A vision of justice in the future?

By Robin Brant
Home affairs correspondent, BBC News

  • Published

Prime Minister David Cameron thinks the prison service is "not working properly" and major reforms are planned. So, how is punishment likely to look in the coming years?

Image caption,
Prison is seen as failure at the Drugs Court in Hammersmith

The man is sitting face to face with the judge. He is so close their knees could almost touch.

After 20 minutes, as things are about to wrap up, the judge says to him: "You know if you've got a problem you can ring me... ring me and I'll swear at you down the phone."

Then J, who the BBC has agreed not to name at the judge's request, stands up to leave the courtroom. The judge gives him a hug. J says "cheers, mate," then walks out. The first review of his Drug Rehabilitation Requirement is over.

This is a scene that could be replicated a thousand times over if Justice Secretary Ken Clarke gets his way. The special Drugs Court in Hammersmith, west London, is a place where prison is seen as failure.

Community orders are the answer here, with hugs and mobile numbers thrown in from the man in charge, Judge Justin Phillips.

J is a man in his 30s. He has got a serious drug problem, has done heroin, now he takes cocaine. He has just been in prison for burglary.

Now he is on an 18-month community order. He is expected to show up for testing twice a week until December 2011, and he is expected to stay out of trouble. If he re-offends, the judge-with-the-hugs could send him back to jail.

The re-offending rate is the big problem. Nearly half of all people sent to prison are reconvicted within a year. For those on short sentences - less than 12 months - over 60% are reconvicted.

"Just banging up more and more people for longer without actively seeking to change them is, in my opinion, what you would expect of Victorian England," Mr Clarke said in his first major speech in his role. The justice secretary wants a "rehabilitation revolution".

'Prison works'

This is music to the ears of prison reformers and most Liberal Democrats, but not to some on his own side, the Conservatives.

It has been seen as a challenge to the orthodoxy established almost 20 years ago when the then-Home Secretary Tory Michael Howard told the world '"prison works".

Since those words in 1993, figures show the prison population has almost doubled. At the same time, reported crime has fallen by nearly 50%.

Lord Howard, as he now is, believes there is a clear correlation - the rise caused the fall.

He represents some in the Conservative Party who fear the new direction could cause a reversal of that trend, and a rise in crime.

"I'm all for improving efforts to rehabilitate people while they are in prison," he told the BBC last month, "but we should never lose sight of the fact that while people are in prison they are not free to commit crimes against the public."

Some on the police side are just as sceptical about alternatives to prison.

In a BBC interview, the former Gloucestershire Chief Constable Tim Brain said sending people to prison "gives the community some respite from these prolific offenders".

"That I think is the big question mark hanging over this new penal policy. What will it do for communities?" he said.

Value for money

Some are pleased to hear the new emphasis on rehabilitation, but they are worried about the money.

"The preference might have been to set these schemes up before you start down-sizing," Owen Sharp from the charity Victim Support told the BBC. "But that involves a period of double paying, as it were, and that's not realistic."

The money is a key part of this debate. The Ministry of Justice, like nearly all government departments, has to cut back.

Mr Clarke's "rehabilitation revolution" could also be seen as a push for better value for money.

There is overwhelming evidence that prison did not work for people sent down for less than 12 months.

The justice secretary does not see that as good value for taxpayers who contributed £9bn this year to his department.

Labour shares the concerns that there could be a rise in crime if the coalition cuts prison places, but also fears that more community orders will require more money and resources - not less.

Punishment is also a key part of the debate. Some believe this is a shift away from punishing offenders, towards a focus on rehabilitation.

But Mr Sharp insists there has to be "a debate about what punishment looks like."

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