Prison governors are to be held to account for getting offenders off drugs, into jobs and learning English and maths under new powers to be detailed in the justice secretary’s flagship legislation to tackle the prison crisis.
The prisons and courts bill, to be published on Thursday, will give governors control over their budgets for education, employment and health and introduce a new system of league tables and performance standards.
The legislation will also bolster external scrutiny of jails by giving new powers to the chief inspector of prisons, including making judgments about the quality of prison leadership.
The bill is being published at a time when self-inflicted deaths are at a record high, with 119 prisoners killing themselves in 2016, and an epidemic of violence and drugs sweeping the volatile system in England and Wales.
The legislation includes measures to cut off illegal mobile phones being used inside jails and add psychoactive substances – formerly known as legal highs – to existing compulsory drug-testing powers.
The justice secretary, Liz Truss, said the bill would enshrine into law that a key purpose of prisons was to reform and rehabilitate offenders.
The bill comes alongside measures to recruit a further 2,500 prison officers and 50 intelligence officers, tackle drones, and implement a “new for old” programme that will lead to the closure of older jails to fund the construction of modern prisons.
Truss said: “Prison is about punishing people who have committed heinous crimes, but it should be a place where offenders are given the opportunity to turn their lives around.
“I want our prisons to be places of discipline, hard work and self-improvement, where staff are empowered to get people off drugs, improve their English and maths get a job on release.”
Richard Burgon, Labour’s justice spokesman, said recent announcements by Truss had yet to amount to a plan to combat the prison crisis.
“With Liz Truss’s prisons and courts bill due tomorrow, the problems are mounting daily. We are four Conservative justice secretaries in and we’re still looking for one who can get a grip,” he wrote on LabourList, the independent weblog, on Wednesday.
The bill also provides a legal framework for the Ministry of Justice’s £1bn investment in courts in England and Wales. It will introduce online criminal and civil justice hearings as well as more virtual hearings via video-link, with rail-fare dodgers among the first to be tried in this way.
The remote hearings will allow for more bail applications and enable witnesses to avoid meeting their attacker.
The changes, ministers insist, will not remove lawyers from the process, and the selection of cases dealt with online will be “triaged” by prosecutors to ensure that those that need to be heard in court will be dealt with in a traditional hearing.
Low-level offences, such as failure to produce a valid ticket for travel on a train, will be among the first to be transferred to online courts. To preserve public and media access, the resulting convictions will also be published online.
Defendants will be able to submit evidence online in the same way that parking offences are disputed and resolved through a website. They will also be able to plead guilty, accept a conviction, be issued with a penalty and pay it online without waiting for a magistrate to determine their fine.
The process of transferring some cases to new forms of online justice are causing concern among the legal profession, as are the bill’s plans for imposing caps on whiplash compensation payouts and personal injury claims.
The widely discredited practice of allowing victims of domestic violence to be cross-examined in court by abusive ex-partners – which has become far more common due to the removal of legal aid in family cases – will also end.
The justice minister, Sir Oliver Heald, who is overseeing the changes to the courts, said: “We want courts that are efficient and fit for purpose, with facilities across the entire estate that are modern, user-friendly, and work in favour of our hard-working and dedicated judges and magistrates.”
Source: The Guardian