What do we do?
As widely predicted (even by me), prison numbers hit new heights on Friday. Some will no doubt say, so what? Well, higher prison numbers means more time has to be spent on containing those who are there, rather than making efforts to rehabilitate them, provide education or training, facilitate family visits and so on. It also means a greater likelihood of prisoners harming themselves as, according to a BBC report, apparently happened in London last week.
So, what to do? Lord Falconer, keeper of the brand, shiny new office of Secretary of State for Justice (an excellent title) has been out and about talking about possible solutions, from an early release scheme for non-violent offenders (I can sense tabloid editors already writing their stories for when the first such prisoner re-offends after release). Hidden amongst all of that is a promise to make community penalties tougher - because of course the presumption is that "tougher" means "more acceptable" to those voters who can swing elections. Nowhere is there any mention of any serious attempts to make community sentences more understandable to the general public - to explain what goes on, what being "on Probation" really means, and what probation officers really do, except drink our camomile tea and scratch our toes through our sandals. And I blame the Probation Service for this, just as much as I blame other parts of the Home Office - there hasn't been a concerted effort to provide leadership in this area on a national basis, although a search through local newspaper headlines shows that there is some very good work going on at a local level.
So why is this? Probation work has a very solid values base, backed up by decades of criminological research, backed up by extremely committed front line staff. But why do we never hear anything other than the story that "Mr X walked free from court" rather than "Mr X received a community sentence"?
Yesterday's Guardian had this interesting piece tracing back the roots of increasing use of custody, and an ever-more punitive sentencing climate to the early 1990s and the killing of James Bulger. The article quotes David Blunkett as describing the individualism of the 1980s that caused a social breakdown, and the massive influx of crack cocaine in the 1990s as further key factors in this shift - what a shame he didn't seem to show that sort of insight as Home Secretary. It's a little beyond me on a Sunday night to push all of this into a coherent framework - there's probably a postgraduate thesis in there somewhere - but what seems to me is that there will not be an end to prison overcrowding until there's a greater acceptance that non-custodial measures can be - and are - effective in cutting crime. Tougher community sentences will only lead to more breaches, and yet more prisoners.