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Prison works: lessons from America

David Green in The Times, September 2003

The new Director of Public Prosecutions, Ken Macdonald, has attacked the Government for swallowing American Government rhetoric about crime and punishment and following its policies. If only his accusation were true. American experience has shown that increasing the prison population sharply reduces crime. Twenty years ago Americans were more likely to be victims of burglary. Today it is the other way round. The US burglary rate was more than double that in England and Wales in 1981, but by 1999 the burglary rate here was nearly two-thirds more than America's. Why? Because the risk of being caught, convicted, and sentenced to custody increased in the United States but fell in England and Wales. Take burglary: in 1981 for every 1,000 alleged American burglars 5.5 were in jail. By 1996 the proportion had increased to 8.8. In England and Wales the trend was in the opposite direction: 6.9 out of every 1,000 alleged burglars were in jail in 1981 falling to only 4.5 in 1999, having been as low as 2.3 in 1994. But Mr Macdonald is right to point out that the Government is saying one thing and doing another. In its white paper of July 2003, Justice for All, the Government boasted that it had already increased prison capacity by 18%, but then went on to say that: 'Our aim is not to increase the prison population'. Yet, the prison population continues to rise. It is now 74,000, up from 61,000 in 1997 when Mr Blair came in. The increase partly reflects the ambiguity of the Government's policies, but the biggest influence has been the judges. The Government has been trying to reduce the prison population by letting prisoners out early under curfew, but the judges keep on sending them down. A higher proportion of convicted criminals are being sentenced to custody and sentences are getting longer. In 1996 10% of sentences passed by magistrates were for immediate custody. In 2001 it was 15%. The Crown Court figure was also up from 60% in 1996 to 63% in 2001. Average sentence length imposed by Crown Courts for indictable offences increased from 23.6 months in 1996 to 26.0 in 2001, substantially up on ten years earlier in 1991, when it was 20.5 months. The real story is not that Mr Blunkett is in thrall to American tough-guy rhetoric but that the Government is trying to abandon one of the few policies that is working. Mr Blunkett's policy may be only a pale imitation of American practice, but increasing the prison population has cut crime. Yet, the government has embarked on a policy of replacing prison with 'intensive supervision' in the community. What is the evidence that increasing the use of prison reduces crime? By 1993 the rising crime rate had become a major public concern and towards the end of that year the earlier anti-prison policy was reversed by Home Secretary, Michael Howard. Between 1993 and 2003 the average number of people in prison rose from 45,600 to 74,000, an increase of over 62%. Even if no deterrent effect is assumed, the incapacitation effect of imprisoning another 28,000 criminals has been substantial. How can we work out the incapacitation effect? The Home Office report, Making Punishments Work, estimated that the average offender carried out 140 offences per year. The variation was large, and offenders who admitted a drug problem, were committing an average of 257 offences per year. While in jail offenders cannot break into your house, whereas when on a community sentence they still have the free time to steal. We can make a rough calculation of the incapacitation effect of jailing 28,000 offenders. If each prisoner carried out the average number of offences identified by the Home Office, then 3.9 million offences against the public would be prevented by 12 months in jail. No wonder Mr Blunkett has reluctantly continued Michael Howard's policies but, if the Government wants to keep crime falling, it should build more prisons. How many more prison places do we need? The Home Office has estimated that about 100,000 persistent offenders carry out about half of all crime. The Social Exclusion Unit thought that about 20,000 of them were in jail at any one time. A good starting point would be to begin building the accommodation for the other 80,000 as soon as possible. But isn't prison a notoriously unsuccessful way of reforming offenders? The Home Office estimates that nearly 60% of prisoners are reconvicted within two years of release and for young offenders it's closer to 75%. But what is the alternative? Official figures gives the impression that reconviction rates for prison and community sentences are roughly the same, suggesting that they are equally ineffective methods of rehabilitating offenders. But there is a difference. The official figures do not capture the incapacitation effect. The two years during which reconvictions are measured start at different times. For criminals sentenced to jail the clock starts ticking on release, missing out the incapacitation effect of prison, but for community sentences it starts at the beginning of the sentence. This practice has been criticised by an official review but misleading information continues to be published. We should not give up hope of trying to change offenders for the better, but a wise policy should aim at both public protection and rehabilitation. Prison protects but does not change offenders all that much. Community sentences don't change offenders either, but offer minimal protection. The search continues to be on for better ways of rehabilitating offenders but, while we are waiting, the public is entitled to protection. In that sense, prison works.


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