"Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" - The rising prison population suggests that the Government (and the Judiciary) have certainly made efforts towards the first part of this promise.
But the increase in prisoners has had knock-on effects for the rest of the criminal justice system. The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) noted yesterday that the Parole Board’s caseload has more than doubled in the last five years, and that the nature of case hearings has changed with the push for more oral testimony.
If a criminal has committed an offence worthy of a prison sentence then a suitable punishment should be imposed. Rising prison numbers point to a tougher stance from judges, something to be applauded. But policy has to be thought through from start to finish; overcrowded prisons are a problem, often prompting debate on the possibility of rehabilitation in such circumstances, or the merits of community sentences over custodial. Yet the potential overload (of both prisions and the parole board) should not lead to leniency in sentencing or parole procedure. An efficient Parole Board would surely ease congestion in overcrowded prisons, with the right prisoners transferred or released at appropriate times. The report suggests that more than two-thirds of oral hearings are delayed, while 20% are over a year late.
The case overload, combined with other inefficiencies - such as the Board’s difficulties in managing information, with case details held on three seperate databases - are expensive too. The PAC states that the Parole Board incurred direct costs of £1 million between September 2006 and June 2007 as a result of delays in hearings. When set against a total net expenditure of £7.4 million for 2007/8, such costs constitute a massive problem. Furthermore, HM Prison Services incurs further costs for keeping prisoners that have had their hearings delayed; £2million over the same nine month period.
The Parole Board is a 'non-departmental public body' - read 'quango' - attached to the Ministry of Justice. In this case (unlike many quangos) it performs a very important service. The PAC report – and indeed this article – is by no means an assault on its attempts to carry out its duties and functions. Instead, the PAC's and our concern is over the Board’s apparent lack of independence. The PAC report observes that the Parole Board's 'quango' organsation, its relationship to the Department, is a fundamental cause behind its inability to complete its tasks efficiently. This has the knock-on effect of contributing to congested prisons.
This case then serves as a useful microcosm for larger problems with the current composition of Government. The number of quangos and their multiplicity of objectives means that it is near impossible for the Government to effectively manage such a vast administration, and as such they often do a poor job. As is the case with the Parole Board and the Ministry of Justice.
The existing system doesn't appear to work for the Parole Board - it costs taxpayers money and often unnecessarily prolongs the sentences of prisoners. The Government is no doubt loath to give up its control over this particular component of the criminal justice system, but real independence from Government is an absolute must. The Board themselves would prefer to be under the jurisdiction of HM Court Service. This is a logical step when contemplating the nature of the Board’s work, and it would relieve unnecessary strain on an over-inflated department. A fitting lesson for the corpulent quango state.