Having oscillated between 40,000 and 50,000 during the 1980s and early 1990s, prison numbers in England and Wales rose to more than 60,000 by the time Labour came to power in 1997.Oddly enough this was the 1980s saw large rises in crime and when Michael Howard began raising prison numbers crime fell. Since then 1997 the trend has been less clear cut as recorded crime and surveyed crime have diverged on occasion.
The argument that "prison works" might once have been a rather disreputable stance. Today it is becoming positively de rigueur to celebrate high prison numbers and call for even more.The word 'disreputable' sums up much of the opposition to prison. It isn't evidence based but founded out of a belief that it is the sign of someone who shouldn't be part of polite society. People often oppose prison because it is more emotionally satisfying to congratulate themselves for showing mercy to convicted criminals.
Superficially, the argument is persuasive. In the 10 years from 1995 to 2005 the official crime rate, according to the British Crime Survey, fell by roughly half. During the same period the number in prison increased by roughly half. Crime apparently fell because we successfully imprisoned the kinds of people who commit it. Keep locking up more of those people who commit most crime and crime will fall further. The equation appears rather simple.That is essentially correct, most prisoners would be committing around 200 crimes a year if they were outside so 40000 extra prisoners accounts for 8 million fewer crimes. Obviously there are diminishing returns to this approach as less prolific offenders get locked up but essentially it works.
However compelling this argument might appear, and however popular it currently is within certain circles, it is in fact one that is at best misleading and at worst spurious. To understand why, let us start by considering the kind of people that make up the current criminal justice caseloads as convicted offenders.Yes, let's.
They are largely men from poor or working class backgrounds. They will tend to be in their late teens or early 20s.Certainly, that is the at which offending peaks, it declines drastically from the late 20s onwards, so people in their late teens and early 20s commit the majority of crimes. Age is an even better correlating factor for crime than sex.
A notable proportion will have drug and alcohol problems.This is true, although that might not be a cause and effect issue. Drugtaking is generally a rather impulsive form of behaviour, just like crime. So the people who abuse drugs are often the same people who would be committing crime even if drugs did not exist.
Poor literacy abilities and intermittent employment histories will be common.True, people who are likely to commit crime are generally of below average intelligence (obviously there are major exceptions) and somewhat impulsive, these are not traits that make great employees. Again these literacy levels and unemployment are symptoms of their poor behaviour.
While the majority will be white, a disproportionate minority will be black or from other minority ethnic groups.I think he is implying that they may be victims of racism, however several ethnic minorities have muich lower crime rates than the white population. There are few British Hindus in prison for example.
These are the people who are both vulnerable to repeat conviction and repeat incarceration.What an extraordinary phrase, it is like saying that matadors are 'vulnerable' to being gored by angry bulls. It is a direct result of their behaviour that creates this vulnerability.
It should not surprise us then that such individuals might regularly find themselves in trouble with the police, prosecuted in the courts and filling up our prisons.Yeah they just wake up and 'find themselves' in trouble with the police for no good reason don't they?
Yet whether it is domestic violence or child abuse, middle class fiddles or corporate corruption, sexual abuse or the abuse of power, most crime never features in the official crime rate.What 'middle class fiddles' exactly? it is almost an nebulous as 'abuse of power'. I'm willing to bet that domestic violence and (non sexual) child abuse are most concentrated amoung the sort of men who are likely to commit the more mundane crimes.like robbery and burgalary.
Crime is a far more common and cross-class phenomenon than is apparent from the caseloads of police, prisons and courts.Not greatly.
If we were serious that "prison works" we would have a prison-building programme that resulted in a gulag society.Since when have Guardian hacks considered Gulags a bad thing? More seriously the argument that if you believe that something is good you must believe in taking it to an extreme without any consideration of the trade offs is preposterous. It is like arguing if you believe that 'speed kills' you have to demand that speed limits of 5 mph are enforced.
At best, the argument about prison and crime is about a small proportion of all offenders, responsible for a small proportion of all crime.The whole point is that a small proportion of offenders are responsible for an extremely large proportion of crime.
Incidentally Britain doesn't actually jail that many people when considered as a proportion of all crimes committed.
PS. I'm in a hurry so I'll have to flesh out this post with related links later this evening.
Update: I had forgotton about Pommygranate's post about Richard Garside a fortnight ago, despite the fact I have used the identical title for my post.