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Howard League blog · 9 Mar 2016

Doncaster prison: What Michael Gove should do next

The inspection report on Doncaster prison reveals once again the disaster that is the prison system. The relatively newly built jail is simply not safe for the men, some only teenagers, and it is not safe for staff.

Prisons have become hotbeds of festering violence and misery. They are feeding the crime problem, not solving it.

A few days ago the Howard League published a comprehensive plan for easing the release of long term prisoners more efficiently, more fairly and more safely.

The problem remains as to the inflow of men and women sent to prison by magistrates for short sentences.

Doncaster prison receives 90 new prisoners each week, a churn of almost 10 per cent of its population. At any one time about 16 per cent have been sentenced to a short prison term, but they account for a much greater percentage of its throughput every year. Daily figures of those who are only held for a few weeks distort and hide the reality of the use of short prison sentences by magistrates.

The problem then is one of gross prison overcrowding and its resulting violence that spills back into the community. Action needs to be taken to ease the pressure today, as the Howard League’s plan for long-termers will take time to impact.

In the past governments have used executive release to get people out early, but that can be problematic if people are not given support to ease back into the community. No, something different needs to be done.

I suggest the government considers radical action.

The Lord Chancellor should temporarily remove the power of magistrates to sentence to prison. They can only send a person to prison for under six months and there is overwhelming evidence and general agreement that this is counter-productive, expensive and causes mayhem inside prisons.

Magistrates have a panoply of community sentences at their disposal. They could use those.

Not sending beggars, petty thieves and people who are generally just very annoying to prison would mean they could get other sanctions but wouldn’t cost the taxpayer millions in imprisonment costs or clog up sinking prisons like Doncaster.

The penal system is an evidence-free zone in many ways. If we stopped the use of short prison sentences for six months we could monitor the impact and then decide whether to make it permanent.

The Lord Chancellor is a radical reformer. Let’s see if he has the courage to do in justice what he did in education.


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