By Bishop Richard Moth, lead bishop for prisons in England and Wales.
Recent reports on the state of prisons, such as HMP Birmingham, have demonstrated that the penal system is under severe strain, that some staff are not in control and that prisoners are not being cared for well enough to enable rehabilitation.
One of the driving factors behind this crisis is the overuse of custodial sentences. Both steady sentencing inflation over recent years and the continued use of ineffective short sentences have resulted in an unsustainable prison population.
Current sentencing practice in England and Wales is creating an unstable prison estate. The system cannot care adequately for the number of people being given custodial sentences. This means that our prisons are unable to help people turn their lives around. Having prisons at breaking point is harmful to the people inside them and does not lead to a safer society. There is a very real need therefore for the Government to improve sentencing, to ensure that prisons are not overcrowded and that genuine chances for rehabilitation are not ruined.
There is wide consensus that short custodial sentences for non-violent crimes are damaging, not only for individuals but for family, friends, colleagues and dependents.
This year I have spoken to the directors of a number of women’s charities working with those in prison. They repeated a clear message to me that short spells in prison are damaging lives and that often create a downwards spiral that results in greater criminal activity.
One example I was given was that of a single mother, unable to pay her bills and charged for rent arrears. She was given a two-week custodial sentence. During these two weeks, her children were taken into the care system, she fell in with a dangerous crowd in prison and begun to take drugs. Cases like these make clear the irrevocable damage that unnecessary short custodial sentences can cause.
Both the Minister for Prisons, Rory Stewart MP, and the Lord Chancellor, David Gauke MP, have offered indications that they wish to significantly reduce the number of short custodial sentences. This is very welcome news and the role of charities, faith-groups, and the general public is to hold the Ministry of Justice to account on these promises. However, the case for changing sentencing practise must not stop here. While reducing the short-term population is key, a truly effective reform of our criminal justice system must also look at the status quo around longer sentences as well.
I wrote some months ago about the resources that it takes to care for ‘lifers’ with long-term illness. Similarly, last year I wrote about the dangerous overuse of Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP sentences) which create a backlog in the prison system of those waiting for release. A recent media story suggested that a prisoner had waited for 11 years for parole after having spent his ten-month sentence. Prisoners with no hope for life outside, or for a meaningful existence inside, are often those struggling most with their mental health. This, of course, is not only dangerous for the individual, but for other prisoners and staff too.
There are also major problems around sentencing inflation. Over the last 30 years the prison population in England and Wales has rocketed despite a noticeable fall in recorded crime. Over the last ten years the length of prison sentences for the same offences has risen, meaning that people are spending longer in prison. The Government has a duty to address the reasons for this and ensure that the trend does not continue. That or they must provide the funding that is required to provide safe and decent prisons that can cope with the number of people that are being sent to custody. If the problems that exist around sentencing are not addressed, we will continue to see reports of prisons struggling and of lives that are marked by an absence of hope.
Next month I will be presenting politicians, journalists, and charities with a document setting out a number of ways that sentencing practise in England and Wales might be changed. This new report will offer an alternative vision of sentencing, placing victims at the heart of criminal justice, while also setting out the case for why using prison less would be both safer and more effective.
This country needs a criminal justice system that works and offers a genuinely rehabilitative environment. This is not a soft approach to crime, but a realistic one that would help to bring more humanity and hope to our prison estate.