Ex-prime minister Sir John Major has given a speech at the Old Bailey making the case for reform of the prison system. He said the government should beware that ‘excessive zeal to be tough on crime’ does not lead to ‘unwise policy’.
He commented that despite a 30-year fall in violent crime legislators have sought to punish crime in action rather than tackle the cause. He said rehabilitation of criminals is seen by many as being ‘soft’ on crime. When discussing rehabilitation he said the current approach ignores the public interest that the crime is never repeated.
Speaking at the event, hosted by the Prison Reform Trust, Major said in the UK we ‘over-use’ prison and under value the alternative sentences. The prison population is growing: the UK has the highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe. Despite prison over-crowding, suspended sentences have been declining. He believes that the short sentences many prisoners are given are ‘pointless’ and non-custodial sentences would be both more effective and fairer.
Too many vulnerable people are being jailed, Sir John states, including vulnerable women and those who are mentally ill. Mentally ill prisoners could alternatively receive care in secure wings of mental hospitals rather than incarceration. He also suggests that community sentence alternatives should be considered before sending vulnerable women offenders who have committed non-violent crime to prison. Reports suggest incarcerated pregnant women are seven times more likely to suffer a still birth, which Major suggests should be enough alone to bring question to the present policy because, ‘whatever the mother may have done, the baby is innocent’.
Major said that a lack of suitable education and rehabilitation services lead to ‘a truly wretched preparation for adult life’ for young offenders and that these failures can be a ‘serious driver towards crime, and anti-social behaviour.’ He added better education is ‘an essential component’ to reducing crime.
Hi speech criticised the age and condition of much of the prison estate which is ‘out of date and unsuitable’. Major said that ‘to have inmates held in worse conditions than in Victorian times is an indictment of policy that is hard to ignore.’ While the Government has released numerous plans for prison reform programmes to build new prisons, this has been consistently stalled.
Discussing controversial IPP (Imprisonment for Public protection) sentences, Sir John stated this area of the the penal code is ‘over-ripe for action to correct legitimate grievance.’ Many have had their imprisonment extended beyond their minimum term and will not come to an end without ministerial action. He said this is ‘soul destroying’ and ’emphatically not justice’.