing is pretty unfortunate, and if implemented, it would not ease the prison crisis.
I was formerly Finance Director of the Prison Service and then Director of the National Offender Management Service responsible for competition. I also worked in the NHS and an IT company. I later worked for two outsourcing companies.
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