Sunday, 19 April 2015

Will the Conservatives' short sharp spell in custody change behaviour ?

I spent much of last week at the 13th UN Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice in Doha. The five yearly event, opened for the first time by the UN Secretary General, comprises not only formal deliberations of member states but a rich programme of ancillary meetings mainly run by civil society organisations. These provided the 4,000 participants opportunities to discuss everything from prison overcrowding to wildlife and forest crime, from reducing acid attacks on women to match fixing in sport. Inevitably a number of meetings looked at the financial, economic and costs of the war on drugs and the disastrous impact it has had on the use and practice of imprisonment around the world.

London based NGO Penal Reform International used the Congress to launch its important report on Global Prison Trends 2015, containing a special pull-out section analysing those links between drugs and prison around the world. Meanwhile,  back in the UK, the Conservative party was publishing its election manifesto. It promised to introduce “a new semi-custodial sentence for prolific criminals, allowing for a short, sharp spell in custody to change behaviour”. Briefings afterwards revealed that so called flash incarceration will mean “persistent vandals, shoplifters and drug addicts will spend two nights in a police cell under Conservative plans”.

Think tanks Policy Exchange and the Centre for Social Justice are each likely to claim the role of midwives for the policy of “swift and certain punishment.” Both have extolled the virtues of Hope Probation, the tough love programme piloted in Hawaii which involves probation supervision accompanied by frequent drug testing. Failures lead to immediate but short terms of detention. Research has found impressive outcomes in terms of reduced drug use and jail time.  Because of its success, the short terms of detention imposed on programme failures require  fewer prison beds in Hawaii than do the longer sentences served by those who fail normal probation supervision.

Despite the research, I have been a bit sceptical about the wisdom of importing the approach in the UK.  At a Doha meeting organised by the Open Society Foundations on progressive drug law enforcement, I asked what the experts on the panel thought about the merits of a “swift and certain” punishment regime for drug misusers.

It turns out that there is a bit of scepticism on the other side of the Atlantic too. Some observers at least, while acknowledging the impact that Hope has had in Hawaii, question whether that is enough to justify its “correctional popularity”. Frank Cullen and colleagues at the University of Cincinnati point to “uncritical acceptance and importation of the programme to the U.S. mainland” and argue that several uncertainties about the programme may potentially compromise its effectiveness in other jurisdictions, thus offering false hope as a newparadigm.

It turns out too that evidence on another popular intervention- drug courts – is a good deal more equivocal than many would like. Evaluations have shown that in terms of impact on aggregate prison populations, in contrast to Hope, reductions in the numbers sent  to prison by Drug Courts in general have been offset by increased sentence lengths for the programme failures that are jailed.  

The lesson seems to be that however benign the policy intent, using criminal justice agencies to deal with what is fundamentally a health issue can be highly problematic. As a recent Open Society report puts it drug courts "do not represent reform if they undermine health and human rights, …. or if they impose punishment for relapses that are a normal part of drug dependence”.

Exactly the same can be said of the new Conservative policy.

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Strangeways 25 Years On - The One That Got Away.

It was depressing to hear Lord Woolf express his concern this morning that prison conditions today remind him of the situation in 1990 just before the 25 day riot and rooftop protest at Manchester’s Strangeways prison. Woolf’s inquiry into what happened there and in the other prisons which subsequently saw disturbances – an inquiry to which every prisoner and prison officer was invited to give evidence- remain highly relevant. 

His overarching conclusion was that prisons required a balance between security, control and justice and that the third of these had been neglected. Conditions inside Manchester prison were intolerable in the months leading up to the riot and successive governments had failed to provide the resources for the Prison Service which were needed to provide for an increased prison population in a humane manner.

Of the 12 key recommendations Woolf made, all bar one were accepted by the government in a White Paper published in September 1991. There is no doubt that the inquiry led to important improvements. Slopping out was eventually brought to an end, telephones were introduced into all prisons and an ombudsman appointed to handle complaints.

The recommendation which was not accepted was for a new prison rule that no establishment should hold more prisoners than is provided for in its certified normal level of accommodation, with provisions for parliament to be informed if exceptionally there is a material departure from that rule. Rather than accept this limitation on numbers in individual prisons, the government specifically established a higher measure of “operational capacity” for each.

Yes when this higher level is exceeded, emergency measures have to be taken- early release or the use of police cells. But the response effectively built overcrowding into the prison system in perpetuity. Had the government accepted Woolf’s original recommendation, not only would standards have improved inside jails, but we would arguably not have seen the doubling of the prison population .The sentence inflation introduced by Michael Howard and continued by his successors would have been unaffordable. Parliament would have focussed earlier on the need for Justice Reinvestment- the transfer of resources away from prisons and into the kind of prevention and rehabilitation measures which reduce the need for its use.

Woolf later came to see overcrowding as a cancer of the system which limited implementation of his agenda for reform
. There were other factors too, notably the priority given to security after the Whitemoor and Parkhurst escapes. But too many prisoners and too few resources show ,once again, that the cancer never went away and its worst symptoms- like the Strangeways riot- could easily return.