When prison is pointless

The aftermath of the riots has seen our prison population rocket, but this won't cut crime on our st

On Friday we reached a new record high prison population, at a time of year when prison numbers normally drop. This week 86,821 men, women and children were housed in prisons (including some 600 in immigration detention centres). Last Friday we broke a previous record with 86,654 people in custody. The week before the figure was 85,931.

Clearly the very large jump in numbers over the last fortnight is to do with the riots. But it's worth just thinking about the context of our ever-rocketing prison numbers.

Since the mid-1990s we have more than doubled our prison population. I joined the Howard League in 2007 and that year we reached 81,000 people in prison for the first time. Each year since, it has climbed higher and higher. The ever-expanding criminal justice system saw spending on law and order rise by the equivalent of half a percentage point of GDP between 1999 and 2006 to 2.5 per cent of overall GDP. We spend more than any other OECD country on law and order. But despite all of this, polling has demonstrated that 75 per cent of people in the UK feel there is more crime than last year and confidence in the criminal justice system is at an all-time low.

These latter facts are particularly frustrating for policymakers, given that recorded crime has fallen year on year for since 2000. Indeed, the fact that this has gone hand in hand with rising prison numbers convinced many, particularly in New Labour, that tougher sentencing was the right thing to do.
But Tony Blair's own strategy unit produced a report some years ago which estimated that a 22 per cent increase in the prison population accounted for only 5 per cent of an overall 30 per cent drop in crime. The substantial reduction came from benign economic conditions, improvements to home security and a dip in the second-hand value of many electronic goods. The same report stated that any further increase in the prison population was unlikely to contribute to any further reduction in the crime rate.

There is also plentiful international evidence which demonstrates that countries can experience drops in both the crime rate and the prison population. In Canada, for example, the prison population was reduced by 11 per cent in the 1990s while over the same period crime fell to its lowest rate for 25 years - including drops ranging from 23 per cent for assault and robbery to 43 per cent for homicide.

Similarly, New York City has seen both prison numbers and crime rates fall over the last two decades. At a time when NYC's population rose by 11 per cent and incarceration rates rose nationally by 60 per cent, the city's prison population had declined by 28 per cent and its crime rate has dropped by an average of 70 per cent - twice as much as the national drop in crime from 1990 to 2000.

The truth is that prison can be used to manage the problem of crime, temporarily incapacitating offenders and therefore making some contribution to reductions in crime. But reoffending rates - around two thirds for the majority of prisoners in the system, and a shocking 75 per cent for those under 18 - show that this merely delays the inevitable, and indeed a closer look at reoffending figures reveals that people become more likely to reoffend after each spell in prison. Many will reoffend far more seriously and frequently afterwards. Meanwhile, building more and more prisons to manage the constant expansion simply drains money from more effective solutions to crime. See the state of California, for example, which spends more on its prisons than on higher education.

Prison plays an important role in providing public protection from serious and violent offenders but it cannot tackle the underlying causes of crime. And here we come back to the riots. It is perhaps understandable that the courts are under pressure to treat the disturbances as an aggravating factor when sentencing offenders, although this should be balanced with a key principle of justice: proportionality.

But as the dust settles, it's time to change our thinking. We've doubled our prison population and seen tougher measures introduced each year, with an abundance of criminal justice legislation. Yet despite all this, the outcome of being "tough on crime" was some of the worst street disturbances seen in decades. That alone tells you that the answers to our problems do not lie within the criminal justice system.

Andrew Neilson is Director of Campaigns at the Howard League for Penal Reform

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Unite stewards urge members to back Owen Smith

In a letter to Unite members, the officials have called for a vote for the longshot candidate.

29 Unite officials have broken ranks and thrown their weight behind Owen Smith’s longshot bid for the Labour leadership in an open letter to their members.

The officials serve as stewards, conveners and negotiators in Britain’s aerospace and shipbuilding industries, and are believed in part to be driven by Jeremy Corbyn’s longstanding opposition to the nuclear deterrent and defence spending more generally.

