Parliament, policy and punishment seminar

04 February 2010

The Lord Speaker, Baroness Hayman, chaired a seminar in the River Room of the House of Lords on the criminal justice system and public perceptions of crime policy on 3 February.

Opening speeches were made by:

  • Baroness Stern (Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for Prison Studies, King’s College London)
  • Baroness Corston (chair of the All Party Women in the Penal System Group, and author of a recent report into vulnerable women in the criminal justice system)
  • Lord Dear (former Chief Constable and HM Inspector of Constabulary), and
  • Lord Mayhew of Twysden (former Home Office minister and Attorney General).

The event was attended by a number of Members, as well as senior journalists, and was the latest in a series of seminars showcasing the expertise within the House of Lords.

Read the House of Lords report on the seminar:

Parliament, policy and punishment: what hope for a rational and cost-effective crime policy?

At a seminar chaired by the Lord Speaker in the House of Lords, Members of the House and senior home affairs journalists discussed the criminal justice system, public perceptions of crime policy and possible reforms. Short introductory speeches were delivered by four Members of the Lords before the debate was opened up to the floor.

In the first of the opening speeches, Baroness Stern, Senior Research Fellow at the International Centre for Prison Studies, King’s College London, suggested that the public and political mood seemed so much in favour of imprisonment that discussion of a rational and cost-effective crime policy was almost taboo. She was not, as was sometimes supposed, an abolitionist; her recent work on rape had confirmed her belief in the need for imprisonment for dangerous offenders. But the evidence (and any rational and cost-effective policy must be based on sound evidence, she argued) suggested that the rise in the prison population from 48,600 in 1989 to 83,400 now had done little to reduce crime and promote rehabilitation.

Several recent reports – by the Commons Justice Committee, the Policy Exchange, Primary Justice and the Centre for Social Justice – had pointed to the unsustainability of the current extensive use of imprisonment and had argued for local, decentralised approaches which placed the emphasis on education, intervention and diversion.

The emerging consensus, Baroness Stern suggested, was that it would be better to switch resources from prisons to drug treatment and other prevention and intervention programmes, but no major political party was likely publicly to endorse such a strategy, even though some politicians were privately supportive. The situation in other countries was very different. Crime policy in France (for example) was politicised, as it was here, but this did not stop discussion of reform and, indeed, critics in France tended to argue for more reform, not less. In the Netherlands, the Government had reduced its prison population so dramatically that it rented its spare prison capacity to Belgium, yet there had been no untoward effect on crime or public safety. Why, asked Baroness Stern, was such a discussion of radical and rational reform impossible in the UK?

Baroness Corston, Chair of the All Party Women in the Penal System Group and author of a review of vulnerable women in the criminal justice system in 2007, focused her remarks on the issue of women in prison. The overwhelming majority of women inmates were “troubled not troublesome”. Three quarters were mentally ill, up to half had experienced domestic violence and one in three were victims of sexual abuse, often during childhood. Moreover, 17,000 children a year were affected by women’s imprisonment, and there was evidence that as many as 50% of the children of women prisoners ended up in prison themselves.

Baroness Corston described three important potential areas of vulnerability, which could, particularly in combination, lead to entry into the criminal justice system. These were: women’s domestic circumstances (for example, domestic violence or single parenthood),their personal circumstances (such as mental health problems or eating disorders) and their socio-economic circumstances (such as poverty or social exclusion). Prevention was a much better way of dealing with them.

She went on to describe the effect of prison sentences on women’s lives. Women were often in prison for very short sentences, and often on remand. A woman in prison for a month could, in that month, lose her home and see her children taken into care. Following release, the fact that her children were in care could lead to problems obtaining housing, and this in turn could lead to problems getting her children back.

Baroness Corston stated that prison regimes were not properly geared up for women prisoners. Prison Service practice was too often focused on incarcerating men, who were more likely, for example, to hide weapons and to be able to switch themselves off from the outside world whilst in prison. Treating men and women equally in prison did not produce equal outcomes. There had been progress towards gender specific standards and staff training. For example, one triumph of Baroness Corston’s work on the review had been the abolition of routine strip searching in prisons (which had been shown to be pointless) from April 2009. A woman-centred approach to regimes was necessary and could turn women’s lives around, helping them to develop much needed self esteem and life skills.

