PCC Blog 164

August used to be regarded by the traditional media as the silly season. Politics seemed suspended because Parliament was not sitting and other bodies had wound down as staff took a summer break.

There was no significant news. The only decisions being made were whether to have pre-dinner drinks at the poolside or not. But newspapers had to be filled and newscasters had to have something for their bulletins. So into the void came the silly stories – the pizza that looked like the Madonna, the parrot that could sing La Marseillaise.

But this year has been different – not only because of climate upheavals but because some government departments seem to be operating as usual, not least the Home Department. There have been initiatives around migrants and we are bracing ourselves for more announcements on policing and criminal justice in the coming weeks.

The reason is quite simply because this summer we are probably only a matter of months away from a general election. A great deal of political virtue signalling is starting to happen. The government is seeking to distinguish itself from the opposition – and vice versa.

I’m hoping that we don’t see anything that will lead to more people heading for our prisons, not least because we have four in South Yorkshire with many staff living locally.

Across the country, prisons are full – dangerously so, some would say. Yet we know that if we want better outcomes, we need fewer prisoners. We need this for good rehabilitation. We need it for the sake of prison staff who have to manage prisons and safeguard those in them. But here, public perception is often well adrift of the reality; the pressure from the public will be for more offenders going to prison and those found guilty of serious crimes spending more time in them.

Yet this is already the reality. More people are going to prison than ever and sentences are getting longer. In 2022, for example, more than three times as many people received sentences of ten years or more than was the case in 2008. And for more serious, indictable offences, the average sentence is now five years and two months – two years longer than it was in 2008. Those serving mandatory life sentences for murder are spending more of their sentence in custody. In 2001 this was 13 years. It is now 18. And judges are also imposing longer minimum terms. In 2001 this was 13 years. In 2021 it was 21.

We also send more people to prison than anywhere else in western Europe. The figures per 100,000 are these:

England and Wales 141

Spain 116

France 108

Italy 96

Sweden 74

Germany 67

Norway 57  (Prison Reform Trust)

But the public do not believe any of this.

When polled, around two thirds of the population thought that sentencing was not tough enough – by which they meant that the sentences were too lenient. Over the past twenty five years, sentences on average have got longer, but 56% of those surveyed thought they had reduced. And if we exclude from the figures those who didn’t know one way or another, 75% said sentences were shorter today.

How can we reduce prison numbers? Two answers suggest themselves but neither will get past public opinion.

On the one hand we can stop sending some people to prison for very short sentences. The evidence is that these very short sentences are in any case less effective at reducing crime than well-managed community sentences, not least where an offender has mental health issues or has been prolific.

The other possibility would be to release some carefully selected prisoners earlier – but again, public opinion is unlikely to accept this without a careful case being consistently made by those who could influence public opinion.

It is, then, hard to see how numbers will come down if the pressure from the public is for a greater use of custodial sentences and longer terms. So the prison population will continue to get more numerous, but, along with that, older and sicker  – and hope will drain away. And we know what that means for offenders and prison officers alike. We create a perfect storm.

As we approach a general election it will be a brave politician who tries to explain these realities. If anything, we must prepare for the opposite.

Supporting victims

Supporting victims has been a theme running through much of what I have been concerned with in the past couple of weeks. I have visited two organisations in Rotherham – Rotherham Rise and Rotherham Abuse Counselling Service. They support children and adults who have suffered domestic and child sexual abuse. Rotherham Rise also offer refuge accommodation. (I called at Rotherham Rise just after they had had water pouring through the roof and they had been forced to close their very popular community cafe on High Street while repairs were made.)

I also met staff at an organisation called Saffron – or the Sheffield Women’s Counselling and Therapy Service. This is a Sheffield-based charity providing free, long-term specialist therapy for some of the city’s most vulnerable women. These are women over the age of sixteen who have experienced trauma in childhood or adulthood and who suffer complex, post-traumatic stress symptoms due to chronic or repeated instances of trauma.

The Chief Executive, Sarah Smart, told me about Saffron and the circumstances of those they are seeking to help. In 2022-2023 the women who accessed the service spoke about these traumatic experiences they had suffered:

– sexual abuse (violence, rape or sexual exploitation) as a child or young adult (40%)

– sexual abuse as an adult (25%)

– physical domestic abuse (44%)

– controlling behaviour (70%)

– exploitation, modern slavery, trafficking, county lines (1%)

– victim or witness of a crime or accident (11%)

– health or medical-related trauma (16%)

– bereavement (21%)

As a consequence they had responded in a variety of ways. Most reported depression, anxiety and stress. Almost half had suicidal thoughts with 9% attempting suicide. Others self-harmed or misused alcohol or drugs.

About one third of the clients were unemployed. Those in work spoke about the difficulty of holding down a job due to their symptoms of trauma. I also noted that 42% were caring for children and while most of the women were in younger age groups, 3% were over 60.

I wanted to support Saffron because as well as what is described above, it will work with those who may be denied access to other services because they have recently attempted suicide, or are actively self-harming or still live with an abuser or are assessed as too vulnerable to begin a therapeutic intervention. In other words, they work with highly vulnerable women with very complex needs.

In 2022-23 the numbers looked like this:

511 assessments

175 clients received one to one therapy

2,485 therapy sessions were offered

But needs are growing. Covid had an impact as does the cost of living crisis. And the number of sessions the women need has increased during this period as well. 91% require 20 or more sessions and the number needing 40 has doubled. As a result, the waiting list has had to remain closed for longer periods as the women move through the service. It is closed at the moment, though they hope to open it again by the end of the year.

I visited Saffron because they had received, through my office, funding to support some additional part-time therapists and to thank them for what they do. They are helping many women deal with the consequences of broken relationships, sexual and domestic abuse, bereavement and other traumatic experiences. The women report that therapy has helped them deal with their symptoms of anxiety and depression, to re-join society, to become better parents.

One woman wrote this:

“My therapist has helped me unlock feelings I had shut away for years. It’s been a long time since I was this happy with myself. I would recommend Saffron to anyone struggling. They’re all angels on earth.”

And another this:

“I just wanted to say I started at the lowest of the low, really depressed, and now my sessions have given me the strength, the confidence and the right way to go about things, which is amazing, thank you. There should be more places like Saffron for people like me.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Stay safe