Saturday, 11 December 2010

Prison works...Prison doesn't work. An argument for fewer but longer prison sentences


While rioting (might be but we're not sure) students have hogged the headlines, the Government has quietly rekindled the debate about prison. And specifically the difference of view between the "prison works" position of Michael Howard and the " prison's just a training ground for criminals" viewpoint.

It seems to me that both arguments are correct. Prison does "work" if by that you mean locking criminals up results in them not being out in the wider world burgling, mugging and robbing. In this narrow sense (and assuming that the short term supply of criminals is fixed - that we have a zero sum game), the greater the proportion of that criminal population incarcerated at any one time, the less crime.

However, if (and I hope this is the case) part of the aim of our justice system is to reduce the supply of criminals then there's no question that prison doesn't work. I've lost count of the times when a copper has said that a localised rise in crime is "probably down to several known burglars being released from prison." From this it is patently clear that - as a means of preventing recidivism - prison doesn't work.

So where does this take us? For me the starting point has to be the demographics of our prison population - a population that has, more or less, doubled under the last Labour government. Our prison population is overwhelmingly male and young - it is also disproportionately illiterate or barely literature, dependent in one way or other on booze or drugs and suffering from a bewildering assortment of mental health problems. Indeed, we know that many troubled young people find brief periods in prison quite a relief from the struggle of the world outside - regular meals, routine and a clarity of place makes up for the loss of liberty for these young people.

For me it is a failure of a civilised society to bang people up in prison and do nothing to try and sort out the chaotic mess of their lives. Don't get me wrong I'm not suggesting we get all soft - there's a strong case for reducing prisoner contact with the outside, not least in trying to reduce the use of drugs in prisons. But we should lock up fewer people.

However, when we do lock people up - and we should be very clear about the circumstances under which we will do so - it should be for a minimum of two years. At present too many short sentences are given out - nearly half of juvenile sentences and 40% or so of sentences on young adults are for less than two years. With remission and other allowances this simply does not give the system any chance to sort the lives of these young men out. At present they're herded into overcrowded prison units for short periods of time - all we do is take them off the streets for a while.

Two year minimum sentences would allow us to teach illiterates to read and write, to respond to drug and alcohol problems and to provide active mental health support. And during this time we can - and should - expect prisoners to work or learn for at least 35 hours week. Two years is also a significant loss of liberty - I would support a 'three strikes' type system where serial offenders are sent down regardless of the normal tariff for the most recent offence.

At present, we simply view prisons as containment - as places to but bad kids so they're off the streets. At the same time the overcrowding, political correct management and union spanish practices contribute to a dysfunction system that serves neither the public not the prisoner well.


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