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Newsnight Tuesday, 1 July, 2003, 12:42 GMT 13:42 UK
Is sentencing too tough?

Contrary to public perception, judges are giving tougher custodial sentences and the prison population has grown.

Why is public perception so out of synch with the reality and what are politicians doing about this?

Gavin Esler was joined by Liberal Democrats President Lord Dholakia and Prisons Minister Paul Goggins.

I am now joined by the prisons minister Paul Goggins and Lord Dholakia. Do you accept the main findings of this, the judges are in touch with public opinion and they are tough?

The prison population is rising. We need to get behind the headlines of this particular report. The public and the government believe strongly that those who commit serious offences, murder, terrible kidnaps of children and so on, should face very long prison sentences.

The judges believe it, too, is the implication of this report, and perhaps they are not getting the credit for it?

I do believe there is a greater need for use of other penalties. It's absolutely right that more people perhaps who are going to prison for very short periods of time should be dealt with in the community.

We will come on to the non- custodial alternatives in a minute. Lord Dholakia, what do you think about the stereotype of judges that they are a lot of softies. This report blows that apart.

That is the case. There is no doubt that is the case. If you ask yourself why is certain crime static and the extent to which crime is falling, why is it that we are getting more people in prison. The answer is simple. Over a period of time, we had ratcheted up the whole system of criminal justice by which judges are now much tougher than they used to be in the old days. That is why, from a prison population of about 40-45,000 when Labour came to power, we now have 72,000 people in prisons.

I wonder why the Home Office doesn't give the judges more credit for it? We know the Home Secretary has described some judges as having lost their marbles and a senior Government source was talking about "muddled and confused old codgers". Judges get a bad press of being soft, and they are not.

I am in favour of greater dialogue between sentences, and politicians and the public at large. That's extremely important. One important issue is that over half of the people being sent to custody are being sent for six months or less. I believe it is possible to make greater use of the community penalties that we have, to deal with those people effectively in the community. Yes, it will be a punishment, but it will be in the community. That will reserve prison for those who really need it and it will make community penalties effective both for the offender and for the wider community.

As we heard about the so-called silting up of the Probation Service, judges and magistrates are saying the Probation Service is underfunded.

Absolutely. You have a very serious crisis in the Probation Service. I think the important thing to bear in mind, it is not what the judges are doing. It's the emphasis that the Home Secretary seems to be placing, which is actually skewing the whole debate on sentencing. There is no question about it, about higher sentences being passed by the judges. What we should effectively be talking about is the non-custodial alternatives. It's very easy to identify a few heinous cases in which judges may have erred from time to time, but that's not the pattern overall. What I am saying to Mr Blunkett and the Home Office is, look very carefully. There is the alternative of non-custodial sentences, used substantially in various parts of the world and in Europe. We can't afford to have a prison population at 72,000, estimated at over 100,000, when hardly anything happens in relation to rehabilitation, treatment and medical models. All we are doing, 60-70% of people who come out of prison re-offend within the period of two years, costing us 11bn a year.

That's a caricature of what David Blunkett has been saying. There will be support for the line of thinking that those who commit the gravest of offences should be sent to prison for longer, but David Blunkett also argues that greater use should be made of community penalties at the same time. As for the "silting-up of probation", there are now 2,000 more staff in the service than five or six years ago, and the amount of money going into the budget of the Probation Service has virtually doubled in that time. This Government is committing itself and committing resources very heavily to community penalties.

The report says on fairly petty offences on theft and handling stolen goods, you are three times more likely to go to jail than in 1991. Do you think that's a good idea?

GOGGINS: I made the point before that too many people are going to prison for short periods of time and could be dealt with more effectively in the community. I don't hide away from that. We have to have confidence in the criminal justice system. Confidence that sentencers can have in the criminal justice system that it will deliver properly enforced packages. The confidence of the community as well. It's the belief of having tough custodial sentences for serious offences and community sentences for less serious offences should be effective.

It hasn't worked when you ask yourself if that is what the Home Secretary has in mind, why is it that the prison population is what it is? Can I put a simple question to you? Over a period of time, we saw the rise in the prison population. What in reality is happening, we have some very good success stories. For example, the Youth Justice Board, the way it tries to divert people away from the criminal process. Why are we not making extensive use of it? It's no good looking at political headlines in the newspapers the next day and establishing your policy. This Government has an insatiable appetite in promoting legislation, year in, year out, the Criminal Justice Act. The effect is more and more people are going into prisons.

This is a caricature.

It's not. I chair the National Association of Care and Resettlement of Offenders. We pick up the pieces many times, of the final product of this type of legislation.

The reality is, you are right. The Justice Board has done a fantastic job. But many penalties that we are referring to, the greater use of tagging and electronic surveillance, has been extended to the adult population. We are on with reform. Yes, we need to do more, but we are doing it.

Let me ask a simple question. You have a curfew order. When did you last impose a curfew order on anyone in this country?

Curfew orders are important.

When did you last impose one, he was asking.

I can't give you chapter and verse on the very number. Home detention curfew, which is a system now whereby prisoners coming out of prison spend the last few weeks at home, on tag, on curfew, 90% of the people who go through that go through successfully. That's an example of the kind of community-based, tough approach that this Government is taking, and will be effective.

Newsnight can be seen on BBC Two at 2230 BST 2130 GMT, or in Real video, either live or on demand, by clicking on the latest programme button.

Newsnight can be seen on BBC Two at 2230 BST 2130 GMT, or in Real video, either live or on demand, by clicking on the latest programme button.

Richard Watson
reports on sentencing and over crowding in prisons

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