Sunday 21 August 2011

Communities Can Benefit From Sentencing

The prison population has breached the 86,000 mark, a huge proportion of UK residents to be living an incarcerated existence. It confirms the UK’s pole position in holding the highest prison population per capita in western Europe. It wouldn’t necessarily be a problem were it not for the evidence that prison sentences do little to prevent future antisocial behaviour. There is every reason to believe that the young people to whom these exemplary sentences have been handed down will emerge all the more disaffected and further marginalised. What good will a few months in a cell do for a criminalised youth whose only prospects upon release are Jobseekers’ Allowance and Housing Benefit?

The Howard League for Penal Reform believes that the remedy to our “sick” “facebook generation” does not lie in the criminal justice system. It is argued that these sentences are “disproportionate and indeed devalue our response to more serious crimes.” Its Director of Campaigns, Andrew Neilson, has posited that swamping the courts results only in increased criminal appeals, further burdening the judicial system.

The Howard League for Penal Reform has for years promoted the use of community sentences, and this form of sentencing received support from the Justice Secretary in December 2010. In that Green Paper, Ken Clarke committed to reforming offenders and reducing the prison population, openly recognising the merits therein. The question as to where this commitment now lies amidst Cameron’s no-mercy approach is an apt one.

These sentences will leave an already straining prison system buckling under the burden of an unmanageable task, susceptible to collapse at any moment. With such stretched resources within England’s prisons, it would not be surprising if under-pressure staff were presented with large-scale prison riots. After all, they are housing experienced rioters at this stage. A better response may be to encourage rioters to participate in their local community - this would vividly illustrate the grassroots impact of their recklessness. Community sentences involving clean-up services and community cohesion would grant these rioters a perspective while simultaneously benefiting local areas. There is no practical advantage to locking up the youths concerned and providing no worthwhile services/activities inside the prisons (there is not the resource, nor time, to do so) before they are released and return to the culture from whence they came. More valuable would be a punishment bestowing more responsibility; a sentence enforcing voluntary community work would do more for these kids' image of their own city than any prison sentence.

I hope that a different attitude is demonstrated with regards North Belfast riots next summer. Perhaps by then we will have learned something from our English neighbours. In the meantime, Ken Clarke should have the integrity to stand behind his own policy, the benefits of which he is very well aware.

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