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Monday, 4 February, 2002, 14:50 GMT
'Reform or bust' on prisons - Blunkett
David Blunkett at Leeds Prison
Prison reform is on the agenda for David Blunkett
Offenders convicted of non-violent crimes may be allowed out of prison on weekdays so they can go to work, under reforms planned for the prison system.

Home Secretary David Blunkett used a speech to prison service managers in Nottingham that it was "reform or bust" for the prison system.

Those who commit murder, violent offenders and dangerous hijackings will actually get even tougher and longer jail sentences

David Blunkett
Home Secretary
He announced plans for more open prisons or hostels and says the current system - which sees 60% of inmates reoffending on release - is "crackers".

Thousands of offenders wearing electronic tags or using voice recognition technology would be able to work during weekdays - but evenings and weekends would be spent in custody.

'Light touch'

In his speech, Mr Blunkett said: "There's no reason why we shouldn't have hostels on and off prison premises.

"There's no reason why we shouldn't develop 'light touch', reasonable secure facilities outside cities and towns."

Those facilities were available on RAF bases "and other stations", the home secretary said in a move that could head off planning objections.

A prison
Short term sentences for non-violent prisoners are being reconsidered
Mr Blunkett wants to give judges and magistrates an alternative to "soft" community service sentences or "over the top" jail terms for more minor offences.

Such measures would mean resources could be concentrated on taking a harder line against more dangerous offenders, he said.

"Those who commit murder, violent offenders and dangerous hijackings will actually get even tougher and longer jail sentences in more difficult conditions," continued Mr Blunkett.

Such moves would help crackdown on "copycat crimes" recently seen in south London, he said in a reference to mobile phone thefts and "carjacking" incidents.

The home secretary said he was still in talks with Chancellor Gordon Brown to get the necessary funds for the new schemes.

'Third way'

The plans were welcomed by Martin Narey, director general of the Prison Service, who said the number of inmates in UK jails was "insane".

"I believe the third way between community sentences and prison will work," said Mr Narey.

The proposals could help level out the growth in prisoner numbers "and we can concentrate on running decent prisons".

Chief inspector of prisons, Anne Owers, was also positive about the plans, saying that for many offenders prisons caused the "maximum disruption with the minimum benefit".

Mr Blunkett's proposals received a mixed reaction elsewhere.

Hostel warning

The Prison Reform Trust said they made "social and economic sense" and the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders said they would be less expensive and more humane than current practices.

A welcome in principle was given by the Prison Governors Association, although it did warn against the Prison Service being given responsibility for a new hostel system.

The National Association of Probation Officers called the ideas "interesting", but said they were impractical.

And Norman Brennan, the director of the Victims of Crime Trust, said he was completely opposed to the initiative and accused the government of "pandering" to penal reform groups.

Announcement criticised

Earlier, Conservative home affairs spokesman Oliver Letwin criticised Mr Blunkett's decision to announce his planned reforms in a newspaper instead of in Parliament.

Mr Letwin said the details of the plans were still unclear.

"Is this meant to be a tough measure, halfway to prison for people who would currently do community service or is it a softer option for people who would currently be put in prison?"

But Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman Simon Hughes welcomed Mr Blunkett's comments saying the prison system had "failed too many for too long".

"Top prison governors have for years argued that many short sentences of under a year are almost useless and many long sentences of over 10 years for less dangerous offenders become almost useless too," he said.

UK Home Office Minister Beverley Hughes MP
"We have to help people break the crime habit"
Shadow Home Secretary Oliver Letwin
"The problem is that there are huge rates of re-offending"

Weekend jails
What do you think of prison reform plans?
See also:

04 Feb 02 | UK
The prison population
01 Feb 02 | UK Politics
Don't blame it all on us - Blunkett
08 Aug 01 | UK Politics
Convicts taught to end crime cycle
29 Jan 02 | UK Politics
Blunkett to take on yobs
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