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The Welsh Government’s Counsel General has said the biggest change under a devolved justice system would be a reduced prison population.

First published:
10 May 2022
Last updated:

He described short prison sentences as “counterproductive” as he emphasised the benefits of alternatives to custody, and said the excessive money spent on prisons could be reinvested in areas such as treatment programmes.

It came in a speech to the Welsh Centre for Crime and Social Justice’s annual conference in Newtown earlier today, where Mick Antoniw outlined what the Welsh Government is doing to deliver change under the current system as well as his vision for a devolved justice system.

He pointed to work already underway to improve the justice system under the current constitutional settlement, including a Partnership Agreement on Prison Health which brings together key partners to deliver a shared objective of ensuring people in prison can live in environments that promote health and well-being.

Describing the case for the devolution of justice as “proven”, he then said the transfer of responsibility would allow a greater focus on a rights based approach to justice, with prevention emphasised over sentencing.

Outlining the core components of a devolved justice system, the Counsel General said:

“The biggest differentiation from now would be that we would be working to reduce the size of the prison population. In particular we would do this by significantly reducing the use of short sentences, which have been shown to be counterproductive. Instead we would be pursuing alternatives to custody, such as programmes to address mental health issues and support with treatment for drug and alcohol misuse.

“Prisons cost a fortune to run, even before you consider the human cost. If we could make savings through reducing the prison population, those savings could be reinvested on treatment programmes, or to improve legal aid, or who knows what else.”

He went on to say:

“But reducing the prison population is not only, or even primarily, about sentencing. And this takes me to my final and most important observation about how a Welsh justice system would be different.

“Justice for us is not about laws, courts and punishment. It is about people, families and communities. It cannot be seen or delivered in isolation from social justice - tackling poverty, inequality, housing, education, health, social care and so on.

“Until we get our heads around this, we will never be able to tackle the issues which lead to so many of our citizens becoming embroiled in and dependent on the justice system. Nor will the system itself be able to properly deliver a response which looks to tackling these problems and improving the outcomes for individuals and for society at large.

“So with devolution, we could truly focus on prevention of crime at the age where people’s life chances are least predetermined – working with children and parents, with schools and social services, and all those who can set children along the right path early in their lives.

“And a big difference would be that if we delivered savings to the justice system by successfully reducing crime, those savings would be reinvested in Wales.”

Later this month the Welsh Government will release a publication on building a better justice system for Wales, exploring these themes in more detail.