Lord Dear, a former Chief Constable and HM Inspector of Constabulary, spoke about the role of the police within the criminal justice system. While the police had done very good work on counter-terrorism and serious crime, Lord Dear argued that the current policing model was tired, outdated and in urgent need of review. He described the police as a conveyor belt without which the system could not function; nevertheless, he contended, the model is substantially flawed. The last major review of the policing system, he pointed out, was the Royal Commission on Police which had taken place in 1962.

One problem with the policing model that Lord Dear identified was accountability. When the Victorians invented the system with responsibility lying with Chief Police Officers, policing was essentially a local service. Today, however, national targets were drawing power towards the Home Secretary and away from local police forces. Lord Dear noted that the Conservatives had talked about creating elected police commissioners along the US model. The possibility that elected commissioners might have the power to direct police activities was a cause of concern to Lord Dear.

Secondly, Lord Dear made the point that the police model was not designed to carry out the wide range of tasks required of today’s police. There was an upwards pressure to devote resources to organised crime and counter-terrorism and a downwards pressure to provide a visible local presence. When pulled in two directions at once, police forces – particularly the smaller ones – became overstretched in the middle. Public satisfaction with the police was declining. Lord Dear believed that there needed to be more discussion about what model of policing was wanted in this country.

The third issue Lord Dear identified was a tension between “perfect security” and individual human rights, the debate over Section 44 stop and search powers being an example. Lord Dear was concerned that the growth of police powers to dispense summary justice, such as on-the-spot fines, was playing fast and loose with the judicial system.

Lord Dear touched briefly upon two changes which he felt would help the police force. Firstly, he acknowledged that joining the police had never been the first choice of career for the very best candidates. He argued that this had to change in order to provide the police with good leadership. Secondly, a first class probation service working in partnership with the police would help prevent the “revolving door” phenomenon where the same offenders pass through the system time after time.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden, a former Home Office minister and Attorney General, opened his remarks by discussing the practicalities of far-reaching reform of the criminal justice system. He suggested that the viability of proposals for reform depended on a proper understanding of “the art of the possible”. This in turn required early and careful analysis of current public opinion, and early preparation, in the context of such proposals, of public understanding of the nature and origins of criminality. Without these initiatives, public opinion would continue to be polarised at the extremes of “hard” and “soft” on crime. Yet, there was evidence that when public understanding grew it led to a marked “softening” of attitudes.

Public confidence was indeed vital to appropriate sentencing, and accordingly a focus on decentralised flexibility was needed. Awareness of local circumstances and local pressures was essential. With astute analysis and preparation, necessary reforms would not require the almost reckless political courage that was currently supposed.

There was broad agreement during the discussion that followed that the criminal justice system was fundamentally broken, with large numbers of people being held in prison who should not be there, resulting in poor outcomes for individuals and poor value for money for society.

There was much discussion of the mismatch between the views of experts, and those of politicians and the public. Whilst there was a very strong consensus from those who were knowledgeable in the field that prison did not work in most cases, and should be reserved only for dangerous offenders, the public often seemed to favour longer prison sentences, which were the main driver behind the huge increase in the prison population in recent years. Some participants spoke of a role for educating the public; research showed that when the public were given information about the full circumstances behind a crime, they often thought that sentences should be shorter than those actually given.

Many contributors spoke of the need for political leadership. In the face of hostile public opinion, it was difficult for politicians to put their head on the block by advocating the kind of reforms that were necessary. Politicians could usefully draw lessons from other countries, such as Germany, which had managed to avoid huge rises in the prison population, partly by not remanding so many people in custody. The Government needed to be open to ideas from outsiders, and not block proposals because they were not their own.

A number of speakers called for a Royal Commission to investigate problems in the criminal justice system, to remove the issue from the sphere of party politics. The arms race in which the political parties were locked, competing to be toughest on crime with rather less attention paid to the causes of crime, had not, it was felt, been beneficial. It was noted that the politicisation of the criminal justice system was a comparatively modern phenomenon: there had been very little mention of criminal justice in manifestos until the general election of 1979. Harold Macmillan’s manifesto of 1959, for example, had contained one sentence on rehabilitation in prisons and Harold Wilson’s 1966 manifesto made only a brief reference to strengthening the police and dealing with adult and juvenile offenders. Now, reflecting the public mood, elections were largely fought on these issues.

