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Those who confront the problem of crime in deprived communities expect the criminal justice system to be effective when someone is put in its hands. It is important to underline that the more that people have confidence in the criminal justice system, the more they will feel secure in their homes and communities. It is a vital point.
I turn to the criminal justice system. Obviously, crime will never be eradicated. Once defendants have been convicted in the criminal justice system, that system should aim in part to reduce reoffending. Effective community penalties are one vital way in which reoffending will be reduced significantly. The National Probation Service, which has had significantly increased funding since 1997, is developing programmes for what works in reducing reoffending behaviour, and early published results suggest that some progress is being made. The reconviction rate among the cohort who started receiving What Works programmes in the two years following 1999 has been more than 3 per cent lower than predicted.
People have to know that progress is being made in community sentences so that courts are willing to sentence offenders to community sentences where appropriate. The more that community sentences work, the less it will be necessary to send people to prison. As all noble Lords will accept, however, it is necessary to send certain categories of offender to custody. Broadly, those categories are dangerous, violent and sexual offenders, and seriously persistent offenders to whom every opportunity for rehabilitation has been offered but who have not taken it. The community must have some confidence that custody will be imposed after every reasonable opportunity has been offered but not taken.
The noble Baroness, Lady Linklater of Butterstone, mentioned "two strikes and you're out" in relation to breaches of community penalties. If the courts are to be confident about imposing community penalties, a balance must be struck whereby an appropriate response follows a breach. If we do not mete out an appropriate response in such cases, what is the point of having community penalties with attached conditions? Although there is no automaticity whereby a custodial sentence is immediately imposed after two strikes, there must be a sense that the conditions will be enforced. Nevertheless, the conditions will be enforced proportionately.
I shall try to deal with some of the many points that have been made. I fear that, because of time, I shall not be able to deal with all of them. I thoroughly endorse the comments by the noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, about the involvement of community and voluntary groups. He mentioned Crime Concern, NACRO and other groups, all of which do exceptional work. He also mentioned the need for core management funding, which is absolutely vital. He mentioned too the cross-cutting review on the voluntary sector, which draws out many of the points he raised. The message coming out loud and clear from the review is that voluntary and community sector groups can do so much which state-funded organisations cannot do, due to the inevitable inflexibilities of statutory organisations, and which the private sector has no interest in doing. The Government accept that their role is vital in that respect. The noble Lord also cited the example of acceptable behaviour contracts in the London borough of Islington, where the voluntary sector has played a vital part. That scheme, of which I thoroughly approve, has now been rolled out more widely.
The noble Lord, Lord Dholakia, and various other noble Lords referred to the current overcrowding in the Prison Service. One should, however, not lose sight of what the Prison Service has achieved. I have been asked in this House by the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, how many prisoners are currently sharing cells. I gave the figure of 21 per cent. In 1991, however, the figure was 29 per cent. Until 1994, in a significant number of cases, three people were sharing a cell.
The quality of education in prison has improved dramatically, although much still has to be done. The Prison Service has a humane and dedicated reformer in Martin Narey. One should not underestimate the extent of the achievement. Noble Lords such as the noble Lord, Lord Carlisle of Bucklow, will recall visiting prisons five years ago. I am sure that their impression from more recent visits will be very different. Although much still needs to be done, we should not even remotely put the debate in the context that nothing has been improved.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Portsmouth raised the issue of life prisoners and referred to their problems on release. Life prisoners raise particular problems. We are dealing in a significant number of cases with crimes in which the
I have already referred to many of the issues raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Linklater. I thoroughly endorse the work, under her chairmanship, of Rethinking Crime and Punishment, which was funded by the Esmee Fairbairn trust. I suspect that that will be a significant contribution to the debate. It is important that such work is undertaken. The noble Baroness drew attention specifically to tagging and restorative justice, both of which can bring great progress in suitable alternatives to current penalties. I endorse her support for the idea of widespread partnership with the voluntary and community sector.
As I said, the noble Lord, Lord Warner, referred to a number of the alternatives to custody such as ISSPa very important alternative which provides a robust and effective intervention that can have an effect on offenders' reoffending behaviour.
The noble Baroness, Lady Sharples, referred to the problems of prisoners' wives and contact with prisoners. I agree entirely with the proposition underlying her remarksnamely, that prisoners who maintain contact with their family have a better chance of not reoffending. Other noble Lords also made that point. The Prison Service accepts the point, although putting it into practice becomes more difficult as the number of prisoners in custody increases. The proposition, however, is accepted.
The noble Baroness, Lady Sharples, also identified the lack of communication and cited some examples, such as a three-month wait for delivery of a parcel and a nine-day wait for a first class letter. As I said, we accept the principle she outlined. We seek to promote communication, which is so important in reducing reoffending.
Lord Roberts of Conwy: My Lords, in view of what the Minister has just said, will he clarify the point about community prisons? Do the Government accept the proposal from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, or have they abandoned it?
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, I am not precisely clear about what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, had in mind in relation to community prisons. The Criminal Justice Bill makes provision for intermittent custody, which would allow an offender to be in custody for a periodat the weekend, for examplewhile being able to hold on to a job. I am not sure whether that goes as far as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, suggested in his report. But it goes some way towards allowing an offender to hold on to a job and at the same time spend time in custody.
The noble Lord, Lord Addington, raised an important point about dyslexia. The prisoners' learning and skills unit is seeking to improve the identification of dyslexia and other learning needs. A new national diagnostic indicator is currently on trial.
Lord Addington: My Lords, there seems to be great emphasis on achieving certain targets in literacy. However, will the Minister consider the idea of having teachers explain dyslexia to others, as some of those targets will be unattainable by many of those with the condition?
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