LEICESTER, United Kingdom – A new report on sentencing reform issued by the English and Welsh bishops has challenged the British government to reduce the country’s prison population.

The report says the case for a wide-ranging reform of sentencing practice is “clear from both a long-term financial and practical perspective, as well as from a moral and humanitarian one.”

“We must help offenders to return to the right road by building a system which enables them to do so. We have a duty to support both victims of crime and those who have offended by helping them to undertake a journey of hope, mercy, forgiveness, and redemption,” it says.

Britain currently has the highest rate of imprisonment in Western Europe, and the prison population has risen by 77 percent over the past 30 years.

“Despite evidence that community sentences are more effective, many people who have committed nonviolent crimes are still sent to custody for short sentences that only serve to disrupt their lives,” said Bishop Richard Moth, who covers prison policy for the bishops’ conference.

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He pointed out the average lengths of medium-to-long term prison sentences for the same offences have actually increased, leaving more people locked up for longer.

The report – called A Journey of Hope – was launched on Oct. 18, and draws from a wide range of experts, including senior politicians, legal professionals, charities, Church groups and people with experience of working in the prison system.

The document stresses the importance of keeping the victim at the heart of any prison reform, and said “no authentic evaluation and reform of sentencing policy must ignore the voice of victims.”

“The Church’s role in this, as well as that of other groups, is to accompany victims of crime by helping them to discover that it is ultimately forgiveness not retribution that brings healing. A greater voice must be given to those victims of crime who have chosen to forgive and who wish to dedicate their efforts to promoting hope and reconciliation in the communities around them,” the report reads.

“In seeking to bring justice for those who suffer the impact of criminal behavior, in wishing to keep our streets safe, and by desiring to vent our emotional reaction to the injustices committed by offenders, society has often responded to crime by demanding ever harsher sentences for an ever-greater number of offences. While all of these responses to crime are understandable, the facts show that greater use of prison is not always the most appropriate answer and is resulting in real harm to individuals, families, and communities.”

The report also gives special attention to populations that suffer disproportionately under the current sentencing regime, especially women.

Women only make up around 5 percent of the total prison population, but the needs of women offenders are often more complex.

“Around 46 percent of women in prison have reported suffering domestic violence and 5 percent have experienced emotional, physical, or sexual abuse during childhood. Clearly, the traumatic effects of abuse need proper treatment and may not be addressed by placing women in custody,” the report states.

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“Women are much more likely to be primary carers than men and if a mother goes to prison, in 9 out of 10 cases her children will need to leave their home to go into care or to live with relatives.”

The report also notes that due to a lack of proper psychiatric care facilities, judges are often forced to send people to prison who committed a crime due to a mental health condition.

“It is not appropriate to send someone with a severe mental condition into an environment that is unlikely to be able to provide appropriate care and which poses a real threat of causing further damage to a person’s mental health.”

The report also notes the Catholic Church, as well as other faith groups, has a key role to play in addressing the complex social injustices that lead to the overrepresentation of minorities in the criminal justice system.

Moth said prisons in the country are struggling to cope with the higher number of incarcerations, and are characterized by poor living conditions, high levels of violence and self-harm, and widespread drug use.

“These conditions are not only undignified but also present a huge obstacle for offenders seeking to turn their lives around,” the bishop said.

“If there is no improvement, rates of reoffending will inevitably remain high, to the detriment of our whole society.”