Paying a high price for Manx justice

IT'S a statistic that shocked penal reform campaigner Andrew Neilson – 40 per cent of prisoners at the Island's new Jurby jail are on remand.

Not only do we have more prisoners on remand than England and Wales, we have more prisoners as a percentage of the population than most European countries and spend four times as much as the UK on running the jail.

All this at a time when the crime rate has apparently fallen dramatically.

Mr Neilson, assistant director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, who was invited to the Island last week to give a presentation to the political lobbyists the Positive Action Group, poses a simple question: 'Why is this?'

At the heart of the debate is the question – 'What is prison really for?'

In 2007, the Howard League set up the Commission on English Prisons which recommended in its recently published report, Do Better Do Less, that there should be a significant cut in the prison population and replacement of short prison sentences with community-based responses.

Mr Neilson said there is a crisis of overcrowding in England and Wales, despite thousands of new prison places being built, with the prison population reaching an all-time high a fortnight ago of 84,422.

He blames a culture of 'initiativitis' in government, with ministers feeling the need, after a very high profile case, to bring in new law and order legislation. In the last decade 30 new laws have been passed with consequences further down the line for the criminal justice system and its increasingly overstretched staff.

When public finances were buoyant, the UK government could afford to make mistakes but now with money running out, there was talk about cuts in public services.

Have we made expensive mistakes here, too?

Mr Neilson said: 'You've got a decent prison now – but a very expensive one. It cost 41 million, more than seven per cent of annual government expenditure. Running costs are 10 million, another 1.75 per cent of annual expenditure. England and Wales spends about 0.4 per cent of annual expenditure on prisons.

'You have half the crime rate of England and Wales and half the rate of violent crime; so why are you spending four times as much proportionately on your prison? Why has the prison population shot up when the crime rate is falling?'

Before the new prison opened, the Island had an average of 127 prisoners per 100,000 population – lower than England and Wales's rate of 153 but far higher than the western European average of 95.

And Mr Neilson suspects the rate has risen to about 137.5 per 100,000 population since the prison opened.

The Manx police's recent war on crime has played a big part in this. About half of the inmates at Jurby jail are inside for drug-related offences.

Mr Neilson said he was disappointed to find the prison was located 'out of sight, out of mind' in Jurby, making access difficult for relatives.

It is rapidly becoming full and the authorities will be 'back to square one' with overcrowding if a new approach isn't adopted, he added.

Of particular concern is the high number of inmates on remand – 40 per cent compared with a figure of 16.1 per cent in England and Wales.

'It really shocked me,' he said.

He says the remand rate is so high because the Island does not have a Bail Act, giving presumption to bail unless there is good reason not to. Neither does it have a time limit for custody.

'In theory, you could languish indefinitely in prison until your court case,' he said.

Another worry is the amount spent on probation, just 16p in the 1

here compared with 30p in England and Wales.

Mr Neilson said: 'The best place to tackle the underlying causes of crime is in the community, by the probation service. But it has to be funded appropriately.

'There is only so much you can do in the unreal environment of prison.'

He said it may be that the courts are over-willing to impose custodial sentences but suspected they would argue they have no option.

It is a myth, he said, that community sentencing is a soft option.

'If it is done properly with probation properly funded then it can be very challenging, more challenging than sitting in a prison cell doing nothing,' said Mr Neilson.

He described UK proposals for those on community service to wear US-style fluorescent yellow jacket as a gimmick.

He believes a local panel should decide what type of unpaid work is carried out under community service orders. This could include picking up litter, painting or digging foundations on building sites. But he also believes restorative justice, where the offender is made to come face to face with his victim, has a role to play.

'This had an astonishing rate of success with certain types of crime such as burglary,' he said. 'Victims, often frozen out of the criminal justice system, often find it a positive thing.'

Mr Neilson believes custody should be used as a last resort.

'It's a very blunt tool that doesn't actually tackle the underlying causes of criminal behaviour,' he said.

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