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Free the innocent to alleviate prison overcrowding

Comment 22nd August 2010

U.K prisons are full to overflowing and this is not necessarily due to an increase in crime. The fault lies not with the way the prisons are run or organised but is due to fundamental flaws at the heart of the Criminal Justice System; it is antiquated and desperately requires a radical overhaul.

Most British citizens have complete faith in the UK legal system, unless they know someone who has had the misfortune to have been falsely accused and wrongfully convicted.

It may seem incredible in this day and age but it is entirely possible for an upright, model citizen to be wrongfully convicted of crimes that never happened. A person with no previous convictions can be proven guilty with absolutely no concrete evidence, purely by accusation. It should not be possible for innocent people to be incarcerated indefinitely due to the lies of false accusers eager for compensation and inadequate funding for a proper defence. More emphasis should be placed on the investigation at the early stages to prevent miscarriages of justice occurring – there are enough real criminals with which to fill our prisons and this in itself is enough to contribute to prison overcrowding.

Several years ago a new sentence was introduced which has since made things even worse – the IPP sentence (Indeterminate Sentence for Public Protection). This sentence is only supposed to be served when the convicted person is deemed to pose a significant risk to the public and therefore they must be incarcerated for an indefinite term until no longer considered a danger.

The IPP sentence means it is theoretically possible for a prisoner to remain incarcerated for up to 99 years! The Judge will give a minimum tariff which a prisoner is required to serve before he can apply for parole and after that he has to satisfy The Parole Board that he is no longer a threat to the public in order to be considered for release. To prove he has been reformed an inmate has to attend certain courses to address his offending behaviour – courses which are not always readily available. This means that prisoners are being dealt these open-ended sentences on a grand scale and are not progressing through the system.

Although the IPP sentence was originally introduced with the very good intention of protecting the public against highly dangerous individuals it can now adversely affect the guilty and innocent alike. It can seriously hamper their progression through the system, exacerbating overcrowding in already overcrowded prisons.

For a guilty prisoner who wishes to participate in courses to genuinely address his offending behaviour, he may come up against the problem of not being able to get a placement for the relevant course by the time his tariff is up. So supposing he has been set a minimum tariff of two years, he will have to remain in prison much longer if the course is not available in the local prison he was sent to initially, or if he cannot be transferred to one which runs those courses and can find him a placement within that timescale.

As for the innocent, they are faced with an even worse predicament – an absolute bureaucratic limbo – since in maintaining their innocence they quite rightly refuse to participate on the offending behaviour courses with the result that they may never be released. Perversely a guilty inmate may thus qualify for parole years sooner than an innocent one maintaining their innocence.

There is absolutely no recognition of the plight of innocent prisoners as prison policy dictates that all inmates are viewed as guilty and the prison and probation service must abide by the decision of the courts.

Here in the UK we are scheduled to begin construction of three vast ‘Super prisons’ due to be completed between 2012 and 2014. They have been designed to house up to 2,500 inmates each, but currently there is no funding available within the present budget. We are also building prison ships which look like huge, ugly floating slabs of concrete.

I am convinced that constructing more prisons is not the answer. For all but the most serious offenders, more emphasis should be placed on rehabilitation within the community. And for the wrongfully convicted, the appeals process should be less convoluted and given more funding so that they are not taking up valuable space needed for the guilty.

Why does this matter?

Because innocent people do not need to be imprisoned. When you visit an innocent prisoner in prison the paramount thought in your mind is that the whole justice system is a joke becaue you know it has made a mistake. and you begin to wonder… how many other mistakes has it made?

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