Magazine article The Spectator

Less Time, Less Crime

Magazine article The Spectator

Less Time, Less Crime

Article excerpt

The case for a leaner prison system

I have a confession to make. In 18 years in government, I have never come up with a policy that was instantly popular. Today, as Justice Secretary, my job is to mend Britain's broken prison system and make it less expensive. My proposals have prompted wide - spread criticism, not least from The Spectator, which said recently on its leader page that decreasing the number of prisoners in Britain will lead to more crime. I disagree.

Our prisons are expensive and dysfunctional - but they do not have to be. Labour introduced 21 criminal justice acts, which increased the cost of prisons by two thirds and sent the prison population soaring. Their attempt to outflank the right on law and order became a shambles. They ran out of cells in both prisons and police stations. Unable to build their way out of crisis, Labour let 80,000 criminals on to the streets before they had finished their sentences. This 'End of Custody Licence' was a disgraceful admission of failure.

My goal is a conservative one: to find effective ways of punishing criminals while reducing public spending. Prisons cost £4 billion a year - over a billion more than they did in 1997. An adult prison place costs the taxpayer on average £45,000 a year; a young offender costs £60,000. This would be money well spent if it stopped people from commit - ting crime. But it does not.

Nearly half of those released are convicted of another crime within 12 months; two thirds within two years. This criminal merrygo-round costs more than £10 billion a year.

What kind of penal system is it in which half of all crime is committed by people who have already been through it?

It is true that, in the last 15 years, there has been a substantial fall in the number of burglaries, stolen vehicles and other thefts. But we have not incarcerated more burglars and thieves. Sentences for theft have not grown longer but marginally shorter. Fewer prisoners, shorter sentences, yet the rate went down.

That points to factors beyond prison - better vehicle security, for instance.

Look at the US. Since 2000, prison numbers in America have increased and crime has fallen. Cause and effect? Again, the facts suggest not. In Florida, imprisonment rose in the past decade, whereas New York locked up 16 per cent fewer offenders. Violent crime in New York fell twice as fast as in Florida. They spent less on prisons but ended up safer.

It is not surprising, then, that American conservatives now question the wisdom of simply locking up as many offenders as possible. …

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