An escape from the prison mentality

The Americans are now realising that building more jails does not reduce crime. There is a better way

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Elliott Currie has been to Howard's End, and what a barren destination it is. The leading American criminologist, visiting Britain the other day, warned us that he has seen our penal future - and it doesn't work. Locking up hundreds of thousands more criminals has led to a social disaster which we are hurrying to copy.

Hurrying we surely are. Last week Britain's prison population reached another all-time high - 54,994, well over 25 per cent more people in jail since Michael Howard became Home Secretary three years ago. He points to the down-turn in American crime figures of the last three years and ascribes it to a huge increase in the numbers of people locked up. It's common sense: the more you lock up, the fewer would-be criminals there are committing crimes. It is called "incapacitation". No, says Professor Currie, "there has been an extraordinary campaign of misinformation about the state of crime and punishment in the United States." And Britain is in the process of becoming its next dupe.

Here is the American crime story as he sees it. Since 1970, the US prison population has increased by 250 per cent. For a quarter of a century a deliberate policy of prison-building and locking up criminals has been pursued to the exclusion of virtually all other approaches to crime. The prison budget in many states has eaten up education while destroying virtually every programme designed to prevent the young turning to crime.

But did crime diminish? With five times more people in prison, the answer remained stubbornly no. During the time of the most extravagant prison- building it soared everywhere - peaking in the early 1990s. Even liberal experts such as Professor Currie expected wide-scale incarceration to have slightly more impact on the crime figures. The prison boom has been so extreme that in 1989 the state of Michigan alone opened one new prison every nine weeks.

But then crime did dip. However, says Professor Currie, the drop in US crime in the last three years has not followed from the incarceration explosion. The fall is much less impressive on close analysis, especially when you examine the relationship between prisons and crime state by state.

It turns out there is no local correlation between the amount of crime and the prison-building boom. Big prison populations go with big crime rates and low crime rates. Some relatively low-crime states have low lock- up rates, some have big prison populations. The city of New Orleans locks up five times more prisoners than in 1970 yet has four times more murders - at a time when there are fewer young people, the age group most likely to commit murder.

The national decline in crime figures is accounted for by what has happened in one or two big cities. Some 65 per cent of the national reduction is due to New York alone. This has to do with the ebbing of its crack epidemic which, like fever, seems to have reached a peak before falling away. The metropolitan economy picked up and more jobs were created. New York adopted a new policing strategy that took cops out of cars and targeted crime hot-spots. Grimly, another reason for the decline of crime is simple attrition. Many young blacks literally cancelled each other out - the average young American black is 200 times more likely to be murdered than a white British youth, usually at the hands of another youth. Aids too has taken its toll among potential criminals and drug users.

There is one other key factor. This one, however, offers hope: a large number of young men identified in infancy as high crime risks were put into Head Start programmes - and in some cities the effectiveness of those schemes has finally been shown in the crime figures.

Meanwhile American prison policy has cost. As entire state budgets were swallowed up by prisons, the Justice Department cooked up some figures to show that "prison pays." It claimed that crime in America costs $450bn, while prisons only cost $40bn - a bargain. But to create that first figure, huge notional costs of the pain and suffering to victims were counted in, as if real money had been paid out to them by courts in compensation. The pain and suffering of the victims of crime is real enough; that money is, alas, imaginary.

The key question is: how much does any given amount of crime-reduction cost? Professor Currie acknowledges that there is a connection between crime and numbers in jail. Incapacitation works a little bit - but at what expense? Home Office research also suggests that prison works - but minimally. You get only a 1 per cent reduction in crime for every extra 25 per cent rise in the prison population. However, each extra prisoner costs around pounds 24,000 a year. The head of the prison service estimates that we will need 25 new jails costing pounds 6bn to meet the increased sentences outlined in the Government's White Paper.

But if not prison, what is the best balance between crime prevention and cost? Professor Currie answers by pointing to child abuse and neglect. Intensive assistance to high-risk families has been proven to stop many battered and embittered children turning to crime. Nurseries also "work".

One American programme gave a year's highly structured teaching to pre- schoolers from high-risk families in Detroit, for a few hours a day. The children are now 27, and, compared with others from identical backgrounds, five times less likely to be criminals. For older children, even for young offenders, intensive structured treatment for relatively short periods makes big inroads into criminality.

But in the US there is no money for such things: budgets have been slashed to pay for more prisons. The fashionable political myth is that these social approaches never did any good - despite overwhelming and unchallenged evidence to the contrary. Social stuff is soft and Sixties - prisons are for the tough-minded. It is a latter-day version of know-nothingism for politicians and their media acolytes who prefer slogans to solutions.

But Michael Howard may not be long for this world. He might even, paradoxically, leave his Labour successor - Jack Straw - with a magnificent opportunity.

He should be allowed to keep the existing Home Office budget. Then he has to set about returning the prison population to its pre-Howard levels, where they were when Douglas Hurd moved petty offenders out into alternative sentences. The back of my envelope says 10,000 fewer people in prison gives Straw a handsome pounds 240m a year to spend on proven schemes that do reduce criminality - some within the prison population, some among three- years-olds. He can be as tough on crime as Tory Douglas Hurd, and as tough on the causes of crime as Tony Blair - by pushing money into schemes that really do work.

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