Skip Content

7 Sep 2015

Spending Review 2015: Shrinking the justice system would cut crime and save billions

Crime would fall and billions of pounds would be saved if the prison population was cut by more than half to its level during Margaret Thatcher’s premiership, the Howard League for Penal Reform reports today (Monday 7 September).

In its official submission to the government’s Spending Review 2015, the charity points out how, unlike other Whitehall departments, a massive cut to the Ministry of Justice’s budget could bring huge benefits for everyone if it is done in the right way.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer has asked departments whose budgets are not ring-fenced to submit plans to reduce spending by 25 and 40 per cent. In line with this request, the Howard League has put forward policy plans that would cut the prison population by 25 and 40 per cent respectively – while arguing that the government should go even further and bring down prisoner numbers by more than 50 per cent.

The number of men, women and children in prisons in England and Wales has almost doubled in 25 years – from fewer than 45,000 in 1990 to more than 86,000 today. Reducing the prison population to its level under Thatcher would allow governors to improve prison conditions, which in July the Chief Inspector of Prisons described as being at their worst in a decade.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to sort out the bloated criminal justice system. Common sense and public safety should direct policy changes that will also save the taxpayer a fortune. I have great hopes of radical reform on the horizon.”

The Howard League’s submission sets out a list of policies that, if enacted, would lead to a reduction in the prison population so significant that a large number of jails could be closed:

Prohibit the use of short-term sentences (less than 12 months)

Short-term sentences are expensive and counterproductive, yet more than 57,000 people are sentenced to serve them each year. They are long enough to disrupt often already chaotic lives but too short to enable a person to begin to address the causes of their offending. A person with a job, home and family before they go into custody on a short sentence is unlikely to have them all on release. Unsurprisingly, reoffending among short-sentenced prisoners is very high, creating further victims. Ministry of Justice research has concluded that suspended sentences and community sentences are not only cheaper, but also result in less reoffending.

Limit the use of remand

On any one day more than 8,000 people in prison have not been found guilty of an offence. A further 3,500 are awaiting sentence. Whilst remand may be needed when a person appears to be a danger to public safety and a flight risk, it is used far too often, particularly for those charged with misdemeanours. Seventy per cent of people remanded in custody by magistrates do not go on to receive a custodial sentence.

Reduce recalls to custody

The number of people in prison because they have been recalled to custody while serving their sentences in the community is 55 times greater than it was in 1993. Many people are recalled not for offences, but for technical breaches of their licence. Whilst these are not always trivial, they can almost always be dealt with in the community.

Use women’s centres in the community, not prisons

On any given day about 4,000 women are in prison, but only a very small number have committed serious violent offences and present a risk to the public. The overwhelming majority of women in prison have serious mental health problems and many are mothers, separated from their children. Women’s centres are proven to be much more effective than prison in helping women change their lives and reducing reoffending. Ensuring women’s centres are properly funded and closing women’s prisons would result in huge savings.

Improve the effectiveness of the parole system

There are more people serving life and indeterminate sentences in England and Wales than all of the other 46 countries in the Council of Europe combined. A large number of prisoners are serving more time in custody than intended because of delays in the parole system and a lack of access to work, education and courses that enable them to show they are ready for release.

Reduce the number of criminal offences

Between May 2010 and May 2014, 1,076 new criminal offences were created in England and Wales, about two-thirds of which carry potential prison sentences. The current habit of creating ever more offences and reasons to put people into the criminal justice system must be curbed.

Tackle sentence inflation

Over the last 10 years the average length of a prison sentence in England and Wales has increased by 24 per cent. For some offences, such as fraud and criminal damage and arson, average sentence lengths have increased by more than 50 per cent, but this trend has had no impact on reoffending rates. Almost all other European countries have shorter average sentence lengths than England and Wales.

Notes to editors

  1. The Howard League for Penal Reform is the oldest penal reform charity in the world. It is a national charity working for less crime, safer communities and fewer people in prison.
  2. The Howard League’s submission to the Spending Review 2015 can be read in full here.

Further information

Rob Preece
Press Officer
Tel: +44 (0)20 7241 7880
Mobile: +44 (0)7714 604955

For enquiries outside normal office hours, please call +44 (0)7918 681094.

ISDN line available on 020 7923 4196 – uses a G722 system.

  • Join the Howard League

    We are the world's oldest prison charity, bringing people together to advocate for change.

    Join us and make your voice heard
  • Support our work

    We safeguard our independence and do not accept any funding from government.

    Make a donation