Building on sand: Why expanding the prison estate is not the way to 'secure the future.'

Published: Jul 2008

Professor Carol Hedderman - Centre for Crime and Justice Studies

This report, by Professor Carol Hedderman of the University of Leicester and a former Assistant Director of research in the Home Office, challenges the government's explanation for the factors driving up the prison population set out in the recent Review of Prisons by Lord Carter. Building on sand: Why expanding the prison estate is not the way to 'secure the future', states that Lord Carter's analysis is 'largely unevidenced'.

According to the report: The increased use of imprisonment has not been driven by more offences being brought to justice. For example, the numbers convicted for burglary have dropped by an average of 1,400 per year since 1995. The increased use of custody has been affected by the sentencing of some serious offences, but there is little sign that, overall, the courts are dealing with more serious cases now than they were in the mid 1990s. They are simply responding more punitively. The biggest single change in sentencing behaviour concerns the number and the length of custodial sentences for less serious property offences and other cases which are too trivial to be sent to the Crown Court. Prison reconviction rates have escalated as the population has increased.

The report suggests a number of possible policy reforms to slow the rise in prison numbers. These include: Immediately introducing a structured sentencing framework, perhaps under the aegis of the current Sentencing Guidelines Council. Limiting magistrates' powers to use custody for non-violent summary offences and in particular discourage sentencers from using custody for theft and handling. Developing a recognised measure - or `QALY'- of public safety, similar to that used by National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence for medical treatments, so that the impact and value of imprisonment and other sanctions can be compared in a common currency. Greater use of local communication initiatives to inform the public about just how frequently the courts are resorting to custody.