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Offender management and rehabilitation

Prisons are at boiling point – will recent Government announcements help turn down the heat?

A man and two women walk down the stairs at HMP Thameside wearing Catch22 uniform. At the bottom of the stairs, there are rows of tables and chairs.

In this week’s blog, Catch22’s Policy and Communication Manager Miranda Shanks digests the recent announcements made by Justice Minister, Alex Chalk, and those included in the King’s Speech, and the impacts they will have on a criminal justice system that is facing a capacity crisis.

What’s the problem?

The past month has seen a host of new measures proposed by the Government to reform and repair the UK’s Criminal Justice System (CJS). At the forefront of these measures is the intent to tackle the biggest problem facing the CJS: its rising prison population.

At the end of March 2023, the prison population was at around 99% of safe capacity, with Ministry of Justice projections forecasting a population of, at minimum, 93,100 by 2027. This would be an increase of at least 10% compared with March 2023. Police cells and emergency temporary cells are being used as a sticking plaster on a very serious and growing problem. Exceptional pressure on capacity poses several risks to the prison estate: poor living conditions, reduced access to rehabilitative programs, stretched staff teams and compromised safety to name a few. We’ve seen much of this play out in some damning prison inspection reports and high-profile media cases, such as that of Daniel Khalife.

What’s new?

Indeed, the overcrowded CJS comprised the key soundbite of the recent King’s Speech, which featured the announcement of two new bills: the Criminal Justice Bill and the Sentencing Bill, as well as the carry-over of the much-awaited Victims and Prisoners Bill. The King’s Speech, which sets the legislative agenda for the next parliamentary session, featured various “tough on crime” measures that will, if all goes to plan for the Government, be passed into law.

Alongside the King’s Speech, there have been announcements made by Justice Minister Alex Chalk, seeking to address the prison capacity crisis. Carried via the Sentencing Bill, Alex Chalk has declared a presumption against sentences for 12 months or less, aimed at reducing reoffending and freeing cells by rehabilitating lower-risk offenders in the community instead of custody. He is also looking to implement an “Early Release Scheme” which will see certain prisoners released 18 days early.

In addition, Alex Chalk has promised a “review of the recall process”, aimed at reducing the number of individuals recalled into custody for breaking one or more of their license conditions. Catch22 welcomes this announcement, and it is something we have called for in our Catch22 Manifesto: Reimagining Public Services. We know through the delivery of our ACE programme that recall (which typically comprises a 14 or 28 day stint in prison) is an ineffective approach to tackling underlying causes of non-compliance and drives recidivism, especially when someone has not committed a new offence. Instead, we should be prioritising rehabilitative approaches delivered in the community through one-to-one support and advocacy.

Will it work?

“The concern is that the number of prisoners coming in is going too quickly for the number of places that can be created, and I’m not sure that’s been solved by the recent measures, though we haven’t yet seen the impact of the move away from shorter sentences. At the moment, it seems to be just enough from tipping things over, but only just.”

– Charlie Taylor, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons at the Justice Committee’s oral evidence hearing on the Future Prison Population and Estate Capacity.

If properly resourced, such that probation can effectively manage and rehabilitate the increasing numbers of individuals in the community, these measures should evade the counterproductive impact that short prison sentences, including 14- or 28-day recalls, can have on people by herding them into a revolving-door cycle of reoffending.

On the other hand, many of the measures announced in the King’s Speech and beyond will make it much, much harder for offenders to be released early and serve time in the community. The Criminal Justice Bill, for example, will allow courts to impose a Whole Life Order for those deemed as the “most horrific murderers” and enforce rapists and those convicted of the most serious sexual offences, who receive a determinate sentence (i.e. not life) to serve every day of their custodial term behind bars (rather than ever being released on license).

Crucially, what we know from the data is that crime itself is actually on the decline. Although recall and remand are certainly contributing factors in the capacity crisis, the primary reason for prison overcrowding is not that more people are committing crimes and being sent to prison, it’s that individuals are being locked up for longer. In other words, the UK is experiencing a sentence inflation that has been going on for some time. In fact, the population of those serving a mandatory life sentence has doubled since 1993. This increase in sentence lengths imposed by courts is somewhat indicative of the UK’s hesitation to manage individuals in the community, partly because of lack of public confidence and partly because of a crumbling and disregarded probation service.

The contradiction, therefore, is clear: although a presumption against short sentences, rehabilitative alternatives to recalls, and an early release scheme are certainly welcome steps towards a more rehabilitative justice system, they are unlikely to be the magic answer to the population crisis. With a system that is currently set up to sentence people for longer (and requires a very costly prison service to accommodate them), we’re led to question whether such money could be better spent on deterring and preventing those from encountering the CJS in the very first place.

– Miranda Shanks, Catch22 Policy and Communication Manager