Yesterday's Independent carried a front page article about a "surprise surge" in the England and Wales prison population, which now stands at 87,668, having risen by more than 1,000 over three weeks. If this was genuinely a surprise for the Ministry of Justice then, well, The Enforcer can do little more than a rolling of eyes and a throwing of hands in the air. Surely someone could have been monitoring, in some small way, the cases of those involved with last August's riots with their glacial progress through our Crown Courts? Even the most straightforward indictable-only cases take months to wend their way through the system, and that's not even thinking about those either way charges that the magistrates will have deemed too serious for them to deal with.
Having said that, our prison system is so unwieldy that there is no realistic way of responding to large fluctuations in demand, other than using police and court cells as a short term option. The alternative is rushing unsuitable people into the Category D estate without a careful risk assessment, which puts those open prisons (which, by their nature, have lower levels of staffing and supervision) under more pressure - this reduces their effectiveness at both monitoring and resettling prisoners (as we saw at HMP Ford over Christmas 2010) and hence the public more at risk.
As a hand-wringing big state liberal (note the small 'L', please), The Enforcer's answer is more government spending. But not just on the criminal justice system - in fact, spending more money here is effectively an acknowledgement of failure, much as I hate to say it. No, we need money targeted where it can do the most good - I'm talking about funding Sure Start centres properly (NB, Dave and George - that doesn't mean just saying you support Sure Start but failing to require councils to fund it by not ringfencing the cash), about proper support for drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and about supporting the small and medium-sized businesses that will create the jobs that will keep the majority of those who end up committing offences out of trouble.
At the moment the salami-slicing of budgets means that departments look to find their own savings without thinking (or, let's be honest, without caring) about how this is going to cost someone else more money. The short-termist attitude and allergic reaction to any type of public sector spending currently seen across Westminster and Whitehall is only leading us into a game of who can blame the last lot quickest.