Police and Crime Commissioner Dr Alan Billings warned that increasing the length of prison sentences, as proposed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and making more prison places available would create new stresses on communities which the government did not intend.
Dr Billings believes making prisoners serve more of their sentence before being offered the chance of parole effectively removed ‘hope’ which could have consequences with violence and prisoner behaviour, ultimately putting new pressures on police who would have to help deal with crimes committed as a result.
The plans also risked overcrowding in prisons if sentences were increased before new cells were available to house a growing population, he said, again adding to the risk of discontent which could spill over into trouble.
When prisoners were ultimately ready for release, there would be an additional burden in rehabilitating a swollen population of offenders in custody, he added.
Instead, Dr Billings would prefer to see more support for providing the diversionary youth services which help to prevent youngsters getting involved in crime in the first place.
They have been heavily pared back during the austerity years, with the voluntary and faith sectors now providing much of what is available, to the point where Dr Billings now includes faith representatives in his newly created Violence Reduction Unit, which is intended to find long term solutions to violent crime.
“Everything has a knock-on effect, consequences which are not always thought through, it is a lack of joined up thinking which is worrying,” said Dr Billings.
“Governments see a problem, throw money at it but don’t always think about the long-term consequences of what they are doing.
“They are talking about extending the period when prisoners can apply for parole from 50 per cent to 75 per cent (of their sentence). That makes people in prison more inclined to be despairing, that can lead to violence and people getting really worked up.
“You need to be able to give people hope and if you take away hope you can up the ante. You have to be very careful,” he said.
The coming increase in police numbers meant there were likely to be more people going through the criminal justice system, which would add to the prison burden before any impact was felt from longer sentences spent in custody, he said.
“It will mean more prisoners. You have to rehabilitate them when they come out and that is a difficult area.”
The government is also promising a tougher line on violent crime, something which is already happening in South Yorkshire with the introduction of a Violence Reduction Unit, but that has funding only until March and is a long-term project, meaning it will need to survive in the years ahead if the benefits of its work are to feed through.
Dr Billings said he was ‘not against’ the government’s proposals but said: “We are already doing it and I think that needs to be acknowledged.
“The money for that stops on March 31 but the impact of its work will only be felt in subsequent years,” he said.
The Violence Reduction Unit includes representatives from the bodies which can play a role in the fight against such crime and has just been expanded to involve both the faith and voluntary sectors, in recognition of the fact they play an important role.
Dr Billings said his visits to South Yorkshire communities clearly illustrated that much of the youth work local authorities had been forced to abandon on financial grounds was now replaced by work by those bodies.
* Priovided by the Local Democracy Reporting Service