Latest Government projections suggest the prison population will rise over the next five years rather than fall as previously thought. It’s estimated that there will be 87,700 people in prison in June next year- over 2,000 more than the 85,582 locked up in the same month this year- and the 90,000 mark will be passed by June 2019. These estimates are substantially higher than last year’s projections- more than 10% higher in the case of the 2019 estimate.
How accurate have these projections proved to be in the past? While they have always provided a range of scenarios laden with caveats, recent predictions have not been great. Take the estimates made for the numbers thought likely to be in prison June 2014; the projections produced in each of the years from 2008 to 2011 overestimated what turned out to be the actual figure. But estimates produced in 2012 and 2013 were lower than what transpired. In November 2013, the statisticians thought the prison population in June 2014 would most likely be 83,400, 2000 less than it proved to be. Had these projections been more accurate, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling might have been in less of a hurry to close the four prisons he did during the course of the year.
Yesterday’s report predicting that prison numbers will go up rather than down – apparently based on recent increases in sexual and violent offenders brought before the courts- may enable Grayling to burnish his punitive credentials as some sort of Michael Howard light. But they will sound alarm in the already pressured Prison Service bracing itself for another round of cuts. Officials will be hoping that the controversial Transforming Rehabilitation initiative will eventually reduce demand for prison places. It’s likely that in the short term however, upheaval in probation is reducing courts confidence in alternatives to prison. The introduction of community supervision after short prison sentences next year may produce a further double whammy by making such disposals more attractive to sentencers and more liable to breach. The Ministry of Justice estimate that 600 places will be needed for breach cases alone. Ministers gratuitously trumpeting tough messages about the alleged value of prison and reckless plans to scrap cautions can only ratchet up the use of what is not only an undesirable but an unaffordable approach to penal policy.
What should be done instead? The British Academy recently set out a comprehensive agenda to reduce our reliance on prison through diversion, restrictions on custody, better alternatives and reduced sentence lengths. What’s needed alongside is a change of infrastructure and the way it is financed.
Some lessons might be provided by the NHS, where effective rationing of hospital beds is seen as essential if the system is not to collapse. The prison-hospital analogy- repeatedly made by Lord Ramsbotham since he became Chief Inspector of Prisons in 1995 is not perfect of course, but it seems to have increasing resonance in an era of sharply reducing resources.
In the NHS, keeping people out of hospital has become a key priority. GP’s are encouraged and incentivised to keep their patients at home wherever possible. Enhanced services are being put in place to prevent unplanned hospital admissions, care plans required for vulnerable patients. Community based infrastructure has been strengthened with community matrons organising multidisciplinary care and service hubs delivering it. There is still much more to do. Labour has drawn attention to how political neglect of social care and a lack of investment in the sector has led to huge pressure on hospital accident and emergency departments. But the direction of travel away from institutions and into the community need to be adopted in the penal system.
Using financial incentives to pay for that journey is long overdue. In health, if emergency hospital admissions exceed what’s expected, providers receive only 30% of the usual price. Commissioners are expected to invest the remaining 70% of the tariff income into demand management schemes which prevent inappropriate admissions by improving patient care outside of hospital.
Analogous Justice Reinvestment approaches have been much talked about but so far little practiced. They are just the sort of methods needed to prove the MoJ statisticians wrong and start to reduce the unnecessary use of prison.