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Justice Secretary warns against 'dangerous quick fix' to cut jail numbers

Prison numbers cannot be cut with "dangerous quick fix" solutions, Justice Secretary Liz Truss has said.

The Cabinet member used a keynote address at the Centre for Social Justice on Monday to attack opposition calls to reduce the current number of 85,000 prisoners in England and Wales to the 1990 level of 45,000.

Ms Truss's speech came ahead of the broadcast of a BBC Panorama investigation, which highlights in HMP Northumberland the scale of the issues facing prisons.

The BBC's undercover reporter said inmates were effectively running the prison, where he witnessed widespread drug abuse.

Ms Truss said: "I want to see it [the prison population] go down because we have got better at managing the prison population inside our jails.

"Reductions by cap or quota, or by sweeping sentencing cuts are not a magic bullet, they are a dangerous attempt at a quick fix."

Ms Truss said targeting sexual offenders and domestic abuse had led to an increase in prisoner numbers, helped by a "sea change" in attitudes towards victims of rape and sexual assault.

She added: "The biggest driver for prison growth in the last 20 years has been the exposure, pursuit and punishment of sexual offences and crimes of violence, and a toughening up of sentences for those crimes.

"This is down to a wholly welcome improvement in the attitude to victims of sex crime across society. It has meant more victims are coming forward, they are taken more seriously by the criminal justice system and they are dealt with, with greater understanding."

Ms Truss said the nature of the prison population has changed as three in five prisoners are now convicted of violent, sexual or drug offences compared to two in five inmates in 1995.

Responding to Labour's concerns over a "political arms race" over prisoner numbers, Ms Truss said the Government had brought "wickedness out from the shadows".

She said: "Shadow attorney general Shami Chakrabarti thinks that we can cut our prison numbers at a stroke because she does not believe 'the sum of human wickedness' could have doubled in her lifetime.

"She blames a political arms race for the number of people in our jails.

"But what has actually happened in Baroness Chakrabarti's lifetime is that the criminal justice system has got better at catching and convicting criminals who have perpetrated some of the most appalling crimes imaginable.

"And sentence lengths now better reflect the severity of crimes like domestic violence, rape and child abuse.

"It's not that the sum of human wickedness has doubled - it's that we have driven that wickedness out from the shadows and we are putting it where it belongs, behind bars."

Taking questions after the session, she promised to meet the family of Dean Saunders, an inmate at Chelmsford Prison who was found electrocuted in his cell, after questions were raised about record numbers of suicides in prisons.

Figures published last month showed there were a record 119 apparent suicides in prisons in England and Wales last year, according to a report by the Howard League for Penal Reform and the Centre for Mental Health.

The BBC's Joe Fenton spent two months undercover as a custody officer in the prison near Morpeth, which houses 1,348 men and is run by private firm Sodexo Justice Services.

Ahead of the episode on BBC One at 8.30pm on Monday, he said: " It didn't take too long to realise that the inmates were, in effect, running this prison.

"I saw prisoners stumbling around drunk, others who were high on drugs and some struggling to cope with addiction.

"Prison officers repeatedly told me they had lost control of the prison. "

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