A report in yesterday's Guardian
records that prison numbers in England and Wales have now reached another new record at 79,247, which is some 653 places below full capacity. The report identifies recent trends in tougher sentencing (contrary to the popular image) but also the part played in pushing up prison numbers by enforcement action taken by probation officers.
This can take two forms: anyone released part-way through their sentence can be recalled to custody for breaching the terms of their licence. This is sometimes because of the commission of other offences, often because of failing to attend appointments with their probation officer, but also sometimes because of unacceptable behaviour that suggests that they are at risk of offending or causing serious harm. This is an interesting and challenging area (particularly once the solicitors become involved) but one where the close co-operation between agencies, especially the police and social services, has really shown a benefit.
The other way in which probation enforcement drives up prison numbers is through breaching community orders. The Criminal Justice Act 2003 removed some of the discretion that courts and probation officers had in this area; prior to April 2005, when the Act came into force, breaches could be dealt with by small fines and allowing the Order to continue. This was used in cases where the offender had breached the terms of their Order but there were signs that they were still motivated to address their offending and were 'on the right path'; this was very much a judgement call by the individual probation officer, but in my experience was frequently supported by the courts. Since last April, this course of action is no longer an option: after any breach, a Community Order must either be revoked and the offender re-sentenced in another way, or the Order must be made more stringent (such as additional hours of Unpaid Work, or extra requirements).
The article quotes Juliet Lyon, the director of the Prison Reform Trust
, who says that there "ought to be a more sophisticated way of ensuring compliance than just yanking them back to prison". Most probation officers would agree with this, in most cases. But the discretion has been taken away from us, as it has been from the courts, and we're now seeing the clear cost of that in intense pressure on the resources of the Prison Service.
It seems that the Home Office are now considering moves to release some low-risk prisoners 10 days early in order to free up some spaces. Presumably this will involve notifying the relevant Probation Areas well in advance so that arrangements can be made for their supervision, where required, but I'm not holding my breath (the Immigration and Nationality Directorate have no duty to inform us when they are a) detaining someone for immigration checks or b) about to let them go, so I have a sneaky suspicion that the rest of the Home Office will take the same approach and let us be the last to know). This will apparently create 500 more spaces, which is really just a drop in a very stormy ocean.
Labels: community order, enforcement, Home Office, prison, Prison Reform Trust