A cut to welcome? A good case has been made for halving prison numbers


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The Independent Online

It is not often that the Chancellor’s plans to slash a government department’s spending get a hearty cheer from a liberal or left-of-centre corner. But George Osborne has found an unexpected, not to say unlikely, ally in the shape of the Howard League for Penal Reform, which says that cutting the prison population by about half would shave at least a quarter off the justice ministry’s budget, neatly meeting Mr Osborne’s financial target for non-ringfenced departments.

The point is both ironic and seriously made at the same time. It seems perverse that Britain’s prison population has almost doubled since the 1990s when there is no evidence that the number of crimes and criminals has also doubled over the same period. On the contrary, by most indices crime rates have fallen year on year since around 2000, including the rate of violent crime, echoing a pattern throughout the Western world. Yet still the jails fill up and more spaces have to be made.

A succession of ministers has promised to clear prisons of non-violent offenders and of people serving very short sentences but thousands remain there on remand or awaiting sentence, as do several thousand women, few of whom have committed a violent offence.

Clearly, no party in search of votes is going to pledge to suddenly empty the nation’s jails.  However, we could stop filling them up in the first place and be more judicious about who gets sent there.

Prisons are expensive to run. According to the Ministry of Justice’s own figures, each place costs about £35,000 a year. If that is what it takes to keep the country safe from people who pose a physical danger to the public, one could argue that the money is well spent. The “money well spent” argument becomes weaker, however, when we remember that well over two-thirds of the prison population have not committed a violent offence.

There is also evidence that prisons act as “universities of crime”, especially among the young and especially when prisons are overcrowded, which is another reason for not jailing people unless it is strictly necessary. If we treated prison as the last resort, in other words,  we might save more than just money.