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School of Law

Report urges for less reliance on imprisonment as punishment

A law expert from Queen Mary University of London is among the writers of a new report, which is urging for less reliance on imprisonment as a form of punishment in the UK.


With the prison population estimated to rise to 90,000 by 2018, the report argues that alternative measures to lengthy incarceration would provide better, sustainable long-term outcomes.

Roger Cotterrell FBA, Anniversary Professor of Legal Theory, from the School of Law at QMUL, was a contributor to the report, titled ‘A Presumption Against Imprisonment: Social Order and Social Values’, written for the British Academy.

The report illustrates how changes to criminal law and policy have led to progressively harsher sentencing regimes, but still the prison population in England and Wales has almost doubled between 1992 and 2011 (from 45,000 to 88,000).

The report suggests a range of strategies (outlined in part 3) to reduce the reliance on imprisonment, including reviewing sentence lengths, using diversion from the courts more extensively and promoting greater use of alternative forms of sentence. In addition to these strategies, the report recommends three ‘overarching institutional proposals’:

  • the creation of a Penal Policy Committee, accountable to Parliament, to formulate  policies on the appropriate use of imprisonment;
  • greater attention by the Sentencing Council to the costs and effectiveness of different forms of sentence;
  • an urgent review of cases of Imprisonment for Public Protection in which  the minimum term has been served, with a view to release.

While the report emphasises that non-custodial measures can often be more economical, the report’s main focus is on a different kind of argument; understanding and maintaining the core social values which the UK upholds for every citizen - liberty, autonomy, solidarity, dignity, inclusion and security.

The report has been welcomed by the Rt Hon. The Lord Woolf PC FBA, former Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales, who comments:

“This report should be read by anyone interested in the well-being of our criminal justice system. It is the first comprehensive report from an eminent, neutral, national organisation addressing the debate about why and how we imprison so many and for so long, and it highlights why it is vital in the national interest that we reduce their number.”

More information about the report is available on the British Academy’s website.



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