The first task of any government is to keep people safe. Safe in our homes, safe when we walk down the street and safe when we send our children to play. I am proud that this Conservative government has acted to crack down on crime and keep the worst offenders locked up for longer. Violent crime has dropped by 46 percent and residential burglaries by 55 percent.
For too long, we did not lock up the most dangerous and hardened criminals long enough. Life sentences for men who brutally murdered women meant they were freed within 20 years and rapists who were sentenced to 10 years were freed within five. That’s why we have imposed longer sentences for the most dangerous prisoners.
We have ended automatic intermediate release for serious sexual and violent offenders to serve two-thirds of their sentence behind bars. We have introduced a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for those who cause or allow the death of a child and will make life sentences mandatory for the most heinous types of murder involving sexual or sadistic conduct.
There have been inaccurate reports that judges are being told not to send rapists to prison. That’s not true. The most serious and dangerous criminals remain locked up for the longest. Last week I blocked the automatic release of Robert Brown, who brutally killed his wife, to keep him behind bars and ensure that the Parole Board gives due consideration to his release.
And we will go further. We will ensure that rapists serve their full prison sentences, so that victims get the justice they deserve and the British people are protected. The perpetrators of this heinous crime will no longer be released from prison even after two-thirds of their sentence. A 15-year sentence will mean 15 years in prison. This is the justice the British people expect and we will deliver it.
But to achieve this, we must rethink how we manage long-term demographic pressures, so that there are always enough spaces to lock up the most dangerous criminals. While we are doing everything we can to create more capacity than at any time in the last century, prison spaces are finite.
We are rolling out new rehabilitation prisons as part of the largest prison building program since Victorian times, in places like HMP Fosse Way, which I opened this year. It’s tough, safe, and geared toward putting criminals on the right path and out of the cycle of crime. Additional capacity has been delivered at an unprecedented rate of more than 100 places per week. In addition, we are investing up to £400 million, enough to purchase and install around 800 cells, as we expand our rollout of Rapid Deployment Cells, the quickest route to building more prison spaces.
However, the system is still under intense pressure. The prison population is at an all-time high: double what it was 30 years ago. This is not cheap for the taxpayer. Housing a single prisoner for a year costs around £47,000. With more than 88,000 prisoners currently behind bars, those costs are rising quickly.
Of course, it is not just about the cost of incarceration but the cost to society of recidivism. We need to keep people safe, and that means moving away from short-term prison sentences that turn hardened criminals instead of rehabilitated criminals. Therefore, we must look again at low-level criminals. Because while the overall recidivism rate is 25 percent, the rate of people who spend less than 12 months in prison is over 50 percent.
A brief period of a few months locked up is not enough time to rehabilitate criminals, but it is more than enough to dislocate them from family, work and domestic connections that keep them away from crime. Too often, criminals routinely recommit crimes as soon as they leave the prison doors.
No prison system should further criminalize criminals or trap criminals who might otherwise take the high road in a cycle of criminality through a merry-go-round of short sentences. This is the wrong use of our prison system and taxpayers’ money. It does not benefit victims and does not reduce crime. We need to correct this.
There are alternatives to having low-level criminals languishing in prison. Judges can force them to pay their debt to society in communities: by cleaning up neighborhoods, cleaning graffiti from walls, and even helping to plant new forests. And with technology advancing rapidly, these options are increasing. The latest GPS tags, for example, offer many more options than the radio frequency versions, which were the only ones available in court when I began my career as a prosecutor.
Other places have taken advantage of these opportunities, including American states like Texas, which are not known for their relaxed approach to criminal justice. They have seen crime fall and trust grow.
Governing is choosing. We choose to lock up the most dangerous criminals for longer and reduce recidivism by stopping the costly spiral of crime. To achieve this, we need to reform our approach to sentencing. Tomorrow I will lay out how we will make the right long-term decisions to make the justice system work to protect the public, increase punishment for the most dangerous, and reduce crime.
Alex Chalk KC MP is Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice