‘There is an alternative’

    Prisons minister Paul Goggins can’t escape his past. His former job
    as a social worker is the yardstick by which many judge his current
    actions and decisions. The more generous consider him the human
    face of a government that has little tolerance for anyone in
    trouble with the law. But others who have heard him speak find him
    too authoritarian for someone with a social care background.

    Many people believe that the government’s talk about crime has been
    too punitive, but Goggins says: “We shouldn’t be saying any more
    and we shouldn’t be saying any less.”

    He believes the government’s messages and policies “should remain
    balanced” and insists that custody should be reserved “for the most
    serious and persistent offenders”.

    “We try wherever possible with children and young people to
    prevent, divert and intervene in the community. That’s a consistent
    message that I’ve been giving out for two years and that message
    will be consistent up to the general election.”

    He had not, however, heard Alan Milburn, Labour’s general election
    co-ordinator, talking last year about British “yobs” in the same
    breath as international “terrorists”. On hearing it for the first
    time he winces slightly, but then agrees with Milburn that indeed
    “there is terror in some of our estates” and that the actions of
    some young people do “terrify people”.

    High on his agenda are community alternatives to custody. “I want
    to see fewer children in custody,” he says, pledging “every
    assistance” to the Youth Justice Board in meeting its aim to reduce
    youth custody by 10 per cent within three years.

    Those who knew Goggins in the past would not be surprised by his
    passion for community responses. During the 1980s, in Salford, he
    worked in teams that offered alternatives to custody. “We could
    divert people away from custody in our projects and the sentencers
    locally were happy about that because they could see the benefit of
    it,” he says.

    That decade is often seen as a progressive one for youth crime –
    the number of children given custodial sentences dropped
    dramatically from 7,700 in 1981 to just 1,500 at the end of the
    period. But Goggins’s view is that, although there were many
    initiatives and ideas, there was also confusion. He recalls: “It
    was a hotchpotch in some respects. We couldn’t describe it as a
    coherent system. You still got the rhetoric of the short, sharp
    shock of the 28-day detention centres for juveniles.”

    Since 1997 the system has become more coherent, he says, adding
    that the forthcoming draft Youth Justice Bill should make it easier
    for the courts to use community sentences, and more difficult to
    lock up children. This would be helped by the government’s plan to
    introduce the option for sentencers to choose an intensive
    surveillance and support order. Under this, more young people could
    be kept out of custody, and instead be monitored and supported in
    the community.

    “We want to give it real status in the system so that sentencers
    understand that it is a credible and robust alternative,” Goggins
    says. “We will also make sure that the law governing the use of
    custody for children is tighter in terms of its reservation for the
    most serious of offenders. We will go on making that absolutely
    clear.”

    The bill will also, he says, give sentencers more confidence in
    less severe community sentences by helping them to get the
    “right mix”.

    In relation to racism in the prison system and the Zahid Mubarek
    Inquiry, Goggins says he is determined to “leave no stone unturned
    to tackle any form of racism”. But, although he intends to listen
    to the recommendations of the inquiry, he says lessons have already
    been learned at Feltham Young Offender Institution, as indicated by
    a recent Prisons Inspectorate report.

    However, he is keen for there to be more staff from ethnic
    minorities in the prison service. “We don’t have the proportions we
    want yet but we are getting there,” he says.

    And the high proportion of people from ethnic minorities in the
    criminal justice system is an issue, he adds. “As a society we have
    to make sure that equality means something in practice.”

    It has long been known that many prisoners – both child and adult –
    have mental health problems. Does Goggins think their needs can be
    met by prison services? On this he is confident, saying most “can
    be helped, treated and supported” while inside.

    He adds: “Simply because a juvenile has a mental health problem
    doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be in custody. Our task is to make sure
    they get the right support and treatment when they are there.”

    Less emphasis should be on removing prisoners with mental health
    problems from custody, he believes, and more on making the right
    judgement about where it is best for them to be. “Whether they
    should be in that accommodation [prison] and receiving mental
    health treatment and support or whether they should be out of that
    system and in a secure mental health institution. Where that’s
    appropriate, that’s where they should be,” he says.

    He also recognises that more support needs to be available in the
    community and says that he is working with colleagues in health and
    education to ensure the government has a joined-up approach.
    “Children with mental health problems who have committed offences
    come across all our departments. It is important that we work
    together very closely. I work closely with Margaret [Hodge] on
    this,” he says.

    Given Goggins’s strong belief that the government is moving in the
    right direction, it is hardly surprising that he takes issue with
    anyone saying otherwise. In response to criticism from Jaap Doek,
    chair of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child,
    that there are too many vulnerable children in UK jails, he doesn’t
    mince his words.

    If it were left to Doek, he says, children with any vulnerability
    would be removed from custody. “His argument is that no children
    with dyslexia should be in prison service accommodation,” he says.

    “Where children are extremely vulnerable of course we would be
    looking for the most appropriate accommodation. But to say that all
    children who have any degree of vulnerability should be outside the
    system overstates the case, and I think that is what he does,” says
    Goggins.

    Yet there is little overstatement in the fact that there are more
    children in prison in the UK than in any other country in the EU –
    something one would hope, as a former social worker, Goggins would
    find difficult to overlook.

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