Liz Truss claims that prisoner numbers should not be reduced because of increases in the use of prisons to combat sexual offences, domestic violence and child abuse (Truss rejects calls for shorter prison sentences, 13 February). Her claim is both inaccurate and dangerous. Inaccurate, because she conflates crime data on drug sentences with those of violence. The data, however, indicates that about 60% of sentences are for drugs and/or property offences. It is dangerous because our society will not be made safer by sending people to violent institutions that are likely only to make them more violent. Prisons create a revolving door. Many people who are convicted for violent offences have first been imprisoned for property offences. A more stable indicator of who is sent to prison can be gained by looking at the impoverished backgrounds of prisoners – many can barely read or write, have grown up in care, are often on benefits, or are homeless or are on benefits.
It is also fundamentally wrong to argue that through prison sentences we are taking sexual violence seriously – it is estimated that only very small number of people who engage in sexual offences, domestic violence and child abuse (perhaps as low as 1% of the latter) are sent to prison. The criminal process fails victims of sexual violence. What is urgently required are interventions that meet the needs of the victims of sexual violence and interventions that work with violent and sexual offenders. Therapeutic communities, like those of Ray Wyre in the 1990s and the Lucy Faithfull Foundation in the last decade, have been proved to work in addressing sexual violence.
The place to start is by escaping the vicious cycle through a radical reduction in prisoner populations.
Dr David Scott
Bury, Greater Manchester
• Liz Truss’s claim that the exponential rise in prison numbers is due to the increase in sexual and domestic violence cases is questionable. The UK has the fourth highest incarceration rate of the 28 EU member states, and the numbers include prisoners on remand, many of whom do not ultimately receive custodial sentences and prisoners on indeterminate sentences, neither of which have received sufficient ministerial attention.
Shadow justice minister, House of Lords
• While I fully support the secretary of state for justice’s call to reduce prison populations by reforming offenders, there are still too many non-violent offenders – particularly women – in prison who could be rehabilitated more effectively through community sentences. The severity of the current situation in prisons warrants immediate and significant action to reduce prison numbers. However, a focus on prisoners’ needs and appropriate rehabilitation is of course very welcome, particularly at a time when prison suicide rates and mental health issues are at a record high. I urge the justice secretary, when considering interventions to tackle these needs, to be alert to the impact of the arts in engaging prisoners in purposeful and rehabilitative activity. In recent years, I’ve seen significant funding cuts to the availability of the arts in the criminal justice system, despite witnessing firsthand the results that can be achieved through arts-based programmes.
Arts initiatives help individuals to learn to foster their emotions in a safe way and provide an outlet for any negative feelings. This positive regulation of emotions has been linked to increased wellbeing and decreases in anger and aggression, and when you consider the impact that the mental health and well-being of prisoners has on their risk of offending and reoffending, it’s crucial we tackle this head on. In engaging prisoners in arts activities, I have seen time after time how this can help prisoners move towards a crime-free future.
We must ensure prisoners have access to the support and help required to facilitate rehabilitation, and the arts is a powerful tool to help us achieve this.
Dr Laura Caulfield
Assistant dean (Research and postgraduate affairs), Bath Spa University
• For advice on prison policy, Liz Truss could do worse than read Ken Clarke’s political memoir. In A Kind of Blue, Mr Clarke asserts that prison is a “wholly unsuitable place” for “waifs and strays whose problems were mainly caused by personal inadequacy, drug addiction or mental health issues”. Mr Clarke goes on to say that prisons “are now full of such people deprived of proper attention for their drug and alcohol problem”. Many addicts are sent to prison for offences connected to their addictions, after short sentences they are often released to return to a homeless existence having received no targeted attention for these addictions. Prison staff are clearly under intolerable pressure. The growing problems of drug and alcohol abuse, mental-health issues and homelessness should surely be worthy of a more coherent approach from the Ministry of Justice.
• I welcome the prime minister’s determination to bring about new legislation in respect of domestic violence (Report, 18 February). Strict and short time limits should be imposed from arrest to charge and from charge to trial. Most of the time the factual issues are very straightforward. The whole process should be measured in weeks. Initial accounts should always be filmed away from the home by police officers wearing body cams. There should be a rebuttable presumption in favour of such evidence being used where a complainant succumbs to fear, intimidation or pressure and does not attend court.
Where convictions are obtained, compulsory anti-abuse programmes should be a mandatory part of any sentence. Non-attendance should result in an automatic custodial penalty, either an increase in an existing sentence or the revocation of a community order with imprisonment, except where there are exceptional circumstances. Conversely, those who attend and are shown to have changed their ways and learned the devastating effect of what they have done should be able to apply have their sentences substantially cut or even terminated. Progress on such programmes should be monitored on a monthly basis by a judge. Only specialist advocates along with specialist judges should be allowed to deal with such cases. Whatever the new proposals are they will cost money. This has to come from central government. Without real and proper funding little real progress will be made in reducing domestic violence.
James Keeley (Barrister)
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