TCS Daily

Prison Break?

By Peter C. Glover - September 5, 2006 12:00 AM

British prisons are, once again, bursting at the seams. While the Home Office is doing its best to accommodate "future bookings" (8,000 new places), humans rights activists and prison reformers have mounted a concerted media campaign over recent months aimed at convincing us that prison doesn't work. A close scrutiny of the available studies and statistics, however, reveals that not only does prison work but our consistent refusal to build new prisons will prove to be one of the costliest social mistakes.

Interestingly, the only real support for alternatives to custody has come from the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and the Treasury and not from those working within the justice system.

In January 2006 a government report revealed that prisoner recalls had risen by a "staggering" 250 percent between 2000-2001 and 2004-2005. The Prison Reform Trust (PRT) claimed, "It is clear from this report that we must stop hauling people back to prison for no good reason." Breaking the terms and conditions of early release, it seems, does not constitute a "good reason."

In June this year a report from the Scottish Prison Service revealed that half the prisoners released from Scotland's jails were back behind bars within two years. The Howard League for Penal Reform claimed, "This figure shows that prison isn't working as a means of rehabilitation, and should act as an incentive to seek alternatives to custodial sentences, in order to reduce the prison population and break the cycle of people offending, going to prison and re-offending."

In early August the Howard League campaign began calling for a program of women's prison closures. This, they said, would "reduce re-offending" among "vulnerable women". By mid-August, amid further reports of full prisons, the PRT backed a call to draw up plans for the "early release" of prisoners, a solution the Home Office admits it is "seriously considering".

That the answer to rising crime, full prisons and high rates of prisoner recidivism is the closure of prisons, alternatives to custody and early release suggests that the lobbies are entirely at odds with growing public concern over lenient sentences and early parole.

However, in June 2006 Dr. David Green, director of the think-tank Civitas, writing in the Daily Mail, revealed some fascinating facts showing that, set against the cost of crime to Britain of £60 billion a year:

  • The entire cost of running the British prisons system is just £2.2 billion - a fraction of the cost of the welfare state, and also smaller than the sum wasted annually on benefit fraud.
  • A Home Office survey shows the average inmate commits 140 crimes in the 12 months prior to admission to custody.
  • The British Crime Survey reveals crime levels fall when more offenders are sent to prison.

He could easily have added that:

  • 91 percent of young offenders on the government's flagship non-custodial scheme in 2005 re-offended within two years.
  • 90 percent of convicted criminals on (non-custodial) drug treatment programs go on to commit more crimes.
  • The British Crime Survey shows that a trend of falling crime began around 1995 after tougher sentences were introduced.
  • re-offending rates fall by 100 percent when criminals are locked up.

In 2004 Civitas published a report entitled Prison is a Bargain. It noted how the government's Treasury Department (accountants again) got Chief Justice Lord Woolf to "persuade" judges to stop sending prisoners to jail because of the cost. The Civitas report, however, went on to weigh the real social and economic costs associated with persistent offending and not sending offenders to prison. It concluded that even on "very cautious assumptions" for "every £1 spent on prison, we would save at least £1.07 and it could be over £12."

The Civitas report also highlighted a major US study by Professor John DiIulio, who estimated the annual cost of keeping a criminal in jail to be around $25,000. The cost of allowing the median offender to remain at large however was around $70,098. The implication is that it is far more cost-effective to society to jail around 75 percent of convicted felons. As Green's Daily Mail article concluded, "We should be celebrating that reality by building more jails, not wringing our hands about overcrowding."

What is becoming increasingly clear is that today's "prison reform" is less about reforming our prisons than about propelling us towards a new social engineering experiment. Today's liberal reformers are uncomfortable with notions of "punishment" and "prison". They feel they reflect ideas of "social vengeance" and medieval correctives. But they would do well to remember the words of the great prison reformer, Elizabeth Fry, who well understood that, "Punishment is not for revenge, but to lessen crime and reform the individual."

A comparative study of UK and US crime rates between 1981 and 1996 showed that in the US, as the risk of imprisonment rose, the rate of crime fell. Conversely, as the risk of prison receded in the UK, the crime rate rose. The conclusive evidence may not impress the modern ideological social reformer. But the facts do seem, shall we say, inescapable.

Peter C Glover is a regular contributor to TCS Daily. You can find more of his writings here.


1 Comment

Crime and time
"A Home Office survey shows the average inmate commits 140 crimes in the 12 months prior to admission to custody."

One current "guest of the governor" told me that he committed several crimes because he was already going to jail for one, so why not commit more.

The system of concurrent sentencing (5 felonies gets you 5 years not 5 years for each felony) is partially to blame for the current crime wave. We need to stop teaching criminals that there is no additional punishment for additional crimes.

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