Justice Committee

Press notice No. 42 of Session 2007-08

Practical failures of policy and implementation have led to prisons 'crisis' and under-resourced, ineffective sentencing

In a report released today, Tuesday 22 July 2008, the House of Commons Justice Committee says serious failures of sentencing policy and its implementation have led to the current crisis of prison overcrowding and prevented sentencing options being effective. The Committee concludes that throughout the inquiry it saw that "failures in anticipating resource needs and providing appropriate resources for the implementation of policies stood in the way of results."

The Committee says the Government's focus on huge public investment in building more prisons is a "risky strategy" that will not solve the fundamental and long-term issues. The Committee found Lord Carter's review of prisons "deeply unimpressive", although the Government accepted its recommendations. It says the review€”which included plans for the new titan prisons€”was not based on evidence and was a missed opportunity to address the fundamental problems with custodial and non-custodial sentencing provision in England and Wales.

While it supports the idea of the new indeterminate Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP) sentences for dangerous offenders, the Committee is concerned that the sentence is insufficiently targeted. The indeterminate sentences were the flagship of the Government's crime reduction and public safety agenda in the Criminal Justice Act 2003, but the policy has also not been given sufficient resources to make it work.

The Committee says there is excessive use of custody for vulnerable people and young offenders, with a failure of alternative provisions in the community. It criticizes the use of short custodial sentences for repeat offenders, saying short sentences are very unlikely to work and in fact may increase re-offending.

A key element of the coherent sentencing strategy envisaged under the Criminal Justice Act 2003 was to deal with low level offenders by community punishments rather than short custodial sentences€”the Committee says "it is clear this strategy has not worked". Failure to consider practicalities and resource needs have prevented the effective use and widespread implementation of community sentences to achieve the desired policy shift. The Probation Service does not know with any certainty how many Community Orders it has the potential capacity to deliver within its resources, nor has it determined the full cost of delivering Community Orders.

The Committee says the failures of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 have been compounded by the environment in which it came into operation, where proper information about sentencing is not available to the public. It says Government has failed to provide the information and leadership required to facilitate an informed public debate, while the media climate for the debate often depends on isolated discussion of particular cases.

Rt Hon Alun Michael MP, said: "Sentencing policy is failing both victims of crime and criminals. Our overcrowded prisons are doing little to reduce crime and in the case of short prison sentences they may be actually contributing to re-offending. Sentencers are not using community sentences to the full.

"It seems that Government has not learnt vital lessons from past experience, and the Carter Review was a missed opportunity to rethink sentencing provision. The Government itself has said we cannot build our way out of the prisons crisis, yet we now have this focus on building more, bigger prisons when the evidence is showing us that prison isn't effective in cutting crime. We are very concerned that such a major review, which should have been a chance to fundamentally consider the problems with sentencing and provision for sentencing in England and Wales, was based on wholly inadequate consultation and a highly selective evidence base.

"Rafts of new criminal justice legislation, combined with a lack of resources and time to implement new types of sentences, have produced a complex and incomplete sentencing framework. Those who engage in public debate on sentencing policy risk being labelled as 'soft on crime', when in fact what we need is an open, honest look at what works. Resources are a fundamental issue in delivering an effective sentencing strategy, particularly with community sentences, but so is public confidence in the criminal justice system. We need a strategic approach to sentencing with proper evidence, proper costing and the resources to make it work."

1. Committee Membership is as follows: Rt Hon Sir Alan Beith MP (Chairman), Mr David Heath MP, Siân James MP, Daniel Kawczynski MP, Jessica Morden MP, Julie Morgan MP, Rt Hon Alun Michael MP, Robert Neill MP, Dr Nick Palmer MP, Linda Riordan MP, Virendra Sharma MP, Mr Andrew Turner MP, Mr Andrew Tyrie MP and Dr Alan Whitehead MP

2. The Report is the Committee's Fifth Report of Session 2007-08, HC 184.

Further Information:
Media Enquiries: Jessica Bridges Palmer (020 7219 0724) email: bridgespalmerj@parliament.uk; Clare Mills (07795 662742);

Specific Committee Information: Tel 020 7219 8196/ 8198, email: justicecom@parliament.uk

Committee Website: www.parliament.uk/justicecom

Watch committees and parliamentary debates online: www.parliamentlive.tv

Select Committee Calendar: www.parliament.uk/what_s_on/hoc_news3.cfm

Publications / Reports / Reference Material: Copies of all select committee reports are available from the Parliamentary Bookshop (12 Bridge St, Westminster, 020 7219 3890) or the Stationery Office (0845 7023474). Committee reports, press releases, evidence transcripts, Bills; research papers, a directory of MPs, plus Hansard (from 8am daily) and much more, can be found on www.parliament.uk