get out of jail
The prison debate usually occupies minds during the run up to a general election; afterwards it is then locked up for a few years and is released to re-offend us the next time our politicians seek to gain votes. But prison is a hot topic again, following the publication this week of a Green Paper by the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke and the widespread knowledge that there is just no room at the inside. Engaging the public at large in the debate is a praiseworthy but difficult task, as the subject tends to polarise people into the lock ‘em up and throw away the key’ club and the ‘prison is not the answer’ society. There is a generally more quiet majority in the middle but it intelligently prefers to reserve its judgement in the knowledge that, on such a difficult argument, if an answer is arrived at too quickly then it is very probably wrong.
The political drive to reduce the prison population is dressed up in an attractive wrapping of the need for greater rehabilitation and restorative justice, phrases that are re-invented by successive governments under the pretence that they have come up with something new. They express alarm at the rate of re-offending by ex-prisoners and deduce that prison is somehow causing the committal of further offences. This is one of the best chicken-and-egg arguments of all time. It is because they have the propensity to re-offend that they have become prisoners, not the other way round, though prison can reinforce and enhance that propensity because of the worsening of the prisoner's prospects and social status.
But re-offending rates are key to the government’s strategy and the idea is to reward organisations that rehabilitate successfully with payments dependent on the re-offending record of those under their supervision. A job for the probation service you might think, but, as their budget is cut, the responsibilities will be shared with other kinds of organisations that will bring into play new ideas, motivated by the income that the good behaviour of their clients will bring. A project for teams on The Apprentice perhaps.
The real political motivation is to reduce cost, but the premise is a flaky one. Of course prison is expensive but the cost of management of a released re-offender, from supervision to policing to arrest to possibly a crown court trial is also huge, not even accounting for the harm to the victims which can be permanent and unquantifiable. The cost of state benefits for some also needs to be offset.
Currently there are about 85,000 people in prison and we are frequently told that this represents one of the largest proportional prison populations in Europe. But 4,000 of these are Europeans so that figure should be deducted from the total, and added to each of the respective countries' numbers. Another 9,500 are also foreign nationals, so the comparison with other countries is misleading as their preference is often to deport convicted foreigners rather than imprison them.
But there is no denying that the prison population is high and would be much higher if the police were not suppressing it by giving cautions for offences that would previously typically have earned custody, such as burglary and assault causing grievous bodily harm. The aim to reduce it is a laudable one but the methods must be such that any resultant increase in crime is prevented as far as possible. Prison must be an available option to sentencers for the more serious crimes, for persistent offenders and for breaches of community penalties, otherwise the deterrent is lost and those, already heavily criticised sentences, will fall into further disrepute, leaving nothing much more than fines (that often won’t be paid). Custody is already, except where demanded by the sentencing guidelines, the sentence of last resort and is used comparatively rarely, contrary to the beliefs of many. Tougher curfews are certainly a good way forward, as long as the custodial deterrent remains.
Despite the pressure on prison places, the lack of any plan to build more prisons, and the strategies for reducing re-offending, KC’s target for the reduction in the number of prisoners is at first glance strangely underwhelming; a drop of only 3,000 by 2015, amounting to just 3.5%. (It even rose by 1200 as a result of the withdrawal of End of Custody Licence earlier this year, which could again be introduced.) A government wants a target that it is pretty confident of achieving otherwise its strategy will be labelled a failure, but a reduction of this small size would hardly reflect any noteworthy, successful shift in policy. There are over 8,000 on remand and untried, 1,200 aged 15-17 and 13,500 foreign nationals. Taking 3,000 of them out of the prison system can’t be too dificult, unless of course there is an expectation that crime is going to rise significantly.
And there is the big problem. It isn’t a reduction of 3,000 on the current prison population that is the target, but a reduction of several thousand more on what it would otherwise be in 5 years time. The budget cuts in the criminal justice system, and our general economic and social problems, will themselves lead to more crime and more custodial sentences. The government is making the right noises and has some good ideas, but it knows that it is losing the battle against increase in crime, despite the efforts of police to mask it with out-of-court disposals. Prevention of re-offending can be the main, and very worthwhile, objective but coping with crime will be the practical task for the government and indeed everyone; prisons will still be playing a major part.