Americans stunned by Howard's jail policy

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The Independent Online
KANSAS, in the supposedly dull and respectable Midwest of the United States, has the crime policies Michael Howard and John Major would like to introduce to Britain.

Ten thousand criminals are held in the state's prisons - five times as many per thousand of population as in Britain.

It should be a glowing example of Mr Howard's belief that 'prison works'. On Tuesday he claimed on BBC2's Newsnight that the United States was a country where fuller jails led to falling crime.

Few in Kansas would agree with him. In Wichita, a city of 300,000, there have already been 45 murders this year. Wichita became a symbol of the endemic crime in America after the US magazine Newsweek recently pointed out that the

murder rate in this average city was twice as high as the

death toll from terrorism in Belfast.

The local police do not know how to respond. 'You just do what you have to do and then go home and try to forget about it,' said Lieutenant Pamela Horn. Local politicians propose yet more police officers, and there is talk of bringing back the death penalty.

All last week, as the unprecedented public row developed between Lord Woolf, a Law Lord, and Mr Howard, criminologists and prison reformers warned that the Home Secretary and Prime Minister were heading for disaster if they kept looking to America.

'Your Government has seen our mistakes and is now trying to duplicate them,' said Alvin Bronstein from the Washington-based National Prison Project. 'The US prison population has more than doubled since 1973 and crime has not fallen.'

Mr Howard is not concerned. On Thursday he responded to Lord Woolf's charge that sending more people to prison was an 'easy option which had a miserable record of failure', by saying: 'Thousands of dangerous criminals are prevented from attacking the community while they are inside. And many who might commit crime are deterred from doing so.'

The deterrent effects of tough sentences were examined in 1973, when a 16-year-old mugger became front-page news after a judge gave him an exceptionally punitive 20 years, the Home Office found that both nationally and in Birmingham, the teenager's home city, muggings continued to rise uninterrupted.

In 1984, a Home Office study of the Government's 'short, sharp shock' camps which briefly attempted to impose Army discipline on young offenders in the early 1980s, concluded that the announcement of the policy 'did not affect crime rates'. Fifty per cent of the young criminals reoffended within a year of release.

Meanwhile, about 20,000 of the offenders who pass through the jails each year are not 'dangerous criminals' at all but fine defaulters, imprisoned because they cannot, or will not, pay the fine ordered by magistrates.

John Gunn, of the Institute of Psychiatry, has said that one- third of prison inmates are mentally disturbed. Many are men who would previously have been treated in hospital but now end up in jail because of asylum closures brought about by the Government's 'community care' policies.

The argument will heat up again on Thursday when Judge Stephen Tumim, the Chief Inspector of Prisons, who along with Lord Woolf drew up a sweeping plan for reform in 1991, will implicitly contradict Mr Howard. Judge Tumim's report on the riot at Wymott jail, Lancashire, earlier this year, is expected to emphasise that the prison exploded when hardened criminals were stuffed into a jail full of minor offenders because overcrowding in the North-west meant there was nowhere else for the courts to send them.

Neither Lord Woolf nor Judge Tumim has argued that violent offenders should not be imprisoned. But their 1991 report, published after the 1990 Strangeways riots and welcomed by the Conservatives at the time, accepted that prisons were universities of crime which turned minor offenders into major offenders. It called for policies both inside and outside jails which would cut crime by rehabilitating offenders.

With the Government doing nothing to stop the prison population shooting above 50,000, Mr Howard has effectively abandoned their recommendations, which is why the argument is so bitter now.