How mass culture has turned Britain into a nation of criminals

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The Independent Online
Mass culture is transforming Britain into a nation of criminals. New research to be published this week will demonstrate how far the trappings of modern living have accelerated the criminalisation of society.

The response of successive governments to the arrival of the motor car, the computer, the television set and synthetic drugs has been to create hundreds of new offences punishable by jail.

As a result the prison visit, once an activity associated only with a criminal underclass, features in the lives of hundreds of thousands each year.

Research produced by the New Bridge charity, passed to The Independent, shows the staggering transformation of the prison system in the 40 years since the charity was set up.

Despite a rise in the general population of only 16 per cent, the number of prisoners has gone up by 180 per cent from just over 20,000 to nearly 60,000 at the end of last year. In the same period, the number of prisons has increased by 80 per cent, from 75 to 135.

The number of women prisoners has increased by 166 per cent, from 833 to 2,300, while the annual cost of keeping a prisoner of either sex has gone up from pounds 500 (pounds 6,385 in real terms) in 1956 to pounds 24,200, 40 years later - an increase of 379 per cent.

The number of inmates held for violent or sexual offences has remained almost constant at only 15 per cent of the total prison population throughout the 40-year period.

Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, said: "Since 1956, more and more activities have been criminalised and more and more offences have been created. The net has been widened and widened." One in three British males now has a criminal record by the time he is 30.

The year 1956 has been cited as the year when modern pop culture was born, and in the last four decades a succession of new legislation has been brought in, including laws covering raves, drugs misuse, illegal immigration and owning a dangerous dog.

Many new offences punishable by jail have come in with the arrival of the motor car. There are now 21 categories of driving offence. And nearly 1,000 people are jailed each year for failure to pay fines for not having a licence for their television set. The number of offences punishable by prison is not likely to be reduced by the new Labour government. Jack Straw, the Home Secretary, is planning to make it a custodial offence to be a noisy neighbour or for breaching the new parental training orders. He has, however, signalled his intention to stop the jailing of fine defaulters.

In the New Bridge charity's annual report, with which the study will be released on Thursday, it states its belief that the 40-year figures demonstrate a marked change in attitude among the British public.

Despite the assertion of Michael Howard, the last home secretary, that "prison works", the New Bridge report cites figures which show that the number of prisoners reconvicted within two years has increased by 159 per cent since 1956.

Eric McGraw, the director of New Bridge, which helps to rehabilitate prisoners into society, said that the reconviction rate was a damning indictment of the effectiveness of prison.

"If it was the National Health Service and 50 per cent of people were coming out worse than they went in, you would close the hospital," he said. "But for some reason we tolerate it when it comes to prisons."

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