The role of the press was discussed, although there was some disagreement about whether newspapers led or followed public opinion. One speaker described what were seen as unhelpful attitudes to children who had committed very serious offences; the press tended to portray such children as evil, and some newspapers had campaigned for more punitive approaches in individual cases. Children needed to be treated as children, and not locked up to the extent that they are at present. Others spoke about the difficulty for political parties in raising the issue of reforming the criminal justice system when they risked being labelled by the press as being soft on crime.

Many speakers described the underlying problems which should have resulted in people being diverted from custody to other services. These included mental health problems, educational difficulties, and drug addiction. 10% of prisoners had serious, diagnosable mental conditions, and some speakers argued that the proportion was actually greater than this. However, there was recognition that there had been progress in the treatment of mentally ill offenders. Some speakers maintained that there had been a shift in public attitudes to mental illness, which might make it easier to push for greater diversion from the prison system for this group.

A number of speakers felt that there was not enough joined up government at the national and local level to prevent people going into prison in the first place or to support them during or after their sentence to prevent reoffending. This was particularly true in relation to the care of offenders released from custody. One example raised was that of children: Youth Offending Teams did valuable prevention work, but young offenders were often released from custody without adequate support. Some young people were terrified of being released from custody because they faced homelessness and other problems which would be likely to lead them back into crime. There needed to be greater collective responsibility for dealing with the causes of crime, and for caring for people following release to reduce reoffending.

The point was made that risk factors for offending could be fairly easily identified. The Corston Report had drawn attention to the common histories of many of the women in prison and other research had shown that the strongest predictor of male offending was the criminal conviction (not necessarily imprisonment) of a parent or sibling before the boy reached the age of ten. Many young offenders in particular came from chaotic and disturbed family backgrounds and lacked decent role models. Other issues which needed to be tackled were the illiteracy of so many of the prison population and offenders’ lack of self-worth.

There had been, it was agreed, too much legislation purporting to tackle the problem of crime, introduced too quickly and without a strong evidence base. One participant commented that the present Government had created 4,700 new offences, of which 3,500 were imprisonable. Indeterminate sentences for public protection were cited as the latest example of an ill-thought-out policy; many prisoners serving this type of sentence were being kept in prison far beyond their tariff because the training on which their eventual release depended was not available.

It was suggested that judges were sending too many offenders to prison because they did not know what else to do with them. Several participants considered that sentences could be cut without any negative effect on crime rates or rehabilitation. Sentencing guidelines were too rigid, leaving judges with little discretion and failing to tackle underlying problems; the mandatory life sentence for murder was, arguably, a case in point. Similarly, it was pointed out that increasing sentences for knife crime did little to tackle the culture of knife-carrying amongst young people.

Discussion of the financial aspects of crime policy highlighted an area where there was less agreement amongst the participants. Some argued that reducing the prison population and changing the emphasis from imprisonment to prevention and treatment would yield cash savings. Others contended that the cost of investing in alternatives to prison – such as mental health services and drugs treatment programmes – would cancel out the savings made by locking fewer people up.

Some felt that, whilst it was difficult to envisage any party campaigning on reducing the prison population as such, they could undertake to reduce the costs of incarceration. Some participants believed that the challenge would be to argue for the benefits of diversion in a way which did not result in accusations of being soft on crime. It was pointed out that the need to reduce public spending might persuade the public of the case for reform.

One participant observed that Lord Hurd of Westwell’s memoirs showed that he had introduced reforms not because he was deliberately pursuing a liberal agenda – he did not consider himself a liberal – but through economic necessity at a time of spending constraints. There was a suggestion that as the next Government was bound to be unpopular in any case as it tackled the public deficit, this might provide an opportunity to make other unpopular changes.

Another issue debated in relation to finance was whether prison services should be localised, with budgets integrated into other local services, so that there was more transparency about expenditure and savings, and more flexibility to find solutions. There were some participants who argued that the centralised funding of the criminal justice system created a disincentive for local authorities to deal with the social problems which led to crime; if local authorities had to meet the costs of imprisoning young offenders, they might be more encouraged to invest in social intervention programmes.

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