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Austerity and the prison

Greece is not alone in suffering from budget cuts arising from the era of austerity. In the UK, local councils, libraries, museums – all public services have been cut. Criminal Justice has not escaped this cost-cutting. The consequence has been fewer police officers on the streets, less money for legal aid lawyers, and closures of Magistrates courts. Prisons too have been hit; the government has reduced the amount it spends running correctional facilities. This has meant fewer programs and services for prisoners, more austere prisons as well as more work for fewer prison officers.

It’s a strange way to reduce the costs of the prisons. Imagine proposing to cut the costs of Emergency wards by reducing the average amount spent treating each patient. Like prisons, these facilities are overcrowded and overstretched. We also know that too many people present at one of these facilities when they could be treated far more cheaply, more quickly and equally effectively if we had more out-of-hours GP clinics. So health authorities have been creating more community–based services to reduce the caseload going to Emergency facilities.  It’s the same for prisons: the only effective way of reducing costs is to cut the number of people being sent there, by punishing them in other ways.

We could save a bucketful of money by reducing the number of people sent to prison and the average time prisoners spend inside. In the UK, the cost of maintaining an adult in prison for a year is the equivalent of a year in a comfortable London hotel – about 40,000 pounds. The cost of housing a juvenile in prison is even higher. So, if we could cut the number of prison admissions by half, and reduce the average stay inside by six months, we would save hundreds of millions of pounds. This could then be spent on more (and more effective) prison programs to reduce re-offending, or it could be transferred across to another public service. In the health service for example, this would permit the UK to hire hundreds more nurses and physicians. I don’t know about you but I would be happy to chop a few months of the average prison sentence if it resulted in hiring more medical professionals.

Ah, you say, this proposal will mean more crime — and more victims. The statistics tell us otherwise. Re-offending rates of prisoners are higher, not lower, than re-offending rates of offenders punished in the community – on probation or doing unpaid community work. So prison is not a more effective punishment than community penalties. In addition, longer sentences do not prevent crime more effectively than shorter sentences. An 18- month sentence achieves no more crime prevention than a 12 month sentence. Don’t take my word for it: check the official re-offending statistics published by the  Ministry of Justice in the UK or the Bureau of Justice Statistics in the US.

Image credit: "Prison cell" by AlexVan. Public Domain via Pixabay.
Image credit: “Prison cell” by AlexVan. Public Domain via Pixabay.

Ah, you say again, but your proposal of shorter sentences will mean offenders will be punished less than they deserve, and less than the public want. Not so; sentence lengths in the US, the UK (and to a lesser extent Canada) are much longer than they are in other western nations like Holland or Germany – for the same crime. How do the Dutch and the Deutsch get away with punishing offenders with other penalties, or imposing much shorter sentences? The answer is that the UK, the US and other high punishment societies have drifted into sentencing policies that result in large and expensive prison populations.

Just reading the newspapers shows you how tough the system is on offenders. Remember the Aussie who jumped into the Thames and delayed the start of the annual Oxford-Cambridge Boatrace a couple of years ago? Did that crime necessitate imprisonment for months? Couldn’t we have devised a better way of punishing him – a fine, plus community work, and a term of probation? Or what about another case in which two young adults had the unwise idea of having sex in a public park on a Sunday afternoon (they were drunk, there’s a surprise). Although they were remorseful afterwards and pleaded guilty, they went to prison. Their conduct was unacceptable, but did it justify imprisonment?

There are many ways of being tough on offenders without having to resort to imprisonment.  We can seize their property – cars; computers, iphones, tvs. Or restrict their travel by suspending their passport – there goes the summer holiday. We can deduct money from their pay every month, or dock their benefits. We can make them work without pay in the community. Of course, most countries have a range of alternative sentences but they simply aren’t used enough, particularly in the high prison countries I have cited.

The current fiscal crisis has forced us to try and get more out of less in all areas of public service. We should use the squeeze on government budgets to rethink sentencing policy, keeping prison for those who are dangerous or who have committed truly serious crimes. Otherwise we are punishing offenders more than is necessary, and paying dearly for it out of our taxes. At the present time, too many offenders are being sent to prison when they could be more effectively punished in the community.

Featured image credit: “Prison” by stokpic. Public Domain via Pixabay.

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