Monday, October 09, 2006

Prison Shouldn't Be the Default Penalty

For years now we have been on the brink of a prisons crisis. This week it has finally hit us. Yesterday's Sunday Times had a leaked memo showing John Reid is prepared to risk prison breaks as the prison population reaches crisis point. But it needn't be like this. Prison does indeed work in the sense that it keeps people off the street and in an environment where prisoners are no longer able to harm society. But we all know that there are many people in prison who would have been punished more easily and effectively by a non custodial sentence.

The Daily Telegraph has an excellent editorial this morning suggesting we should look more seriously at other forms of punishment. Read it in full HERE. Here is the concluding paragraph...

Alternatives to prison need not be soft. In America, where the judicial system is tied by guy-ropes to public opinion, sentencing is imaginative and apt. Some offenders are shamed by having details of their misdeeds published in the local newspaper, or by being made to stand in public places with placards denoting their crimes. Others are invited to make direct restitution to the victim, or to forfeit their immoral earnings. Judges, with an eye on their local communities, do their best to find suitable, inexpensive and visible sentences. Prison can work well; but there are other, sometimes more severe, ways to punish criminals than by locking them up. We should not be shy of exploring them.


AnyonebutBlair said...

Hang On. Prison works. Commit the crime, pay the time. It's a good job Reid is only a couple of months into begin Home Sec. otherwise we'd be clamoring for his resignation. So who's accountable for this disaster. Brown for failing to fund the criminal justice system - cutting budgets when we face a grave terrorist threat and failing to fund prison expansion. Blair for overall (failed) policy and direction. I know it's not part of the conservative narrative to "bang on" about crime....but the government has made an apalling mess of it and the tories could and should make mincemeat of them. Isn't this the role of opposition? Isn't this what the public want to hear? Shouldn't Dave table a motion of no confidence in the Governments handling of criminal justice over the past decade?

The Leadership Blogger said...

An intelligent comment on "Any Questions" over the weekend - if you pass hundreds of new laws and create thousands of new crimes, many of which carry a prison terms as a possible sentence, you have to build more prisons. The government did the first, not the second. Incompetence.

Benedict White said...

One of the key problems with prison is taht you lock up offenders with criminals. No seriously. It seems to me that at present that does more to entrench offending behaviour than reduce it. We do need to look at the whole thing again from a rehabilitation point of view as well as punishment and deterence.

Anonymous said...

There are also many people in prison who should be in secure mental hospitals. Unfortunately the "care in the community" nonsense put paid to that.

Croydonian said...

What, if anything, is the ethical difference between 'community service' and forced labour?

Anonymous said...

John Reid is prepared to risk it? What risk is HE taking, exactly?
Isn't he the man with the 24-7 armed bodyguards?

It's the rest of us who pay the price and take the risk of this Government's total failure to deal with crime.

Anonymous said...

we should look more seriously at other forms of punishment.

Punishment? The problem seems to be that prison is no detterent and the criminals don't mind going inside, or at least are willing to take the risk.

I have a relative who became a drug addict while inside...hardly a deterent environment to the many who are there because of their drug habit.

Prison to work properly needs to be a deterent, same as other punishments.

Make the punishments, whether they be custodial or otherwise, a deterent, and then we may see some movement down in criminal activity.

James Hellyer said...

But we all know that there are many people in prison who would have been punished more easily and effectively by a non custodial sentence.

I'd dispute this assertion. The majority of people in prison are only sent there after committing several offences, and failing tio be deterred or reformed by community service or fines.

Indeed this government has seen more crimes than ever before punished with fines, with more on the way. Shoplifting? Getting an on the spot fine doesn't seem to have worked as a deterrant. Never mind, I'm sure it will work for mugging...

The real answer is to offer a massive increase in our prison capacities, and at the same time to increase the prevelance of drug rehabilitation programmes, access to mental health professionals, and basic educational courses to try and rehabilitate those who are incarcerated.

Anonymous said...

