We should tag non-violent offenders not lock them up in Dickensian jails

Prison works. It punishes offenders by depriving them of their liberty. It protects the public by keeping dangerous individuals off the streets.

But prison doesn’t work when it comes to the purposes of sentencing beyond punishment and protection: reduction of crime, reparation, reform & rehabilitation. Indeed, nearly 50 per cent of prisoners reoffend after release.

And prison carries a heavy cost – a financial cost to the taxpayer and an opportunity cost to prisoners whose loss of family ties, employment and accommodation drastically reduce their chances of leading a crime-free life once they are released.

That is not to question the dedication and commitment of prison officers and staff, but they are hamstrung by an estate that is simply not fit for purpose. More than a quarter of the prisons in use today were built before 1900 and some date back much further – for instance, construction began at HMP Pentonville in 1840. This was far from the digital age: that year, cutting-edge communication came thanks to the introduction of the Penny Black; today it’s from instant messaging and SatNav. But while technology has revolutionised our lives in myriad ways, such advances have, thus far, not reached anything like their full potential in the criminal justice system, let alone the prison estate.

So, is prison as we know it the right place for all offenders currently sentenced to custody?

My strong belief following 15 years involved in the criminal justice system is that it is not, and that we are missing a critical sentencing option. Starting at the Independent Monitoring Board of HMP YOI Feltham and as a magistrate, through membership of the Youth Justice Board and Sentencing Council, a non-executive directorship of HMPPS, and culminating on the House of Commons Justice Select Committee, I have experienced both the frontline operations of prisons and the courts, as well as national, strategic decision-making. 

Throughout that time, I have been struck time and again by the scope for greater innovation and imagination. There is huge, untapped potential to use digital technology, not least GPS tags, to provide better options for non-dangerous offenders. “Blue sky thinking” conversations with colleagues occasionally considered whether we could go as far as “virtual prisons”. But the imperatives of the everyday pushed such ponderings aside.

Now the Centre for Social Justice has developed the idea and adapted it into something concrete, thoroughly researched and tested, compared and contrasted with similar concepts in other jurisdictions, and built into a robust and workable proposal.

The result is a new custodial sentence: the Intensive Control and Rehabilitation Order. But rather than being served in a prison, it maximises the rapid progress of technology and instead deprives the offender of their liberty by essentially putting them under house arrest in the community. Rather than being restricted to the rehabilitation courses available in any individual jail, this enables offenders to have access to the full range of interventions and programmes available in their local area. Rather than surrounding the individual with countless other offenders, it enables them to be influenced by positive role models and family. And rather than solely being a burden on the taxpayer, in many circumstances it enables people to continue working during their sentences, and so to pay taxes themselves.

In turn, this will allow prisons to focus their efforts much more intensively and constructively on those offenders who absolutely do need to be held behind bars topped with barbed wire. It will also mean we can truly put victims at the heart of the justice system – with stronger reparation during the sentence, and lower reoffending after it.

Britain is rebuilding. The Coronavirus pandemic has forced change throughout our economy and across our society.  Initiatives that would have taken years have been introduced in weeks. We are at a unique moment to rethink almost every aspect of the way we live our lives. We should not ignore the criminal justice system when we do so. Instead, let’s seize the moment to reimagine the role of prisons, and create a new form of custody that is as effective at rehabilitation and reform as it is at punishment and protection of the public.

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