Howard's plans could swell prison numbers by 21,500

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The Independent Online

Home Affairs Correspondent

Shock waves passed through the Prison Service yesterday as it emerged that Michael Howard's latest law and order package could swell the prison population by 21,500 - a 41 percent hike - and cost up to pounds 3bn simply to build enough new jails.

The scheme could also add an extra pounds 520m a year to the taxpayers' pounds 1.3bn annual prison bill - that is 60 per cent of the pounds 860m needed to found nursery education for all three- and four-year-olds, or enough to pay the annual wages of 34,700 police officers.

With the prison population bursting at an all-time record of 52,000 - far higher per head of population than our European partners - there are genuine fears of fuelling jail unrest. Not least because the withdrawal of remission, or the chances of only small periods of remission, removes the incentive for prisoners to behave.

According to analysis by the National Association of Probation Officers (NAPO), it is the loss of remission which will lead to the biggest increase in inmates - delays in the release of all sentenced prisoners would gradually build up to an extra 15,000 on the daily population. The compulsory sentences for burglars and drug dealers are likely to add another 6,500.

Mr Howard claims his harsher policies of locking up more people has contributed to the recent five per cent drop in recorded crime. He will also contest the probation officers' statistics, claiming that stiffer penalties will act as a deterrent.

However, the Lord Chief Justice yesterday said: "What deters is the likelihood of being caught, which at the moment is small." Home Office research supports Lord Taylor's argument. It showed that, to reduce the 5 million recorded crimes a year by just one per cent, it would be necessary to lock up an extra 12,500 prisoners. Using those figures, Mr Howard's plans will achieve a two per cent drop or 100,000 less offences.

However, penal reform groups and criminologists argue that any gain is short term. Stephen Shaw, of the Prison Reform Trust, said: "No one disputes that when burglars are locked up they are not burgling. The question is what happens when they are released? There are sufficient indications that prison makes it more likely that someone will re-offend."

The plans move the UK's penal policy out of line with its European partners and closer to that of the United States. But there, a three-fold increase in the prison population in the last 20 years - locking up one in very 200 Americans - has only succeeded in stabilising exceedingly high crime rates.

Yesterday, Harry Fletcher, of NAPO, said it was "folly" to follow the US example. "This will have disastrous consequences for the management of prisons," he said.