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Wednesday, 10 July, 2002, 21:35 GMT 22:35 UK
Cherie issues 'prison warning'
Lady Elizabeth Longford - widow of the late Labour peer and campaigner for social and prison reform, Lord Longford - with Cherie Blair
Prison sentences can be 'counter productive'
Too many people are being held in the UK's prisons, according to the prime minister's wife Cherie Blair.


The prevalence of short-term sentences is crippling to any attempt at a constructive approach to prison

Cherie Blair
Mrs Blair - a human rights lawyer and part-time judge - is concerned the system is being "crippled" by the weight of numbers.

Speaking under her professional name, Cherie Booth QC, she argued that excessive use of short sentences, which disrupted the home and work lives of offenders, but without giving them time for treatment or education, could be harming the fight against crime.

She issued her warning on Wednesday as she delivered the first Longford Lecture, in memory of the penal reform campaigner Lord Longford.

She backed the increased use of electronic tagging and community sentences, along with support for offenders to stay off alcohol and drugs on release from jail.

Controversy

But in her speech, entitled, The Law, the Victims and the Vulnerable, she expressed particular concern about the impact of prison on women.

Her comments risk sparking further controversy over her role in public life, even though Downing Street has stressed she was "speaking in her own capacity as a legal expert".

The prime minister's spokesman said the government was also concerned about the number of people going into prison and there would be White Paper on the issue "soon".

Mrs Blair was forced last month to issue a statement of regret for suggesting Palestinian suicide bombers felt they had "no hope but to blow themselves up".

'Huge numbers'

She has spoken out with increasing regularity on penal reform and has conducted her own investigation of Britain's prison system.

Mrs Blair told the Independent newspaper sponsored lecture on Wednesday: "The huge increase in numbers and the prevalence of short-term sentences is crippling to any attempt at a constructive approach to prison.

"It is particularly worrying that more than one in six of the current prison population is on remand - in other words they have yet to be tried or sentenced.

"In fact, the majority of this group doesn't even go on to receive a prison sentence."

Being locked up resulted in one third of prisoners losing their homes, two thirds their jobs and a fifth losing contact with their families.

Others suffered mental and physical health problems, were exposed to drugs inside.

Broken families

These problems statically lead to convicts returning to crime on release.

Mrs Blair stressed: "By aggravating the factors associated with reoffending, prison sentences can prove-counter-productive as a contribution to crime reduction and public safety.

"There is an urgent need to look at other alternatives to prison and in particular to recognise the advances that have been made in community sentences."

Half of all women imprisoned had children living with them before they were jailed.

"A significant number of these families are permanently broke as a result of the mother's imprisonment and as many as four out of 10 lose their homes," Mrs Blair said.

She was "shocked" to hear the sexual abuse and violence suffered by women prisoners before they were convicted.

Juliet Lyon, of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "By speaking out against the over-use of imprisonment and the needless breaking of family ties, Cherie Booth points the way to a criminal justice system which protects victims, rather than creates more offenders."

Media spotlight

But Liberal Democrat Norman Baker questioned whether Mrs Blair should be expressing her opinions so publicly.

"Cherie Blair is an intelligent woman who talks a lot of sense and she is right to highlight the problems in our prisons," he said.

"But the question is, should she be talking at all? It is difficult for the prime minister to argue on the one hand that his family should be kept out of the media, when his wife seems so keen to court them."

The numbers of inmates in England and Wales reached a record 71,341 earlier this month, a rise of more than 25,000 in 10 years.

Women account for 4,408 prisoners, an increase in the female prison population of 177% over the last decade.

Lord Longford, a former Labour cabinet minister and advocate of prison reform, who campaigned for the release of Moors Murderer Myra Hindley, died last year.

See also:

05 Jul 02 | UK Politics
18 Jun 02 | UK Politics
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26 Nov 01 | UK
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