Michael Jacobson: 'Putting more people in prison is not the way to tackle crime'

From a speech by the former Commissioner of the New York Department of Corrections, to the Crime and Society Foundation, at King's College, London

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As the United States passes the 2.1 million mark of the number of people in jail, it is especially interesting to see how the United Kingdom will deal with its own growing prison population, now at an all-time high of about 76,000.

As the United States passes the 2.1 million mark of the number of people in jail, it is especially interesting to see how the United Kingdom will deal with its own growing prison population, now at an all-time high of about 76,000.

In the US these days, it is almost impossible to find an academic or policy expert who thinks our policy of mass imprisonment is a good one. Surprisingly, there is strong consensus that we send too many people to prison, for too long and at great financial and social costs, with little payback in terms of public safety.

Most studies in the US have found that, over the last decade, the growth in imprisonment is responsible for somewhere around one fifth of the huge crime declines that have occurred in the country. In fact, New York City, which had the largest crime reductions in the United States over the last 12 years, with reductions in violent crime approaching 70 per cent, managed to achieve this while simultaneously reducing its jail population by 40 per cent and sending 60 per cent fewer people to prison.

As state prison systems continue to grow in size and expense, with doubtful benefits for crime reduction, the American public is also becoming more willing to make use of alternatives to prison, especially for drug offenders. In both California and Arizona, two of our toughest on crime states, public referendums mandating drug treatment in lieu of incarceration for tens of thousands of prison bound offenders passed overwhelmingly.

Prison is an expensive, incredibly punitive sanction that should legitimately be reserved for those who pose a threat to society. Its overuse drains resources from other essential areas of government. Public safety is not the sole provenance of the criminal justice system. Sound education, health care, environmental protection and social services also protect the public and promote long-term safety.

Many policy makers in the US have come to this conclusion rather late in the game. It will be interesting to watch whether UK policy makers take as long to come to the same conclusion.

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