Long prison sentences ineffective, independent commission finds

Quakers welcome a report which shows that the dramatic rise in long prison sentences does not help victims, offenders, or the public.

barbed wire
Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash

The Independent Commission into the Experience of Victims and Long-term Prisoners, led by Bishop James Jones, former bishop of Liverpool and of prisons, released its report on Wednesday after two and a half years.

It calls for a national debate on serious crime sentencing, backed by a Law Commission review, a citizen's assembly and better public understanding of sentencing.

The number of people given a prison sentence of over 10 years has more than doubled in a decade but the public remain dissatisfied and victims write to parole boards after twenty years to say they feel as they did at the start of the sentence.

Potential for healing largely overlooked

“Serious crime is life-changing, for both perpetrators and victims and their families, but rehabilitation, or the potential for healing of wounds inflicted by the crime and its punishment, is largely overlooked in a criminal justice system focused on retribution," said Tim Newell, former prison governor and Quaker restorative justice expert.

The Commission's report gives a voice to both victims and their families, and prisoners, alongside expert analysis of research.

It calls for improved access to restorative justice for victims and prisoners and finds that the prison system does not currently rehabilitate offenders, despite that being part of the statutory purposes of sentences.

Quakers have worked for prison reform since the 17th century, thanks to both the Quaker testimony to equality, and Quaker experiences of being imprisoned as a radical faith.

Today, 80 Quaker prison chaplains work across the country and others are involved in probation, prison reform and much more. Their work shows that victims and communities can heal when offenders take some responsibility and restore the harm to all.


Trauma does not respond to the equations of justice

- Tim Newell


Tim Newell said: "Most victims find that prison does not make them feel safer or advance their sense of justice. Trauma does not respond to the equations of justice. Victims have become the instruments of the government's desire to appear tough on crime.

“Crime stems from poverty and a drug culture and the stripping away of so many community supporting activities and yet our approach continues to be one of blame and scapegoating."

He added: “Restorative work has shown that needs can be met through a meeting of those involved. When offered something else many victims take it – the possibility of change, of meeting the need for safety and justice and so that others will not suffer."

Quakers welcome the Commission's call for more education and training for prisoners, and for an end to the injustice of (now-abolished) indeterminate imprisonment for public protection terms which mean that hundreds of prisoners are still in jail, despite serving five times the minimum sentence.

One Quaker prison chaplain said: “Over last 25 years there have been two tremendous cutbacks in staffing levels which we haven't come back from. Provision has been decimated.

“The Government is proposing to increase the prison population by 45 per cent, but without resources. There is nothing for rehabilitation, just punishment and incarceration. Everybody is being treated like a hostage coming down a conveyor belt.

“I am particularly worried that prisoners are getting steadily older, there are more disabled, more dying of cancer and MS."

Read the Commission's report here