Tories in power – what does the election result mean for our prison system?

The recent election results confirm that the conservative party will be in charge of our government for the next four years. For some of us, this may have been followed by a sigh of relief; For others, that may have been a sigh of misery.

But personal politics aside, what will this election result mean in terms of our justice system, our prisons, our punishments?

The election unfortunately lined up with the London Bridge terrorist attack committed by Usman Khan, who we later discovered was an ex-prisoner who had been release midway through his sentence. The attack brought light to the UK prison system and highlighted the act implemented by a previous Labour government that meant people like Khan were being automatically released on licence halfway through their prison sentence. Although the ruling was changed by the liberal-conservative coalition government later on, the previous law still stands for criminals who were convicted at that time, including Khan.

After learning this, there were many questions on the Labour party’s responsibility of the attack, and more concerning what this year’s election results would mean for the justice system in the UK.

Now we know the Tories have the majority, what will they do?

Firstly, violent and sexual offenders in England and Wales will no longer be automatically released halfway through their prison sentence- this includes those who have committed crimes such as manslaughter, rape, and grievous bodily harm. Instead, any criminals sentenced to at least four years in prison will be required to serve two-thirds of the sentence in prison before being released on licence. These new plans will likely increase the prison population by at least 3,000. Once on licence, the conservatives claim that these criminals will “be subject to tougher licence conditions” and if these tougher conditions are not met, they will be recalled immediately.

The Tories will take a much more hard-line approach to justice, including an increased use of stop and search, more police on the streets, and a harsher review on sentencing. As Robert Buckland, Justice Secretary and Lord Chancellor, put it, “because keeping the most dangerous violent and sexual offenders in prison for longer means they won’t be out on the streets with the opportunity to commit crime.” He also touched on the concept of rehabilitation briefly, stating that “prisons simply cannot be giant academies of crime. So, we will do more to improve rehabilitation in prison and support our probation services in their vital work to supervise and resettle former prisoners.” Furthermore, following the recent London Bridge attack, Johnson outlined the Tories’ policies on terrorists, saying “if you are convicted of a serious terrorist offence, there should be a mandatory minimum sentence of 14 years – and some should never be released.”

Johnson said that these big changes are necessary in order to restore faith in the sentencing system. To do all this, Johnson and his government plans to spend up to £2.5bn on new prisons, creating 10,000 new prison places. Another £100m will be spent on cracking down on the criminal behaviour inside prisons.

What about the other parties then? Do they agree with the Tories?

Although the Tories won the 2019 election, their ideas aren’t everyone’s cup of tea.
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Opposition, unsurprisingly has some different perspectives on how to improve the justice system in the UK.
He still supports the release of prisoners at the midway point of their sentence, as long as they have behaved well in prison, have been rehabilitated, and assessed, and are strictly monitored upon their release. But in general, he believes that prisoners should only be released when they are considered safe. When questioned about the release of terrorists following the December incident, Corbyn, although refusing to condemn the early release protocol, did outline that terrorists should be released as and when they’re served a “significant proportion of their sentence”, have “undergone rehabilitation”, and are, above all, “considered safe to the public as a whole.”

Following the terrorist attack, Corbyn did not focus on longer prison time and harsher punishments, but instead on the circumstances that lead to the terrible event. He wanted to know how Khan slipped through the cracks, questioning, “what happened in the prison with this particular individual, what assessment was made of his psychological condition before he was released and also what supervision and monitoring he was under after coming out?”

Frances Crook, the chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “The more you punish someone, the harder you make it for them to change their lives. This complicated and unnecessary fiddling with sentencing will do nothing to nurture public confidence. What it will do is heap more pressure on overcrowded prisons and risk even more violence and disorder in a system that is already facing meltdown.”

Peter Dawson, the director of the Prison Reform Trust called out the new prime minister for making empty statements to gain votes in the election. “In cases where the risk to the public is high, judges already have the power to do everything the lord chancellor says he wants.” And he also believes that these stricter reforms from Johnson come with the intention to appease the public, who believe it is in their best interest to keep criminals locked up, when, in fact, the effectiveness of jail time is yet to be proven greatly effective.

On a final, perhaps more reflective note, we come to David Merritt. He is not a politician, nor a director of a large organisation, but a father. A father who lost his son, Jack Merritt, during the knife attack on London Bridge on the 29 November 2019. The 25-year-old, one of the two victims who were fatally stabbed that day by Usman Khan, was a course coordinator of the Cambridge University prison rehabilitation programme, designed to help people just like Khan. Speaking publicly after the event, David Merritt said his son “would not wish his death to be used as the pretext for more draconian sentences or for detaining people unnecessarily”.
Rather than locking more people up and elongating prison sentences, perhaps our focus on the justice system needs to shift. There is so much work to be done on the mental health support, for example, of prisoners, as well as improving the familial contact within prisons, staff-prisoner relationships, educational programmes, rehabilitation programmes, addiction recovery; The list goes on. There are so many opportunities to improve prisoners’ quality of life, and to improve the system as a whole.

But only time will tell just how effective Johnson’s government will be. All we can do now is hope that the Conservatives will move us in the right direction- not back to draconian times.

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