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Tuesday, 29 October, 2002, 22:11 GMT
Lock 'em up approach failing - judge
Lincoln jail interior
Lord Woolf blamed the Lincoln jail riots on overcrowding
The "punitive approach" to fighting crime by imposing ever tougher jail sentences has failed, the most senior judge in England and Wales has said.

Over-reliance on jail sentences has led to an overcrowding problem which is a "cancer" at the heart of the Prison Service, Lord Chief Justice Lord Woolf warned.

That undermined its efforts to reform and rehabilitate offenders, and contributed to disturbances such as the recent riots at Lincoln, he said.

Lord Woolf called for a more "holistic" approach to criminal justice, with more use of community-based penalties, restorative justice and drug treatment for minor offenders.

Lord Woolf
More use should be made of community sentences, Lord Woolf said
Jail should be reserved for serious and violent criminals, he said - which would free the Prison Service to concentrate on rehabilitation work.

The Lord Chief Justice's comments were welcomed by the Home Office, which is expected to extend the use of community penalties in the Criminal Justice Bill in next month's Queen's Speech.

But Lord Woolf warned that the changes must be backed by more money for the Probation Service, which will have the job of supervising offenders in the community.

Delivering the Rose Lecture in Manchester, Lord Woolf accepted that judges must bear some blame for the increasing prison population.

Lincoln loss

However, he said they were reacting to pressure from politicians.

"There is a continuous upward pressure, and very rarely any downward pressure, on the level of sentences," he said.

"The upward pressure comes from public opinion and the media, the government of the day and Parliament."

Lord Woolf, who produced the influential report into the riots at Manchester's Strangeways prison in 1990, said overcrowding was the cause of this month's disturbances at Lincoln.

"The prison estate has a finite capacity," he said. "If you insist on trying to take in through the front door more prisoners than a prison can hold without letting the necessary number out of the back door, a prison will simply explode.

'Mischief-makers'

"This is what happened during the Strangeways series of riots. It is also possibly what happened at Lincoln last week."

He said Martin Narey, the director-general of the Prison Service, attributed the problem to "mischief-makers".

"However, I am sceptical as to whether mischief-makers can result in the loss of a prison if they are not able to make mischief in fertile ground," he said.

Lord Woolf also said the various different agencies within the criminal justice system needed to "pull together" more.

He cited 1,326 occasions in 2001 when the prosecution was not ready to start a Crown Court trial on the scheduled date.

See also:

25 Oct 02 | England
30 Jan 02 | UK
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