Getting out of doing time

There has been a lot of debate recently amongst politicians and commentators about the overcrowding crisis in Britain’s prisons. Justice Secretary Jack Straw recently admitted that over 50,000 prisoners will have been released early by the beginning of next year in order to ease overcrowding. Further to this, the government has advised courts in England and Wales that jail time should be reserved for violent offenders, with community punishment for low-risk criminals. Crimes such as common assault, threatening behaviour and burglary from shops now more often than not result in a caution rather than prosecution.

Anyone can see that prison overcrowding is not a valid reason to hand-out more lenient sentences or release criminals early. This is made even more obvious when you consider that over 1,000 of those prisoners already let out of jail early have been recalled for breaching the terms of their release. The government has gone some way towards a solution by announcing that there will be an extra 10,500 prison places by 2014. Despite this, Labour’s £1.2 billion prison building programme may not meet projections that Britain’s prison population could be over 100,000 by 2014. It is clear that the only way to end the crisis is to have a much larger expansion in the number of prison places available.

Those who argue against putting more criminals behind bars usually point to the fact that Britain has more prisoners than any other Western European country. However, statistics on the overall number of people incarcerated are misleading. The more relevant figures are those that show the number of people in prison in relation to the number of crimes committed. In 2004, across the EU there were on average 17.7 prisoners for every 1,000 recorded crimes, compared to 12.7 in Britain. On this measure, we are well behind the rest of Europe, suggesting that as a nation we are soft on crime compared to our neighbours.

Community orders are an example of where Britain’s penal system has gone wrong. They are increasingly used to ease prison overcrowding, despite little evidence that they deliver justice. In 2006 there were 121,700 community orders imposed in England. However, in February 2008 the National Audit Office found that more than half of offenders were on waiting lists for more than six weeks before starting their punishment. In addition, they discovered that probation officers were in some cases accepting oversleeping as a valid reason for failure to attend probation appointments. These findings suggest that punishing people within the community is just not working, something which the Conservative Party has now acknowledged. Their new penal policy, unlike many other prison reform plans, has called for more prison places, and they have also proposed that instead of automatic release once they have served half their sentence, prisoners will have to ‘earn’ the right to release through self-improvement.

Rehabilitation is one of the main reasons we should send more people to prison. There is obviously a relationship between the fact that a third of inmates are illiterate and about 65 per cent of released prisoners re-offend. If all prisoners left jail literate and numerate, they would have a much better chance of finding honest work on the outside, and therefore have much less reason to commit crime again. An interesting proposal from the Conservatives is to expand prison industries where prisoners can do work and learn skills at the same time.

Not only are prisons a place to rehabilitate those who break the law, they also protect society from criminals, and in particular they protect the least-well off members of society. Most crimes of robbery and violence are committed by young men in poor areas, against others in their community. At a debate on prisons last year, a prison doctor pointed out that “if my home is burgled and my visible possessions are stolen, then I have lost about five percent of my wealth. If a poor family’s home is ransacked in the same way, then they lose everything they have”.

The most important reason for increasing the number of criminals sent to jail, however, is that crime is morally wrong, and therefore should be punished. In a just society, we have to put the rights of the victim above the rights of the offender, and isn’t it the victim’s right to see the perpetrator of a crime against them reprimanded? Most of the general public would agree that those who disregard the rights of others should lose their own right to walk freely among law-abiding citizens. What Britain has to do is create enough prison places to punish those who commit crime, and while they are being punished, to rehabilitate them so that they can become law-abiding members of society on release.

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