Increasing prison numbers could save money, says report

31 August 2010 by

A new report from the think-tank Civitas argues that increasing community sentences and cutting prison numbers will lead to more crime and add to costs too.

This is contrary to the the view of the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke, who has argued recently that there is no link between the rising level of imprisonment and falling crime.

The report, Prison, Community Sentencing and Crime, is by Ken Pease, a professor at the Manchester Business School and a former Home Office criminologist. It does not present any significant new research; rather, it seeks to put the other side of the debate on prison numbers, in light of the “apparently concerted attempt to justify an increasing use of community sanctions in place of custody for convicted criminals”.

Pease complains that those who are against reducing prison numbers are portrayed as “penal sadists”, in light of the fact that our 85,000-strong prison population is already higher than the rest of Western Europe. However, he suggests that this oft-quoted fact is based on a statistical error, as comparative prison numbers are calculated as a proportion of the population rather than in comparison to the number of crimes recorded. The latter would, he argues, be a more sensible measure.

He goes on to present the fairly familiar argument for keeping the prison population high. It is undisputed that crime rates have fallen continuously in some industrialised countries, including our own, since the early to mid-1990s. However, the sociological factors which have caused this reduction are hotly debated. Some argue that changing demographics, better policing strategies, gun control laws, concealed weapons laws, and increased use of the death penalty explains the fall. Others cite increases in the number of police, the rising prison population, the waning crack epidemic and the legalization of abortion.

Pease accepts that the debate has not been resolved, which seems unsurprising given the almost limitless range of variables which influence the causes of crime in a large and complex society. However, he is unconvinced that community sentences offer any better option to custodial sentences. “Substituting community sanctions for short prison sentences”, he suggests, only serves to free “the group most likely to reoffend to do so sooner, with no evidence of a current treatment benefit from community sanctions to offset that.”

Based on the presumption (itself highly arguable) that community sentences have no measurable effect on reoffending, Pease goes on to show that many crimes could be prevented if convicts were kept in prison rather than released to carry out their community sentences. He puts the figure at 13,892 offences “saveable” annually. In real terms, there could even be more, given that the estimate is based only on the number of offences which are detected; around 3 per released prisoner per year.

Pease ultimately suggests that the cost of prevented crime in the scenario provided more than offsets the additional costs of imprisonment. In other words, more prison numbers may actually save society money, given the cost of reoffending. He concludes:

The debate about imprisonment costs and effects has been distorted by the received wisdom that prison is expensive, community sanctions are as effective as custody in protecting the public, and that dissent from these convenient fictions marks someone out as a penal sadist.

Argument already lost?

The Civitas report is not too long and is worth reading. Whichever side of the debate you fall on, it presents an interesting and thoughtful review of the arguments, although clearly giving short shrift to the possibility that community sentences may actually work, which would blow a hole in the main hypothesis.

In any event, it would appear that Ken Clarke has been persuaded that reducing prison numbers would save money and potentially cut crime too. He has to find £2bn of savings from the £9bn Ministry of Justice (MoJ) budget, and prisons represent an enormous chunk.

From a cynical perspective, if Professor Pease is right, then reducing prison numbers may succeed in cutting the MoJ budget, but only by adding to Home Office spend on crime reduction. And, as has been pointed out recently by Joshua Rozenberg, it is difficult to see how this strategy will fit in with the new, and supposedly independent, Sentencing Council, which may give judges a freer hand at deciding the sentences they hand down, leaving, in theory at least, less room to manoeuvre for the MoJ.

Whichever policy results, and whether or not the “penal sadists” are right, is difficult to see how such a large reduction in the justice budget will do anything but increase crime and reduce access to justice.

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