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The government’s criminal justice proposals don’t add up

Current criminal justice plans don’t address how to improve standards in prisons and will leave a hole in their budgets.

The government may be talking tough on criminal justice, but Nick Davies argues that current plans don’t address how to improve standards in prisons and will leave a hole in their budgets. 

While Brexit dominates the news, the contents of the Queen’s Speech suggests that criminal justice is just as much a government priority. Eight of the 26 bills announced relate to criminal justice, one more than the total number of legislation related to the UK’s departure from the EU.

The government wants to be seen as tough on crime

The government’s approach could be summed up as: tough on crime, tough on the perpetrators of crime. Three bills, in particular, stand out.

A new Sentencing Bill will “ensure that the most serious violent and sexual offenders spend more time in prison” by changing the automatic release point from halfway to two thirds of the way through their sentence.

A Prisoners (Disclosure of Information About Victims) Bill would ensure that the Parole Board, when deciding on parole, considers whether those convicted of murder, manslaughter or taking indecent photographs of children have disclosed specific details about their offences.

And a Foreign National Offenders Bill will increase the maximum penalty for foreign offenders who breach a deportation order.

This is all on top of the government’s existing commitments to recruit 20,000 more police officers and boost funding for the Crown Prosecution Service.

Government policies will increase the prison population and create a hole in the prisons budget

Analysis of government policy in our upcoming Performance Tracker 2019 – produced in partnership with the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy – calculates that spending on prisons will be 1.6% lower in 2023/24 than it was in 2018/19. These figures assume that prison spending will rise in line with the Ministry of Justice’s (MoJ) budget between 2018/19 and 2020/21, and then grows at the same average rate as other unprotected spending areas after 2020/21.

If the MoJ’s forecast of the prison population is correct, then this would amount to a 0.3% cut in the funding available per prisoner. However, the prison population forecast does not account for the impact of more police officers, better resourced prosecutors or longer sentences. And, as Robert Buckland, then prisons minister, now secretary of state for justice, accepted when appearing before the Commons Justice Committee, such measures “will inevitably have an effect on [prisoner] numbers”.

So, if the government wants to maintain standards in prisons with a growing population, then it will have to spend more.

The government needs a realistic plan to improve prison standards

Maintaining current standards on a reduced budget would be hard enough, but the government is actually committed to improving prisons. The MoJ’s single departmental plan has an ambition to reduce prison violence and self-harm, and the new Sentencing Bill is meant to ensure prisoners are “properly rehabilitated”. But other than spending more time in prison, the bill outline doesn’t contain any measures to improve rehabilitation.

Given the current state of prisons, this is a problem. Following steep cuts to the prisons budget, prisoner misbehaviour, violence and self-harm have all become more prevalent, while rehabilitative activities have become less widely available.

Number of offenders etc

The government’s 10 Prisons Project shows that it is possible to improve prison standards, but only with significant increases in staff and capital expenditure – and the government needs a credible plan to implement the lessons of the 10 Prisons Project across the whole prison estate.

The government wants its policies to send the message that crime doesn't pay, but the government's policies won't work unless it is willing to pay more in the first place.

Institute for Government

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