Fewer criminals should be jailed and tougher community punishments developed as an alternative to imprisonment, the lord chief justice has urged.
Appearing before MPs on the justice select committee on Monday, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd also warned there was a shortage of high court judges partially because of cuts in their pension rights and that up to 40 would need to be recruited by over the next few years.
The most senior judge in England and Wales welcomed the introduction of US-style “problem-solving courts”, whereby offenders are brought back regularly to have their sentences and progress reviewed by a judge after conviction.
Thomas said there had been a “pause in the government’s thinking” but hoped the scheme would be expanded. “There’s an awful lot we can do to avoid sending certain people to prison provided that the orders are properly carried out by the probation and rehabilitation companies,” he said.
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“The prison population is very, very high at the moment. Whether it will continue to rise is always difficult to tell. There are worries that it will. I don’t know whether we can dispense with more [offenders] by really tough, and I do mean tough, community penalties. So I would like to see that done first.”
His comments come as jails in England and Wales endure a turbulent period. This month thousands of prison officers staged a walkout amid claims the system was “in meltdown” after a rise in violence and self-harm incidents in jails. There are more than 85,000 people in prison in England and Wales.
Thomas said the latest survey of morale among the judiciary showed serious concerns, reflecting resentment over cuts in the value of judges’ pensions and changes to their working practices.
An employment tribunal is hearing a claim by more than 200 judges who allege that they have been the subject of discrimination because newly appointed judges have been given less generous pension provision.
The lord chief justice said that on recruitment, judges take a “huge salary cut” from their work as barristers in private practice. High court judges are paid about £180,000 a year.
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There is a shortfall of about six high court judges. “We will need to recruit 30 to 40 over the next few years,” Thomas told the select committee.
The transfer of more and more low-level cases, such as motoring offences, to online courts is likely to result in a more organised system of publishing the names of those who have pleaded guilty or been convicted, Thomas said.
MPs on the committee did no ask him about his response to being labelled along with the master of the rolls, Sir Terence Etherton, and Lord Justice Sales as “enemies of the people” by the Daily Mail after their Brexit ruling.
Asked, outside the committee room, whether such attacks depress judicial morale, Thomas told reporters: “I have observations to make but it’s not proper to make them at this time. There’s an appeal still before the court.”