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Why we can't afford not to improve the prison system

This week's second report by the Prison Review Team, chaired by former HM Chief Inspector of Prisons Dame Anne Owers, presents a unique opportunity for the much-needed fundamental reform of Northern Ireland's prison system.

The Owers report provides a comprehensive, up-to-date picture of the entire system which reconciles many issues that have been identified time and again through reports from my own office of the Prisoner Ombudsman, among others.

This report is more than a review which rehearses the shortcomings of our prisons. It is a roadmap that sets out clearly what needs to be done and the imperative to act urgently if the people of Northern Ireland are to have the prison system they are entitled to.

The Owers review must be recognised as the complete package and must be implemented in full. The task at hand is not easy.

The prison system is complex and all Government agencies need to sign up to the change programme. What is clear is that a focus on the underlying issues of management, leadership, culture and industrial relations must be viewed in the wider context. Success can only be achieved if a fully joined-up approach is taken, supported by a strong political will.

In these times of cost-cutting across the entire public sector, members of the public who feel disassociated from criminality and prisoners may question whether prison reform should be an urgent priority. For those who think we cannot afford to implement Anne Owers's recommendations, consider the cost of not doing so.

The cost per prisoner-place is around £75,000 a year. Two weeks ago, I visited a private prison in England where the cost per prisoner-place is less than one third of that. It is important to emphasise that this is not a liberal view that sets out to give prisoners a soft landing. A system that offers redress, while moving to reduce reoffending, will instil confidence in victims and the general public that crimes will not be repeated.

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It is also absolutely vital that current work to review sentencing, in line with the Hillsborough Agreement, recognises that, while those who have committed serious crimes should go to prison, fine-defaulters and others who have committed relatively minor, non-violent crimes are most appropriately dealt with through an alternative system of community sentencing.

In very many cases, community-based rehabilitation and restorative justice, backed by mental health, drug-dependency, adult literacy and related support programmes, has been unequivocally shown to reduce reoffending.

Yet we are currently spending huge amounts of money sending fine-defaulters to prison while, at the same time, cutting the probation service budget. It makes absolutely no sense.

Addressing this, in addition to putting in place long-overdue measures to speed up the criminal justice process so that prisoners do not spend so long on remand, would reduce the prison population significantly and make the change process much more cost-effective.

What cannot happen is that the Owers report is viewed as a wish-list that can be cherry-picked.

The Prison Service strategic efficiency and effectiveness (SEE) programme is just one of a number of elements that are required within the overarching programme of reform. An integrated approach is the only way to ensure that cost-savings are delivered, in order to provide a more efficient use of public money.

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