Leading Article: Locked into a shameful policy

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The Independent Online
THERE are some respects in which this country leads Europe, and one is the size of its prison population. A Council of Europe survey published yesterday by the Howard League for Penal Reform put it at 52,830 in the UK in 1992. At the time this was the highest overall total, and second only to Hungary as a proportion of population.

To ministers not afflicted with the Westminster virus of chauvinism, this should be a source of regret, even shame. Yet the Home Secretary, Michael Howard, seems to regard jailing offenders as evidence of virility. For Michael Portillo it is doubtless just another proof of the superior integrity and incorruptibility of the British.

If there is capital to be made out of acting tough, Mr Howard will act tough, regardless of the impact on the prison system. It is hardly surprising that in the climate thus created within the judicial system, the prison population has soared: from 41,561 in January 1991 in England and Wales to 47,386 last Friday. Symptomatically, there has been a particularly sharp increase in the number of unconvicted people held on remand, more than half of whom are likely to be acquitted or given a non-custodial sentence.

One category of offender that should be much more selectively jailed is debt defaulters. By no stretch of the imagination can they be considered a menace to the public. Yet in 1992, 19,000 of them were jailed, even if mainly for short terms. Mr Howard argues that if this final sanction were removed a valuable form of pressure would be lost. In reality, not a few defaulters prefer 15 days in prison to paying their debts.

Another favourite argument is that while offenders are in prison, they cannot reoffend, so the public is protected. This is not entirely true. Crime continues in prison and the public picks up the bill. Prisoners assault prisoners and guards; they become addicted to drugs. If they emerge more rather than less addicted to crime than when they entered, there is likely to be an overall net loss to the public.

To a much greater extent than at present, prison should become the last rather than the first resort. Community service has played its part as a constructive alternative. More can and should now be learnt from compatible countries where the rate of imprisonment is significantly lower.