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

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How Donald Trump is slouching towards the Republican nomination

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb.

In America, you can judge a crowd by its merchandise. Outside the Connecticut Convention Centre in Hartford, frail old men and brawny moms are selling “your Trump 45 football jerseys”, “your hats”, “your campaign buttons”. But the hottest item is a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Hillary sucks . . . but not like Monica!” and, on the back: “Trump that bitch!” Inside, beyond the checkpoint manned by the Transportation Security Administration and the secret service (“Good!” the man next to me says, when he sees the agents), is a family whose three kids, two of them girls, are wearing the Monica shirt.

Other people are content with the shirts they arrived in (“Waterboarding – baptising terrorists with freedom” and “If you don’t BLEED red, white and blue, take your bitch ass home!”). There are 80 chairs penned off for the elderly but everyone else is standing: guys in motorcycle and military gear, their arms folded; aspiring deal-makers, suited, on cellphones; giggling high-school fatsos, dressed fresh from the couch, grabbing M&M’s and Doritos from the movie-theatre-style concession stands. So many baseball hats; deep, bellicose chants of “Build the wall!” and “USA!”. (And, to the same rhythm, “Don-ald J!”)

A grizzled man in camouflage pants and combat boots, whose T-shirt – “Connecticut Militia III%” – confirms him as a member of the “patriot” movement, is talking to a zealous young girl in a short skirt, who came in dancing to “Uptown Girl”.

“Yeah, we were there for Operation American Spring,” he says. “Louis Farrakhan’s rally of hate . . .”

“And you’re a veteran?” she asks. “Thank you so much!”

Three hours will pass. A retired US marine will take the rostrum to growl, “God bless America – hoo-rah!”; “Uptown Girl” will play many more times (much like his speeches, Donald J’s playlist consists of a few items, repeated endlessly), before Trump finally looms in and asks the crowd: “Is this the greatest place on Earth?”

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb. Only a minority within a minority of Americans, it was assumed, could possibly be stupid enough to think a Trump presidency was a good idea. He won New Hampshire and South Carolina with over 30 per cent of the Republican vote, then took almost 46 per cent in Nevada. When he cleaned up on Super Tuesday in March, he was just shy of 50 per cent in Massachusetts; a week later, he took 47 per cent of the votes in Mississippi.

His rivals, who are useless individually, were meant to co-operate with each other and the national party to deny him the nomination. But Trump won four out of the five key states being contested on “Super-Duper Tuesday” on 15 March. Then, as talk turned to persuading and co-opting his delegates behind the scenes, Trump won New York with 60 per cent.

Now, the campaign is trying to present Trump as more “presidential”. According to his new manager, Paul Manafort, this requires him to appear in “more formal settings” – without, of course, diluting “the unique magic of Trump”. But whether or not he can resist denouncing the GOP and the “corrupt” primary system, and alluding to violence if he is baulked at at the convention, the new Trump will be much the same as the old.

Back in Hartford: “The Republicans wanna play cute with us, right? If I don’t make it, you’re gonna have millions of people that don’t vote for a Republican. They’re not gonna vote at all,” says Trump. “Hopefully that’s all, OK? Hopefully that’s all, but they’re very, very angry.”

This anger, which can supposedly be turned on anyone who gets in the way, has mainly been vented, so far, on the protesters who disrupt Trump’s rallies. “We’re not gonna be the dummies that lose all of our jobs now. We’re gonna be the smart ones. Oh, do you have one over there? There’s one of the dummies . . .”

There is a frenzied fluttering of Trump placards, off to his right. “Get ’em out! . . . Don’t hurt ’em – see how nice I am? . . . They really impede freedom of speech and it’s a disgrace. But the good news is, folks, it won’t be long. We’re just not taking it and it won’t be long.”

It is their removal by police, at Trump’s ostentatious behest, that causes the disruption, rather than the scarcely audible protesters. He seems to realise this, suddenly: “We should just let ’em . . . I’ll talk right over them, there’s no problem!” But it’s impossible to leave the protesters where they are, because it would not be safe. His crowd is too vicious.

Exit Trump, after exactly half an hour, inclusive of the many interruptions. His people seem uplifted but, out on the street, they are ambushed by a large counter-demonstration, with a booming drum and warlike banners and standards (“Black Lives Matter”; an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, holding aloft Trump’s severed head). Here is the rest of the world, the real American world: young people, beautiful people, more female than male, every shade of skin colour. “F*** Donald Trump!” they chant.

After a horrified split-second, the Trump crowd, massively more numerous, rallies with “USA!” and – perplexingly, since one of the main themes of the speech it has just heard was the lack of jobs in Connecticut – “Get a job!” The two sides then mingle, unobstructed by police. Slanging matches break out that seem in every instance to humiliate the Trump supporter. “Go to college!” one demands. “Man, I am in college, I’m doin’ lovely!”

There is no violence, only this: some black boys are dancing, with liquid moves, to the sound of the drum. Four young Trump guys counter by stripping to their waists and jouncing around madly, their skin greenish-yellow under the street lights, screaming about the building of the wall. There was no alcohol inside; they’re drunk on whatever it is – the elixir of fascism, the unique magic of Trump. It’s a hyper but not at all happy drunk.

As with every other moment of the Trump campaign so far, it would have been merely some grade of the cringeworthy – the embarrassing, the revolting, the pitiful – were Trump not slouching closer and closer, with each of these moments, to his nomination. 

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism