Last Friday, David Cameron said crime-fighting measures would fail "if we don't build the prisons and train the necessary staff to run them." Today, he published It's time to fight back, his party's plans for tackling the country's crime crisis.
In contrast to the Government's failed "one-dimensional approach" of hyperactive legislation, the document proposes a three-stage solution to fighting crime: in the short term, getting more police back on the street; in the medium, reforming schools and the criminal justice system; and in the long run, strengthening families and communities. It contains many excellent recommendations, including: facilitating a permanent police visibility on the streets, scrapping the Early Release Scheme, reforming alcohol licensing, providing local control over policing, introducing a UK Border Police, and abolishing the Human Rights Act.
Among the proposals, Cameron pledges "A Conservative Government will build more prison places." However, a poll published in today's Guardian indicates that the public no longer believes tough prison sentences are the best way to tackle crime:
Politicians in all parties routinely assume that voters think prison works. But 51% of those questioned want the government to find other ways to punish criminals and deter crime...Quite clearly, whoever is in power has much to do if public faith in the prison system is to be restored. It is therefore encouraging to see that the thinking behind the Conservatives' prison building proposals is not merely to "keep criminals off the streets" but that "reducing overcrowding is the key to reducing re-offending by ex-prisoners." Furthermore, in view of suggestions made by this blog for an altogether more creative approach towards justice, it is good to read that the Conservatives are committed to transforming prisons from Labour's overcrowded "human warehouses" into "places of education, hard work, rehabilitation and restoration."
Opposition to more imprisonment is driven by a widespread belief that prisons make crime worse. More people agree with the statement "prison doesn't work, it turns people into professional criminals who then commit more crime" than think "prison punishes crime, keeps criminals off the streets and deters others".
Only 42% of all voters, and 39% of women, think prisons are an effective punishment, against 49%, and 52% of women, who say they fail to work.
The policy document continues: "A Conservative Government will reform prison regimes to help break the cycle of reoffending, and we will ensure appropriate provision for the mentally ill and offenders with drugs problems. Furthermore, we believe that far more needs to be done to assist and supervise ex-offenders on their release from prison. Here there is a central role for the voluntary sector." This too, as previously suggested by this blog, would surely also prove an invaluable step in restoring faith in the whole justice system. Moreover, given that 90% of prisoners have at least one significant mental health problem, providing proper treatment for those who are mentally ill might also go some way to addressing the prison overcrowding problem!
As always, let us know in the comments what you think should be done.
Source: recent Hansard reference to "Psychiatric morbidity among prisoners in England and Wales" (Office for National Statistics, 1998)