Better access to mental health services and early intervention by ‘problem-solving’ drug and alcohol courts will be at the heart of the government’s efforts to resolve the overcrowding crisis in prison, the justice secretary said today. 

In a widely trailed speech to the Centre for Social Justice today, Liz Truss resisted calls to cut the prison population by ‘cap or quota’ reductions in the number of people behind bars. ‘Sweeping sentencing cuts are not a magic bullet, they are a dangerous attempt at a quick fix,’ she said. Such an approach would also ‘restrict the freedom of the independent judiciary to choose the most appropriate sentence for each offender’.

However she pointed to local initiatives that offer ways to break the cycle of reoffending. Noting that only 1% of community sentences are accompanied by mental health treatment orders, Truss called for a ‘more systematic approach to treatment’. Schemes with dedicated mental health teams in Newcastle and Milton Keynes had shown the possibility of addressing the needs of offenders immediately on sentencing, she said.

Meanwhile, in 2015 drugs treatment orders were attached to only 5% of community sentences. Truss called for greater use of drug and alcohol problem-solving courts, citing evidence from Australia showing that reoffending was 37% less likely when underlying problems were treated. ‘Early intervention is not a “nice to have”, it is a vital component of our justice system.’

A strategy for reducing the number of women in prison would be published later this year, she said, and a Prison and Courts Bill would be published ‘this month’. 

Noting a 140% increase in the number of sexual offenders in prison since 2000, Truss told the event that fewer people being were sent to prison on short sentences and more people in prison were there for serious crimes. Sentence lengths now ‘better reflected’ the severity of cases such as domestic violence, rape and child abuse.

She added that she will ‘take action to spare victims of sexual abuse the trauma of giving evidence in open court in criminal proceedings’. In the family courts, she will end the ‘appalling’ practice of domestic abuse victims being cross-examined by their attacker.

‘Everyone in this room agrees that we want a smaller prison population, but it has to be for the right reasons,’ she concluded.

Law Society president Robert Bourns said: 'The Law Society strongly supports moves to improve rehabilitation. We have long argued that this is the most effective way to reduce the cost to the taxpayer of the criminal justice system.'