Criminology, probation and stuff

Some musings on criminology with a focus on probation

Capping the prison population

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I am totally of the mindset that the prison population needs to be reduced and that repeat offenders driven by addiction and mental health should not be dealt with by prison unless they present a danger to the public so when I saw that MPs were calling for a cap on the prison population (remarkably similar to a call made by Lord Woolf in 2007) I was pleased. However, I’ve been thinking about it a bit over the last day or so and now I’m not so convinced.

The report by MPs calls for the prison population to reduce to 54,000 is laudable but once that target has been achieved I don’t foresee a massive change to the current situation. The very fact that there are a limited number of cells means that the population is already capped- okay, a bit of jiggery pokery with moving prisoners around, holding them in court cells and occasionally using police cells does allow the population to fluctuate but the fact remains that there are 84,000 bed spaces in prisons in this country.

If there is a cap on the prison population how will decisions be made on how to sentence someone? On the basis that the cap has been reached? Or on the basis that the prison population should be at the capped level? If so, that doesn’t seem like justice to me and neither does it seem like the best way to decide on someone’s liberty. Not only would this represent a declining standard of justice for offenders and their victims but it would also represent a decrease in the autonomy of the judiciary. The judiciary are already under pressure not to increase the prison population but there are no formal tools in place to ensure this. Introducing a cap will, in effect, limit judicial discretion and make it (more) susceptible to the whim of politicians if, for example, a decision is made to raise or decrease that cap.

Although this report is a step in the right direction in that it advocates movement in the right direction (and could mean that England and Wales are no longer the Texas of Europe) it doesn’t seem to go far enough in terms of radical reform of sentencing practices, penal culture and political will to wean England and Wales off what Juliet Lyon has called ‘an addiction to prison’.

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Written by criminologyandstuff

January 16, 2010 at 2:08 pm

Posted in criminal justice

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