Senedd backs call for the future devolution of criminal justice

(Title Image: Wales Online)

The Issue

The Thomas Commission has been set up with a view to laying the groundwork for the eventual devolution of criminal justice. Although AMs have already backed the principle of devolving policing, to date only Plaid Cymru have been enthusiastic about devolving the entire criminal justice system (courts, criminal law, prisons, rehabilitation, probation).

Clearly, the mood has shifted with Labour (in Wales) seemingly coming round to the idea of the devolution of criminal justice – though it’s likely to be dependent on the outcome of the Commission and would probably require a separate legal jurisdiction and probably a new Wales Bill at some point in the future.

The Motion

The Senedd:

  • Regrets that criminal justice policies for EnglandandWales have failed to halt the rise of the number of people imprisoned and the conditions in which too many Welsh prisoners are held are not conducive to rehabilitation.
  • Regrets that 47 percent of prisoners re-offend within one year.
  • Regrets that most of the 2007 Corston Report recommendations on the treatment of women offenders have not been implemented, ignoring evidence that imprisonment of women causes major, costly and unjustifiable disruption to their children’s lives.
  • Calls on the Welsh and UK governments to trial alternative models of punishment of non-violent Welsh offenders; promote better joined-up working between health, housing and criminal justice services to combat the escalation of homelessness and mental illness amongst people leaving prison; develop a distinct Welsh penal policy based on evidence.
  • Calls for the eventual devolution of criminal justice, along with the resources to deliver a preventative, restorative rehabilitation of offenders that ends the revolving door between prison and re-offending.

Key Points

Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central)
For (the motion): Prisons don’t work.

  • There are an estimated 200,000 children of prisoners, 12,000 of whom live in south Wales alone; 95% have had to move home when a parent is imprisoned and the upheaval causes depression and behavioural problems.
  • Having a parent in prison triples the chance of a child going to prison themselves.
  • It’s disappointing the courts aren’t using mental health treatment orders and community punishments for non-violent offenders.
  • The re-offending rate for prisoners sentenced to less than a year was 70% in 2008 compared to 38% for those who’ve been through community punishment.
  • The Netherlands has a policy of dealing with the root problem that causes offending as a result they’ve got a shortage of prisoners and have had to close 19 prisons and has a re-offending rate of just 10%.

David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central)
For: We need to learn from the best, current policy is over-heating prisons.

  • Prison is an appropriate punishment for those who deserve it, particularly serious violent offences against people and property.
  • EnglandandWales has the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe; there’s too much focus on containment in prisons than rehabilitation and training.
  • Criminal justice is routinely dealt at a sub-national level in federal nation-states and would be appropriate for Wales; we would be able to learn from the best practice around the world.

Bethan Sayed AM (Plaid, South Wales West)
For: It’s a natural next step.

  • Devolution of criminal justice is a natural step to take as more offences are created within current devolved areas.
  • New prisons aren’t being developed to meet the needs of Wales; we could end up with a 2,300 surplus of places if the proposed Port Talbot prison were built.
  • You can’t “ship prisoners across a country” and expect it to aid rehabilitation.
  • Offenders should have to confront victims to understand what their crime has done to them.

David Rees AM (Lab, Aberavon)
For: Prisons are becoming more dangerous.

  • We have a penal system that’s been imposed on us and doesn’t serve citizens well.
  • Prisons are becoming unacceptably violent and dangerous; only 49% of prisons have been graded as “good” in 2017 – a drop of 27% in just one year. Swansea Prison is now one of the most overcrowded in the UK.
  • The penal system and sentencing guidelines need reform and alternatives to prison need to be considered.
  • There’ve been 15 fires, 46 cells taken out of use and 3 call outs of a tactical response unit (aka. Tornado teams) to Berwyn Prison in Wrexham in just 6 months.

David Rowlands AM (UKIP, South Wales East)
Against: I used to be a magistrate; the system works.

  • Declared an interest as a former sitting magistrate.
  • There’s been a rise in violent crime, drugs offences and sexual offences – all of which carry harsh prison sentences.
  • Sentencing guidelines aren’t there to send people to prison and all avenues are explored before prison becomes an option.
  • Alternatives such as fines, tagging, curfews and community work are routinely used; it wouldn’t be right to treat offenders differently if they’re a mother, the law has to apply equally to everyone.
  • He later agreed that something “radical” needs to be done to how we treat prisoners to stop them re-offending.

Julie Morgan AM (Lab, Cardiff North)
For: The penal system is too harsh on women.

    • The number of women who are a risk to the public to justify a women’s prison in Wales is small – “probably just one or two” (Owen: My BS detector has gone off. I can think of one notorious woman repeat offender in the Bridgend/Porthcawl area alone who was recently sentenced to prison for starting a fire in a block of flats and was on a community order at the time).
    • A woman’s prison in Wales would probably be filled with offenders from England in time.
    • Women’s centres that maintain links with families/children are a better alternative for women. 

Welsh Government Response

Local Government & Public Services Secretary, Alun Davies (Lab, Blaenau Gwent)

  • The Welsh Government supports the motion; it was clear in their alternative to the Wales Bill that they support the devolution of criminal justice from 2026 (with policing devolved earlier along with the creation of a Welsh legal jurisdiction).
  • The current system doesn’t allow the Home Office or Ministry of Justice to deliver their policies easily in Wales, not the Welsh Government.
  • He met with the Chief Inspector of Prisons who recognised some of the poor conditions Welsh prisoners are held in which “cannot respect the human dignity” of prisoners or visiting relatives.
  • The UK Government are expected to announce changes to how women prisoners are managed “shortly”.



The Tories clearly had a free vote. David Melding voted in favour; Mark Reckless and Janet Finch-Saunders voted against; Suzy Davies, Darren Millar and Russell George abstained (along with Labour’s Lynne Neagle).

Andrew RT Davies, Kirsty Williams, Neil McEvoy and Leanne Wood were amongst those who didn’t vote.

  • 31