British Academy report urges reduction in reliance on imprisonment as punishment

3 Jul 2014

The British Academy has today published a report, which urges that the UK stop relying so heavily on imprisonment as a form of punishment. Instead of imprisoning so many people for so long, the new report argues that in many cases, alternative measures will provide better, and more sustainable, long term outcomes. 

The report, titled A Presumption Against Imprisonment: Social Order and Social Values’, was written by a group of academic experts including Professor Andrew Ashworth FBA, Professor Roger Cotterrell FBA, Professor Andrew Coyle, Professor Antony Duff FBA, Professor Nicola Lacey FBA, Professor Alison Liebling and Professor Rod Morgan.

The report illustrates how changes to criminal law and policy have led to progressively harsher sentencing regimes, with longer periods of imprisonment imposed on persistent offenders and  the increased use of  mandatory minimum and indeterminate sentences for certain crimes. The prison population in England and Wales almost doubled between 1992 and 2011, rising from just under 45,000 to 88,000. Although it has fallen back to about 85,500 today, it is estimated that by 2018 the prison population could reach more than 90,000. (A similar increase has occurred in Scotland.)

The report suggests a range of strategies to reduce our reliance on imprisonment, including reviewing sentence lengths, using diversion from the courts more extensively and promoting greater use of alternative forms of sentence. In addition to these strategies, the report recommends three ‘overarching institutional proposals’:

• the creation of a Penal Policy Committee, accountable to Parliament, to formulate  policies on the appropriate use of imprisonment;

• greater attention by the Sentencing Council to the costs and effectiveness of different forms of sentence;

• an urgent review of cases of Imprisonment for Public Protection in which  the minimum term has been served, with a view to release.

Professor Antony Duff FBA, Chair of the Steering Group, comments:

“This report shows why imprisonment should play only a modest role in a decent, humane and efficient system of criminal justice, and suggests some practicable strategies towards that goal.”

The report has been welcomed by the Rt Hon. The Lord Woolf PC FBA, former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, who comments:

“This report should be read by anyone interested in the well-being of our criminal justice system. It is the first comprehensive report from an eminent, neutral, national organisation addressing the debate about why and how we imprison so many and for so long, and it highlights why it is vital in the national interest that we reduce their number”

Arguments about the use of imprisonment often appeal to its costs and benefits. While ‘A Presumption Against Imprisonment’ emphasises that non-custodial measures can often be more economical, the report’s main focus is on a different kind of argument; understanding and maintaining the core social values which the UK upholds for every citizen - liberty, autonomy, solidarity, dignity, inclusion and security. If the UK takes these values seriously, the report urges that we consider their implications for the way we treat those who commit crimes, and seek to find new options for punishment, not just imprisonment. Imprisonment can be an appropriate sentence in some of the most serious cases, but for many offences that currently carry prison sentences, other kinds of punishment, should be recommended.

The report is divided into three parts; Part 1 analyses changes in the use and practice of imprisonment in England and Wales, and in Scotland, over the last twenty years, Part 2 discusses why it is urgent that we try to move towards a lower use of imprisonment and Part 3 examines six possible strategies to reduce our reliance on imprisonment. 

The full report and Executive Summary are available to read here.

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