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Why our jails badly need to be brought up to date

Preventing re-offending is the key to providing real justice for the victims of crime, argues Pauline McCabe

The current reviews of an alternative to custody and of Northern Ireland's prisons present the opportunity to create a criminal justice system that both punishes offending and deals with its causes. This will reduce re-offending and make our communities safer.

The reform of criminal justice that was set in train by the Hillsborough Agreement must go beyond sweeping up the debris of the past, to create a modern system that provides justice for victims while managing, training, socialising and rehabilitating offenders so that they don't re-offend.

It may seem too much to ask of the system that it both meets the needs of victims and helps offenders to reform but I believe the only way to satisfy the first requirement is to deliver the second.

For a start, there is abundant evidence here in Northern Ireland and elsewhere in the UK that short prison sentences don't work.

To take one stark statistic: 71% of those sent to prison for six months or less re-offend within two years, compared with 30% of those who receive community sentences. When the UK Justice Minister, Ken Clarke, added his voice in June to those who point out that short sentences don't work, he was accused of undermining the Conservative Party's commitment to law and order.

But there are more effective options to custody, as the Northern Ireland Probation Board noted at the launch of its consultation on community sentences.

As the Probation Board highlighted, community sentences are not a soft option. Offenders are forced to recognise they have done wrong and to comply with rigorous programmes that aim to build self discipline and self reliance.

Sending people to prison for minor crimes has serious consequences for the operation of the Prison Service and its ability to rehabilitate those serving longer sentences for serious crimes.

Take the demands made on the management of Maghaberry Prison by its mixture of inmates on remand awaiting sentencing and trial; those serving short sentences for anti-social behaviour, minor theft, or shoplifting; and prisoners with longer sentences who have committed serious offences.

Given this profile, it becomes extremely difficult to run a purposeful regime that is responsive to the widely varying needs of all its prisoners.

Modernising working practices and updating sentencing policy will not only cut costs, it will lead to better outcomes.

Here, I come back to my main point: if the prison system is to provide justice for victims, it must put the prevention of re-offending at the heart of how it operates.

There is no point in removing someone from the community for six months and placing them in circumstances where they are likely to come back and do the same again.

We have to face the fact that short prison sentences may actually increase the chances of re-offending.

Offenders make unsuitable relationships with prisoners who have committed far more serious crimes, they have greater access to drugs, rehabilitation programmes are not tailored for short-term prisoners, and there can be a disastrous toll on family life.

A reformed, modern prison system would not only cost less, it would preserve the budget for interventions in social care, health and education that have been shown to be effective - thus preventing offending in the first place, reducing re-offending and safeguarding communities.