I was a prison visitor for over a decade, first at The Scrubs, then at HMP Wandsworth
On Tuesday last week the Commons approved the Release of Prisoners (Alteration of Relevant Proportion of Sentence) Order 2019, which is a very welcome measure: it ends the present early release regime for violent and sexual offences. Currently those offenders are released on licence once they have served only half their sentence. Furthermore, that halfway release is automatic, it is not dependent on good behaviour or on any other assessment.
The order that we passed last week changes this in two very important respects: first, it extends the release point until they have served two thirds of their sentence. Second, that release will no longer be automatic, on the contrary, it will require a full evaluation of risk and readiness by the parole Board.
This is a step in the right direction, but I do not believe it goes far enough. I believe we should be honest in our sentencing: the sentence that the judge gives in court should be the one that the prisoner should serve. What happens in court at present is a fiction: the judge might announce that the prisoner will go down for five years, but only the ‘man in the street’ is fooled. Those who understand the system will quickly work out on the back of their fag packet that he’s only going down for 2 years and six months. We should be grateful that now it means he’ll be inside for at least three years and four months, maybe longer. It would be more honest, I suggest, if the judge said at the outset “I’m sending you down for three years and four months, after which you may -dependent upon your behaviour in prison- be either released on licence, or remain in prison for a further year and eight months.
There is a whole lot more to do. Further legislation is on the way shortly to extend similarly the prison sentences of terrorists. I’ve always thought it absurd that an enormous amount of our counter-terrorism resources are taken up with monitoring terrorists who have been released from prison. Clearly, if they are still a danger requiring monitoring, then it was madness to have released them.
We also need to extend these provisions to less serious crimes, such as burglary. A Police officer recently told me that he had a graph indicating ‘spikes’ in local break-ins, which he could map directly to the release dates of a known repeat offender.
When Michael Howard was Home Secretary he used to say “prison works”, what he meant was that communities are spared significant levels of crime so long as the habitual criminals are ‘inside’.
It follows that if we want lower levels of crime, then we need to keep criminals inside for longer. Frankly, we ought to keep them inside until they demonstrate that they are reformed.