When the new justice secretary, Kenneth Clarke, was last in charge of prisons and penal policy, as home secretary, the average prison population in England and Wales (1992–1993) was 44,628. That figure now stands at over 85,000 – a number Clarke described after his appointment as "extraordinarily high". The political arms race over the criminal justice policy indulged in by successive Conservative and Labour administrations over the past two decades has seen the UK prison population grow from average to the highest in western Europe. As outlined in the Prison Reform Trust briefing launched this week, the social and economic costs of our addiction to custody have been immense.
....The coalition can draw on lessons from abroad where justice reinvestment and prisoner re-entry programmes, driven by economic necessity in many states in America, have had considerable success at reducing crime and rates of reoffending. Closer to home, restorative justice with young people in Northern Ireland has delivered a reduction in youth crime, a drop in child custody and a 90% victim satisfaction rate. Integrated offender management schemes piloted in parts of England and Wales have achieved impressive results and are waiting to be rolled out nationally.
A breathing space from obsessive concentration on increasing prison capacity at all costs would give the government time to restructure the system so that local authorities, voluntary organisations, and police and probation services work more closely together to develop community solutions to crime that inspire public and judicial confidence.
....As Alan Travis highlights in the Guardian, in the past the new justice secretary has been highly critical of the unchecked expansion of the prison population. In a debate on prison policy in the House of Commons in June 2007, Clarke called for "a change of culture in which the platitudes about community sentences and making prison only for those who need it are turned into reality by returning proper discretion to the courts and ensuring that prisons are used only for violent, dangerous and recidivist criminals in conditions in which there is some hope that some of them will be rehabilitated". As a moderate prescription for reforming our overcrowded and underperforming prison system the new coalition government could do a lot worse.