UK: They are just the opposite of master criminals. Indeed, in the words of Nick Davies in his latest three-part Guardian series on the criminal justice system, [? criminal law system], their criminal careers reflect "the same muddled inadequacy as they handle the rest of their lives". They were nearly all born and raised in chaos.
He goes on: "They have been punished before by the system, often for good reason, but failed to change their behaviour, occasionally becoming worse." They include drug users, the mentally ill and the homeless. Davies spent a week in a magistrates' court in London's East End talking to these petty offenders, prosecutors, police and probation officers.
His conclusion is bleak: "With its best efforts at rehabilitation struggling, this government now presides over a system which is overwhelmingly devoted to punishment." This is a harsh conclusion but one that has been supported by the lord chief justice, the chief inspector of prisons and the director general of the prison system, all of whom have spoken out against the excessive use of prisons by our courts. They all want prison to be reserved for dangerous, serious sexual or violent offenders. Yet as Martin Narey, head of the new national offender management service told our home affairs editor last month, the imprisonment of minor criminals has multiplied.
Last month, the prison population exceeded the 75,000 mark for the first time. This is 8,000 higher than the official capacity of the 138 prisons in England and Wales. Prison governors have described the current state of prisons as at "bursting point". It took four decades for the prison population to increase by 11,000 between 1951 and 1991, but it has climbed by 25,000 in the last decade. Despite a one-third reduction in each of the two biggest categories of crime - burglary and car crime - the annual numbers sent to prison has doubled in the last decade. The reasons are twofold: a disproportionate use of prisons by the courts; and a disproportionate increase in length of sentences.
Who are these petty offenders? They were well documented by the government's social exclusion unit in a report in July 2002, which showed the important bonds that are broken by prison: one third lose their home, two-fifths contact with their families, and two-thirds their jobs. Some 50% of prisoners have a lower level of reading skills than an 11-year-old, 65% lower numeracy skills and 80% lower writing skills. Poor mental health generates further problems with 70% suffering at least two disorders. In his forward to the report, Tony Blair emphasised the need to "redouble efforts to rehabilitate prisoners back into society".
Change is promised. The Carter review, a joint Downing Street, Treasury and Home Office review of the prison crisis, reported at the beginning of the year. Like the Halliday report in 2001, it punctured Michael Howard's false promise that "prison works".
The new aim is to provide more community programmes that could address the educational, drug addiction and mental health needs of minor offenders. A new sentencing guidelines council, headed by the lord chief justice, has been set up to reverse the penal approach of the courts. A new cap on maximum prison numbers - 80,000 - has been announced. Yet serious doubts remain.
The first involves funding; the second the restructuring of the prison and probation agencies into a "seamless service", which will absorb huge amounts of management time that could be spent on raising standards; the third is the readiness of the home secretary to take on the tabloid press and change public and judicial attitudes. A decade ago a Tory home secretary, Douglas Hurd, cut prison numbers by 5,000 by proactively campaigning for such a reduction. Leadership works. But is David Blunkett ready to give it?
By The Guardian posted 20 April 2004
How the Prison Service Works
1.Abuse and torture inmates at HMP Wormwood Scrubs
2.Take years to admit a regime of violence and torture.
3.Settle 46 claims, paying 1.7 million to prisoners.
5.Carry on as before.
4.Keep 11 of the 14 prison officers responsible in their jobs.
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