Brit PM calls for major prison reform

In a call which should resonate thunderously in Australia, British PM David Cameron has called for major prison reform. Oz state and federal politicians need to echo his words. 

Brit PM calls for major prison reform

By Bill Rowlings, CEO of Civil Liberties Australia

British PM David Cameron has outlined a major program for prison reform, generating a telling editorial in The (London) Guardian newspaper, which speaks truth also to the situation in Australia:

“(Mr Cameron) is now again on the record confessing that the British prison system doesn’t work and is a scandalous failure, insisting that prisoners should be treated as “assets to be harnessed” not as “liabilities to be managed” and promising the biggest shake-up of the system since Victorian times.

“It is a message that could and should have been proclaimed and acted on years and even decades ago. Mr Cameron nevertheless deserves credit for raising the standard of reform once more.

“The fundamental reason for taking a new approach to prison is the consistent failure of the system to rehabilitate the offenders who are sent there. No one argues against prison for the most serious offences and most dangerous offenders. But sending too many people to prison for excessively long terms has helped to generate overcrowded prisons with all too few ensuing benefits to society once a prisoner is released.

“It does not help that, in a time of spending austerity, prison is an expensive way of doing something badly.

SML SQ s630_PMPrisonSpeech160209“Today’s prisons are too often characterised by recurrent mental health, self-harm and drug problems among inmates that could be better dealt with elsewhere; by control issues involving violence, gang culture and radicalisation that require more sustained strategies; and by lack of useful work, training and education. The net result, accentuated in women’s prisons, is prisons that are more criminogenic than rehabilitative.

Photo: PM Cameron delivering the prisons speech in February 2016.

“Mr Cameron’s statistics tell the revolving-door story with great force: within a year of release, 46% of all prisoners will reoffend, a figure that rises to 60% among short-sentence prisoners. In other words, Britain spends £13bn a year ($26.5 billion Aust) on a system that doesn’t work.

“Mr Cameron’s solutions, which include:

  • devolving control to governors,
  • the building of six new model “reform prisons”,
  • a new system of comparative performance league tables,
  • more day release and tagging, and
  • new ideas on prison education,

are all worthwhile.

“It is important that they are all trialled and independently evaluated and that they are not allowed to become a new dogma unchallenged.“Mr Cameron said little about prison officer training, which should also be reviewed.“But the fundamental answer to the overcrowding that constrains so much prison reform is sentencing reform, which is in turn dependent on a properly financed system of alternatives to custody. Here, after years of reversal of the progressive thinking that Mr Cameron extolled, there is so far only talk, and not a lot of that.” (ENDS Guardian editorial).

The striking opportunity facing prisons – in Australia, the UK, the USA and the rest of the rich, western world – is drug policy reform, Civil Liberties Australia President Dr Kristine Klugman said.“Western prisons could lose up to 50% of their inmates overnight if the archaic approach to drug use is changed,” she said. “It should be a health issue, not a criminal issue.“At the same time, society must treat mental illness seriously, before it morphs, along with drug use, through crime and into more prison buildings and beds.”

“Mr Cameron is half right: prison reform is vital. But he has the horns by the bull: reform of the legal systems, from laws and police, through courts and judges to sentencing and incarceration, is vital.“The problem is that, in the UK and in Australia, reforming the legal and justice infrastructure is a 10th order issue, ranking behind tax, education, mining, transport, banking, gambling, communications, sport and health in public consideration.“While those issues take their turn to come to the top of the pile for reform, the nation’s legal and justice system is never addressed as one of the key cogs smoothly driving the engine of society…or grinding along, chewing people up in the process.

“I congratulate Mr Cameron, and fervently hope that one or a few Australian politicians start to realise that our nation demands a ‘better justice’ system.“Civil Liberties Australia has this year launched a program to that effect, with 10 initiatives over 10 years, to begin to reform laws and lawyers, police and magistrates, judges and courts, as well as bail, remand, sentencing and prisons.,” Dr Klugman said.

Cameron’s speech:

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