Skip to main content

Prisons crisis: Government's current approach inefficient, ineffective and unsustainable

3 April 2019

The Government's current approach to prison funding to accommodate growing population forecasts is inefficient, ineffective, and unsustainable in the medium or long-term, says the Justice Committee in a major new report published today.

Reporting on a wide-ranging 18-month inquiry, the Committee agrees with Justice Secretary David Gauke that there is a very strong case for abolishing sentences of six months or less altogether. Re-offending costs an estimated £15 billion a year; the report recommends that there must be a focus on investing services to reduce this, thus cutting crime and reducing the overall size of the prison population - which is increased through repeat imprisonment.
Over the past 25 years, the prison population for England and Wales has almost doubled in size - from 44,246 in 1993 to 82,384 in December 2018. Capacity has not kept pace with demand and many prisons are now overcrowded. The inquiry heard how staffing shortages and other disruptions have severely undermined the delivery of rehabilitative services in prisons, including education, mental health treatment, substance misuse treatment and offending behaviour programmes. The Committee concluded that this creates immeasurable wasted costs.
The nature of the prison population is rapidly changing: a higher proportion of offenders are in prison for serious violent or sexual offences. The average age is rising and many prisoners have mental health problems. All these factors and others make the current cohort of prisoners extremely challenging.
The report argues that the Government's focus on addressing safety and decency in prisons has come at the expense of rehabilitation. The Ministry of Justice needs to refocus its efforts to enable a dual approach to maintain both safety and decency, as well as improve rehabilitation.

Chair's comments

Chair of the Justice Committee, Bob Neill MP, said:

“The Ministry of Justice and Treasury are guilty of a crisis management approach to prisons that has been failing for the past five years. Throwing money at the prison system to tackle multiple issues takes funding away from external rehabilitative programmes that could stem or reverse many of the problems.
“Proper investment in rehabilitation services would really work. Better access to support and opportunities for offenders would reduce repeat imprisonment, save money, and start to alleviate pressures on jails. 
“Poor access to rehabilitation while in prison creates boredom and frustration, with a cyclical impact on the degradation of regimes and safety.
“We need a serious open public debate about the criminal justice system, the role of prison and its affordability. We are pleased that the Justice Secretary and Prisons Minister have acknowledged this but regardless of the political climate it cannot just be a long-term aspiration.

There must be greater transparency so that everyone can understand the true costs and challenging nature of decisions which need to be made about public spending on prisons and other aspects of criminal justice. This should form the first step of the Justice Secretary's ‘National conversation'. These issues cannot be hidden behind the prison gates any longer.”

Key conclusions and recommendations

Today's report makes conclusions and recommendations in a range of areas. These include:

The MoJ's approach to managing the prison population and its financial sustainability;

  • There should be an overarching strategy for reoffending and a clear vision for what prisons will look like in the future. The Ministry of Justice's rehabilitative strategies should each be underpinned by clear governance arrangements, action plans, timetables and resources.
  • The Government's existing approach to prison reform is not sufficient to resolve major structural deficits to provision to reduce crime. There is an urgent need for significant additional resources for cross-departmental provision to reduce reoffending. This would save the Ministry money in the long-term and would reduce the cost to society of reoffending in the long-term.
  • The Treasury must now be able to recognise the wider implications of the decision not to invest in the prison and probation systems in recent years. It should take this into account in the 2020 to 2025 Spending Review exercise which should be broadened to encompass a more systematic approach to managing the £15bn a year costs of reoffending.

The current and projected prison population;

  • The prison population has become increasingly challenging in nature, with prisoners often having complex health and social needs. Many have learning disabilities or mental health conditions, such as psychosis, that make it difficult to cope with the criminal justice system and places an additional burden on the prison service to manage their needs.
  • Understanding the reasons for ethnic and racial disproportionality and seeking to reduce it must form part of a longer-term strategy for ensuring the sustainability of the prison population. The Ministry must monitor and take seriously the trend of racial and ethnic disparity in the prison population.

Explaining the growth in the prison population;

  • The rise in prison population has resulted from a greater proportion of those convicted being given a custodial sentence and from custodial sentences becoming longer. This has been driven by a complex set of factors, including more minor offending being diverted from the courts.
  • The Committee recommends that when changes to sentencing legislation are being debated in Parliament, the Ministry considers what more it might do to make Parliamentarians aware of the likely impact on exceedingly constrained resources.

Getting the basics right, including strong incentives for prisoners to reform;

  • There is a grave and worsening situation in the safety of prisons, despite recent advances in effort and resources.
  • Prisons are not currently maximising opportunities for rehabilitation. Regimes need to be reported upon in a meaningful way to enable monitoring of their operations, which are key to rehabilitation. 
  • For IPP prisoners, the aim of the system should be that most are safely managed back into communities at the earliest opportunity. As part of its review of sentencing, the Ministry should consult on legislative solutions to both release and recall of indeterminate sentenced prisoners to bring about sentencing certainty.
  • Whilst progress made on the Prison Estates Transformation Programme is welcome, the new-for-old strategy is not working as intended. The Committee recommends that as part of its Justice 2030 project, the Ministry develops a realistic, properly costed, long-term estate strategy that enables it to meet the needs of an ever-changing prison population.

Cross-departmental working to tackle reoffending.

  • The Committee supports the Government's approach to the abolition of short, ineffective prison sentences. The Committee repeats the recommendation of its Transforming Rehabilitation report that the Government should introduce presumption against short custodial sentences and believes. In addition to their welcome move towards avoiding the use of sentences under six months, they should model the effects of abolishing sentences of fewer than 12 months.
  • The Judiciary is entitled to expect that, in addition to being punished, those who are subject to probation supervision have good quality interventions and an opportunity to move on with their lives. The Government should as a medium-term priority, consider the value of judicial monitoring in its effort to improve sentencer confidence.

Further information

Image: MoJ