In the letter to Unite members, who are believed to have been signed up in large numbers to vote in the Labour leadership race, the stewards highlight Smith’s support for extra funding in the NHS and his vision for an industrial strategy.

Corbyn was endorsed by Unite, Labour's largest affliated union and the largest trades union in the country, following votes by Unite's ruling executive committee and policy conference. 

Although few expect the intervention to have a decisive role in the Labour leadership, regarded as a formality for Corbyn, the opposition of Unite workers in these industries may prove significant in Len McCluskey’s bid to be re-elected as general secretary of Unite.

 

The full letter is below:

Britain needs a Labour Government to defend jobs, industry and skills and to promote strong trade unions. As convenors and shop stewards in the manufacturing, defence, aerospace and energy sectors we believe that Owen Smith is the best candidate to lead the Labour Party in opposition and in government.

Owen has made clear his support for the industries we work in. He has spelt out his vision for an industrial strategy which supports great British businesses: investing in infrastructure, research and development, skills and training. He has set out ways to back British industry with new procurement rules to protect jobs and contracts from being outsourced to the lowest bidder. He has demanded a seat at the table during the Brexit negotiations to defend trade union and workers’ rights. Defending manufacturing jobs threatened by Brexit must be at the forefront of the negotiations. He has called for the final deal to be put to the British people via a second referendum or at a general election.

But Owen has also talked about the issues which affect our families and our communities. Investing £60 billion extra over 5 years in the NHS funded through new taxes on the wealthiest. Building 300,000 new homes a year over 5 years, half of which should be social housing. Investing in Sure Start schemes by scrapping the charitable status of private schools. That’s why we are backing Owen.

The Labour Party is at a crossroads. We cannot ignore reality – we need to be radical but we also need to be credible – capable of winning the support of the British people. We need an effective Opposition and we need a Labour Government to put policies into practice that will defend our members’ and their families’ interests. That’s why we are backing Owen.

Steve Hibbert, Convenor Rolls Royce, Derby
Howard Turner, Senior Steward, Walter Frank & Sons Limited
Danny Coleman, Branch Secretary, GE Aviation, Wales
Karl Daly, Deputy Convenor, Rolls Royce, Derby
Nigel Stott, Convenor, BASSA, British Airways
John Brough, Works Convenor, Rolls Royce, Barnoldswick
John Bennett, Site Convenor, Babcock Marine, Devonport, Plymouth
Kevin Langford, Mechanical Convenor, Babcock, Devonport, Plymouth
John McAllister, Convenor, Vector Aerospace Helicopter Services
Garry Andrews, Works Convenor, Rolls Royce, Sunderland
Steve Froggatt, Deputy Convenor, Rolls Royce, Derby
Jim McGivern, Convenor, Rolls Royce, Derby
Alan Bird, Chairman & Senior Rep, Rolls Royce, Derby
Raymond Duguid, Convenor, Babcock, Rosyth
Steve Duke, Senior Staff Rep, Rolls Royce, Barnoldswick
Paul Welsh, Works Convenor, Brush Electrical Machines, Loughborough
Bob Holmes, Manual Convenor, BAE Systems, Warton, Lancs
Simon Hemmings, Staff Convenor, Rolls Royce, Derby
Mick Forbes, Works Convenor, GKN, Birmingham
Ian Bestwick, Chief Negotiator, Rolls Royce Submarines, Derby
Mark Barron, Senior Staff Rep, Pallion, Sunderland
Ian Hodgkison, Chief Negotiator, PCO, Rolls Royce
Joe O’Gorman, Convenor, BAE Systems, Maritime Services, Portsmouth
Azza Samms, Manual Workers Convenor, BAE Systems Submarines, Barrow
Dave Thompson, Staff Convenor, BAE Systems Submarines, Barrow
Tim Griffiths, Convenor, BAE Systems Submarines, Barrow
Paul Blake, Convenor, Princess Yachts, Plymouth
Steve Jones, Convenor, Rolls Royce, Bristol
Colin Gosling, Senior Rep, Siemens Traffic Solutions, Poole

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.