When prison is preferable to life on the streets | Letters

The difficulty in securing housing results in a sense of hopelessness for those caught up in the criminal justice system, writes Katie Steiner. While John Weightman says that we must no longer dump our children in failing penal institutions

As a criminal defence solicitor representing clients in the magistrates court it is clear to me that the majority of offenders given short-term sentences are sent to prison either because they ask to be sent or because they have failed to comply with a community order (MPs see sense on prisons. Will government?, 6 April).

The shortage of hostel accommodation and difficulty in securing housing results in a sense of hopelessness for those caught up in the criminal justice system who cannot secure housing after being released from prison. Similarly the privatisation of the probation service has resulted in low-risk offenders in my area being required to attend probation appointments on an industrial estate outside the town centre.

Sadly, for a lot of my clients, being sent to prison is a more attractive option than remaining in the community. Better housing and probation provision would make the aim of not sending people to prison for sentences of under 12 months more realistic to achieve.
Katie Steiner
Solicitor, Howells Sheffield, and lecturer at the University of Sheffield

• If there is to be any progress in the youth justice system, and if the challenges of the recent events at Feltham young offender institution (Calls to close Feltham youth jail after violence, 10 April) are not to be repeated, we must move beyond the routine calls for prosecutions and further punishment and open our whole approach to fundamental review. We must no longer merely dump our difficult children in failing institutions, conveniently out of sight and out of mind, but society in general and our communities in particular must recognise and own the problem. The approach of the Prison Officers Association (and the Prison Service) misses the point at the very start and seeks to close the door on any possibility of progress when it declares “Replace the term ‘children’ with ‘violent young criminal’ and you more accurately describe what POA union members in the juvenile estate face.”

Of course, the events at Feltham are to be deplored and cannot be without consequence. But solutions much more creative than merely locking up children must be explored. Recently exposed isolation of children in some academies are also part of the problem and reflect badly on how society approaches challenging behaviour. Simplistic criminal justice solutions work temporarily at best and only encourage us to ignore deep-rooted problems. But they will never solve anything in the long term.

These are our children: society must step forward and never abrogate our responsibility for them. A vigorous and fundamental review of the way we look after vulnerable, challenging children, even when they offend, must be undertaken. Meanwhile, failing institutions should be closed down.
John Weightman
Former vice-president, National Council of Independent Monitoring Boards

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