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Lord Ramsbotham exclusive: Justice system is absurd. Broken. Chaotic

The former prison chief lambasts a justice system in meltdown after Tony Blair's decade of failure on crime and punishment

Yesterday's announcement that the prison population now exceeds 80,000 is the latest low point in what one can only describe as the Government's headlong and self-induced race to absurdity as far as the conduct of imprisonment is concerned.

The reasons for this dreadful figure are not hard to find. If you produce legislation that results in longer prison sentences, more people will be in prison. If you do not resource prisons, to enable them to conduct work, education and training, prisoners are more likely to reoffend, as proved by the fact that the reoffending rate among adult males has gone up from 55 per cent to 67 per cent in the past five years. If you continue to have a dysfunctionally organised prison service, you will continue to have dysfunctional organisation of an overstretched system. And so on.

Many people have been warning the Government about this for years but, instead of listening to those with practical experience, it has preferred to take advice from people who know nothing about running large organisations, let alone an operational service. When, as now, the whole is run by a home secretary who, within weeks of taking office, publicly described the Home Office and the overburdened immigration service as not being fit for purpose, and recently disparaged the probation service to prisoners in Wormwood Scrubs, you do not exactly have a recipe for getting out of what is an increasingly dire situation. Leaders undermine the morale of their own troops at their peril. If, at the same time, you continue to bombard them with a continuous torrent of flawed legislation, much of which replaces previous legislation before the ink on it is dry, you create a mess that can only be cleared up by long-term planning, based on discussion with those who understand not only what needs to be done but how it might be done. That requires ditching current plans that are marching the whole system into even greater chaos.

The result of all the upheaval in the Home Office over the past decade is we have a prison service left in a state of shambles. Every time a governor changes in a prison, then the regime in that prison changes, and all the good work that is under way is in danger of being ditched - it's a ridiculous way of trying to introduce systems that are meant to prevent reoffending.

Prisons are split between the public and private sectors - but prisoners are the same whichever institutions they are in. Education is being run by the Learning and Skills Council, without direction from the Home Office. It's all recipe for confusion.

The probation services are overstretched - there are 300 fewer officers and 1,500 more bureaucrats than five years ago. Now they face a new period of uncertainty as the Government threatens to hand some of their services to the private and voluntary sectors.

In addition, they are being asked to focus on the most serious "heavy" offenders, because of pressure from the press, rather than the repeat offenders who cause real concern to the public.

What would I do? It is difficult to know where to start but my first move would be to drop any move towards what is euphemistically called a national offender management service.

That is getting in the way of making essential improvements to imprisonment and probation. Imprisonment needs firstly a reorganisation into regional clusters of prisons, so no prisoner, with the exception of those requiring high security conditions, is held too far from home. Secondly, named individuals, responsible and accountable for each type of prisoner, need to be appointed to see consistent treatment and conditions, including courses designed to help prisoners to live law-abiding lives, are provided in every prison holding that type.

Existing Area Criminal Justice Boards should be made responsible for ensuring that what goes on in prisons in their area is related for conditions in that area, for example in job training. Population management should be delegated to regions, so that both local prison and probation services are responsible for deciding who moves where, for what and when.

That will cut down the vast waste caused by endlessly moving prisoners to where there is a bed in a cell, rather than because of a course that he or she needs.

Local government should be made responsible for establishing adult offender teams, male and female, along the lines of youth offender teams. These are multi-functional including education, health care and the voluntary sector in their set-up. They would cater for the supervision of low-level offenders, leaving high level to specialist probation officers.

Of course much more could follow, but such a foundation could stand the strain of overcrowding much more easily. There are no short-term palliatives to the nonsense the Government's approach has created in the past nine years, but, unless it recognises its long-term thinking and planning is deeply flawed, and the situation is bound to get worse before any palliative can be introduced, there can be no satisfactory solution.

The system

80,000 Prison population today. There are just 317 spare places.

60 Pieces of legislation relating to criminal justice since Labour came to power in 1997.

25,000 10-year rise in prison population.

£100,000 Cost of each new prison place.

4,452 Female prisoners in 2004 compared with 1,804 in 1994

10,089 Foreign national prisoners.

80% Foreign female prisoners who have committed drug offences.

2, 528 15-17 year-olds in prison. There were 100 under-15s in 1992.

78 Self-inflicted deaths in prison in 2005. There were 65 in 1997.

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