The spending settlement agreed with the Treasury last October requires the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) to make budget reductions of £2 billion up to 2014-15. And, until this morning, the settled approach was that only by reducing demand on prisons would the necessary savings be found. After Downing Street’s intervention, the revised plans published this afternoon upend that approach.
There will still be substantial cuts to the legal aid budget and some changes to remand, but some key (though ill-conceived) measures to trim the prison population have been excised completely, with no changes to guilty plea discounts and no relaxation of the release conditions for dangerous offenders serving indeterminate sentences. Serious violent and sexual offenders will actually spend longer in prison than they do now, and the mandatory life sentence will be extended to cover a second serious offence. Crucially, the objective now seems to be to “stabilise” the prison population at around 85,000, not to reduce it.
The Government is still right to aim to reduce the prison population by cutting reoffending, but that is a ten year project. For now, the package appears to have filled a public confidence gap but created a large financial one. Even if the MoJ can bank the other savings (from legal aid, court closures, and huge administrative efficiencies), after this handbrake turn the whole package still falls short by about a quarter of a billion pounds. Ministers may be able to arrest some of the projected growth of the prison population, but only if courts can be persuaded that the reformed community sentences (with new sanctions and longer curfews) have enough bite to be used more readily.
This leaves only one option to deliver the savings: reduce the cost of prison.