John Major has criticized the Tories’ “excessive zeal” in jailing criminals – arguing that many short prison sentences are “pointless”.
The former prime minister stressed that efforts to label it as tough on crime risk spawning “imprudent policies”. Non-custodial measures would be more effective and just.
He also called on the new justice secretary to abandon Dominic Raab’s proposals to give ministers more powers to block parole board decisions and said the system must not be politicised.
Sir John was Prime Minister when Home Secretary Michael Howard declared at the 1993 Conservative Party Conference that “prisons work”.
However, since Brexit he has been a regular critic of the Tories – and of Boris Johnson in particular.
John Major has slammed the Tories’ “excessive zeal” in jailing criminals – arguing that many short sentences are “pointless”.
The intervention is Sir John’s first on the issue of prisons and sentencing since he was Prime Minister – he called for a greater focus on rehabilitation.
Speaking to the Prison Reform Trust at the Old Bailey last night, he said: “Violent crimes require severe penalties and the instinct to protect the public is commendable – but we should beware that excessive zeal, hard on crime to proceed, this does ‘do not lead us to an unwise policy.’
In the year ending June 2022, 43,000 people were sentenced to prison, with fewer than two in five having committed a violent crime.
“Britain has the highest incarceration rate in Western Europe – and yet I find it hard to believe that we Brits are uniquely criminal,” he said.
“Many prisoners – far too many in my opinion – are given short-term prison sentences when other sentences would be preferable.” In some cases, care and medical attention are required instead of prison.
“To be clear, my suspicion is that many short sentences are pointless and that a no-prison sentence would be more effective and perhaps fairer.”
The former Prime Minister also warned of “unbearable” conditions in some prisons, which sometimes hold two to three inmates in a single Victorian cell.
“For inmates to be held in worse conditions than in the Victorian era is an indictment of politics that is difficult to ignore,” he said.
Despite the anger over high-profile cases, Sir John defended the parole board’s decision-making powers.
He pointed to the low recidivism rate – one in 200 prisoners – in the three years after release.
“That would suggest the parole board isn’t a bunch of gullible softies,” he said.
Plans put forward by Mr Raab – who resigned from Cabinet last month – to extend ministers’ powers to veto decisions by the panel could lead to a “lopsided path”, Sir John told the audience.
“As far as I know, the former Attorney General has sought the power to veto decisions by the supposedly independent Parole Board to release prisoners convicted of serious crimes,” he said.
“The problem with that is that I don’t see how (or why) the Attorney General could come to a fairer decision than the Parole Board.”
Sir John has urged the new Justice Secretary to abandon Dominic Raab’s (pictured) proposals to give ministers more power to block parole board decisions and said the system must not be politicised
“Any individual minister in the government – however capable or well-meaning – would be far more vulnerable to public campaigning and would take a tougher decision under pressure to appease them.”
“I don’t think any politician should have that power and I hope that the new justice minister will reconsider or, if he doesn’t, that Parliament will deny it.”
A Justice Department spokesman said: “As the public would rightly expect, we are moving forward with important reforms to strengthen the parole system and transform the prison complex to keep dangerous offenders behind bars and curb crime.”
“We’ve made great strides in discouraging offenders from crime by discouraging drug use and getting them to work, and we’re investing £550m to further reduce recidivism.”
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