The number of prisoners held in Britain’s jails has hit a new high with in excess of 85,000 people being kept in custody. The latest figures from the Ministry of Justice show a relentless increase in the prison population that shows no sign of slowing down.
The total for those in jail increased by 1,000 in the last 12 months alone as more people are being remanded in custody rather than being granted bail. Many believe that police and magistrates who are against Ken Clarke’s reforms are deliberately seeking to remand more suspects in custody in order to try and maintain the status quo in the Criminal Justice System.
Prison numbers rose dramatically under Tony Blair and the British love affair with custody seems set to continue. Clarke wants to reduce prison numbers over the term of this parliament but faces stiff opposition from right wing Conservatives and also from Blairites on the Labour benches.
The overall increase, mainly due to successive governments trying to outdo each other on being ‘tough on crime’ is quite staggering when viewed on the chart below:
With a significant increase in the number of prisoners over the first 14 months of the Cameron led Coalition government, prospects for a reduction in the prison population are not good.
The Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg seems to have ignored most of his party’s core principles as he wallows in his position as Deputy Prime Minister, afraid to challenge right wing Cameron on Criminal Justice affairs. Although theoretically supportive of Ken Clarke’s objectives, Clegg is slow to rise to the defence of the Justice Secretary when he come under attack from those Tories that despise him and everything he stands for.
It has been suggested that jailing significant numbers of those convicted for the recent riots in London would push prisons to capacity. In reality such is not the case with up to 2,ooo prison places currently being available.
TheOpinionSite.org must make it clear that these ‘spaces’ in the system are not real. They are manufactured by putting two people in 12′ x 10′ cell designed for one and often by putting three people in a cell designed for two. Although this overcrowding theoretically puts the authorities in violation of the Law, it is quietly ignored whilst excuses are made about having to use ‘temporary’ measures to deal with an ’emergency’ situation.
Inevitably, it is local prisons that come under most pressure. Up to 60% of those held in local jails are either on remand and awaiting trial or have been recalled to prison by probation officers for allegedly breaching the conditions of their parole licence. Many recalls are later found by the Parole Board to have been unjustified but by that time, the offender has usually spent up to 12 months back in jail.
Like the Police and some magistrates, many probation officers are completely risk-averse, preferring to keep offenders in custody on the basis that the ‘might’ commit further offences, even if in reality that is unlikely. It is this politically driven bias towards speculative preventative custody which is largely responsible for the increase in prison numbers rather than any genuine rise in crime rates.
Whilst it is true that British political doctrine has always been indivisible from penal policy, governments often relying on populist measures directed towards a particular group of offenders, the last 20 years or so especially has seen a situation develop where politicians facing criticism placate the tabloid press by introducing more criminal offences and ever longer sentences.
The result of this ever continuing ‘knee jerk’ culture is the huge rise in numbers seen in the chart above. With an additional 2,500 new prison place likely to be available over the next 12 months, the increase in prisoner numbers, already the highest in Europe, seems set to continue.
If Clarke is really to reduce prison numbers through his ‘rehabilitation revolution’, he will need significantly more support from his colleagues than he has currently. This would mean that both the now unbearably pompous Home Secretary, Theresa May and the Prime Minister will have to stop posturing and get behind Clarke in a totally unambiguous way; something that is likely to be difficult for both of them.
In reality, any reduction will be to some extent the result of the lack of money in the system. This however will not in itself guarantee a reduction in the prison population which is and always has been driven by politics, not the perceived increase in crime rates.
Successive administrations have increased the length of sentences, made it more difficult to be released from prison by introducing unnecessarily high risk criteria and, perhaps most significant of all, have made it almost impossible not to breach release licences and prevention orders which often place unworkable and impractical restrictions on the offender.
All of this has led to a massive rise in recalls resulting in the jailing of offenders who have not committed any offence other than breaching a prevention order that should probably not have been made in the first place.
It is largely the tabloid press who are indirectly responsible for the rise in prison numbers over the last 2o years, particularly the Murdoch tabloids and the ultra-right wing Daily Mail. These publications claim to speak for the people but in fact, they do not. Nevertheless, most MPs are terrified of both of them; except that is for Ken Clarke who is always up for a fight.
The unelected Daily Mail and the Sun need to keep their editorial mouths firmly shut and allow the real representatives of the people to do their work in Parliament in an objective way, rather than having to keep one eye on the press in order to stave off criticism from those with vested interests.
If the government do not get a grip and take control of penal policy, it will continue to be formulated by newspaper editors who never have the best interests of society as their focus. The real truth is that they care not one iota for society, their only interest being in making a profit. Nothing else, only profit.
If Cameron and Clegg really run Britain without ‘fear or favour’ as they have both claimed, let them prove it by ensuring that those who really need to be in prison are jailed and everyone else is not.A good start might be hauling in the former Home Secretaries, Jacqui Smith and David Blunkett. She ripped us off for £160,000 and was never punished and he abused his position over a dodgy passport application. Neither of them were investigated by the police.
It must also be said that this tabloid nonsense that ‘the public expects all offenders to go to prison’ is simply untrue. Most people never even think about prisons, offenders or crime until they themselves are directly involved.
For the benefit of those who are frightened by the tabloids, TheOpinionSite.org must point out that there are 61 million people living in the UK, the vast majority of whom do not read either the Daily Mail or the Sun; a fact that pathetically weak politicians should remember when shaping future penal policy.
If they do manage to remember that, we may for the first time in recent years actually see a real reduction in prisoner numbers together with a degree of penitence from those who currently profit from locking up their fellow citizens, often for the most unrealistic reasons.