The prison system in the UK is under pressure, not least because we have the largest prison population in Western Europe. The number of prisoners per 100,000 population in England and Wales is almost 150 (and only slightly lower in Scotland) compared to 118 for France and just over 81 for Germany. To add to Britain’s problem, the average cost per prisoner per day is £84, compared to the European average of just under £77.
With that in mind, you might reasonably think that any system proven to be effective at keeping people out of prison would be welcome … but it seems you’d be wrong.
The Introduction of Problem-Solving Courts
In May, former justice secretary Michael Gove announced an initiative based on US problem-solving courts, having been impressed by their impact on rehabilitation rates. The courts generally deal with people suffering from substance addiction, with the focus on addressing underlying problems, rather than on punishment. They hand down non-custodial sentences and aim to link up the justice system and the necessary social and health services to help prevent reoffending. Anyone who doesn’t comply goes to prison, but those who do can find their lives turned around.
A report prepared by the Centre for Justice Innovation in the UK suggests that there is strong evidence that adult drug courts do reduce substance misuse and reoffending, and that offenders’ perception that they are receiving fair treatment leads to better compliance with court orders.
No Longer a Priority?
Plans were put in place to launch a pilot programme in 2016/2017, but it seems the new justice secretary, Liz Truss, does not consider it a priority. While the official line is still that they will go ahead, some insiders claim otherwise, which led Ben Summerskill, director of the Criminal Justice Alliance, to say: “It’s terribly sad that this element of the government’s much-welcomed criminal justice reform agenda is being sidelined.”
Summerskill added: “Wide evidence from Britain and America suggests that problem-solving courts – requiring offenders to address their drug, alcohol and other issues – are successful in getting many to change their lives. Most importantly, they’re successful at keeping those people off the tragic custody escalator that sees too many offenders remain in, and return to, prison.”
With reoffending rates currently sitting at 59% for those serving terms of 12 months or less, the decision to abandon the pilot would seem to be ill-judged. Far from being a soft option, evidence suggests that problem-solving courts are a smart move that has the potential to make a real difference to the criminal justice system.
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