It is interesting that this government has placed about 3000 new laws/regulations on the Statute Book, but has'nt anticipated the resulting rise in numbers of criminals. Of course, it must have done, but chose to ignore it for purely ideological reasons.

I do agree that there must be some way of reducing the numbers of people serving custodial sentences. How about pensioners who withhold their council tax payments as a starting point? No - anyone who dares to object to state-sanctioned theft must be made an example of, but those who persistently shoplift and burgle peoples' homes should be spared such horrors...

Praguetory said...

Don't let Labour off the hook. Every time this utter failure of theirs jumps out, people start to have this intellectual debate about different ways to punish/address offending.

Loud and clear altogether - BUILD MORE PRISONS.

If prison isn't working, it's because this government allowed them to become overcrowded, under-staffed and run for the warders and prisoners rather than society. This government's obfuscation disgusts me. And by the way this is also a vote winner. I find it the most fertile ground for getting floating voters agitated against Labour.

Anonymous said...

Not for the first time, I agree with James Hellyer on this. We have the worst of all possible worlds at the moment.

The prison regime should be made more austere, without becoming inhumane. As far as rehabilitation is concerned, a longer average sentence would be beneficial.

We also need to address the problem of drug abuse seriously for the first time. Much low-level theft and shoplifting is carried out by drug users to fund their habit. They clearly have no money to pay a fine and are usually deemed unsuitable for Unpaid Work in the community.

We should be making life hell for the government on this subject. How long did they need to see it coming??

Anonymous said...

The problem no one has yet mentioned is that since all the long term mental health institutions were closed most of what were then inhabitants end up in prison.
This has been a disaster on the streets in prisons and now outside prisons where real criminals will be left at large.

The answer is not to build more prisons but to reverse this stupid and damaging policy by reinstating proper enlightened custodial mental health care.

On the lack of deterrent in the system I agree that the experience could be made a vast deal worse without being either inhumane or unsafe but I also think there is a place for direct and public restitution to the victim.

There is a wider context to all of this which is a tax system that makes getting a job for some classes far less attractive than any sort of undetectable economic activity. Crime is not separate from other employments and decisions made about committing crime are as rational as any other .

Most criminals literally retire.

How badly we have been served by the Labour Government the Liberal elite .Amongst the groups to suffer are those encouraged to become criminals and the mentally Ill

neil craig said...

"Fact: less crimes committed in medieval and early modern period than now"

For lesser crimes the stocks & lash were effective & inexpensive solutions.

I am not entirely serious but not entirely frivolous either.

Dressing people up in orange shell suits & making them clean grafitti is designed to have a similar psychological effect as stocks.

Anonymous said...

I don't disagree with you, Iain, but we could have a greater impact on criminality if we stopped just throwing people in prison for a few years and making no attempts to rehabilitate them. At the moment, we throw the casually dishonest, the hardcore dishonest, the violent, the perverted and the generally anti-social in together, and we make no real attempt to try to sort out their very different needs (the sorting in prison is done in large part by disruptiveness rather than by need). For example, many convicted of offences of violence could be relatively easily reformed, but are thrown in with the seriously dishonest, who are only too pleased to recruit muscle for their schemes. Until we start looking properly at how to improve these people, the prisons are going to keep refilling.

Anonymous said...

NuLabour has comandeered so much control over social behaviour that disputes formerly resolved between participants in ways ranging from barely human to wholly legal are now state-mediated by lots of over-paid nosy parkers; of course the prisons are too small when they're crammed full of escapees from local summary justice. Instead of solving difficulties by 'talking amongst ourselves' we get fully pensioned -up state officials shoving us into prison for sorting out a problem so they can aggrandize NuLab's control and keep getting paid for voting for them.

Anonymous said...

An alternative should be to send all prisoners to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban.

We are short of troops. Send them out now!

Anonymous said...

Interesting, this is the kind of things that you would use as an example of the Lib Dems being "soft on Crime"...

Anonymous said...

Legalise and regulate the drugs trade. More taxes, better quality supply and the removal of risk for the providers which will inevitably lower prices for the end users... therefore fewer robberies.

I think everything else has been tried, hasn't it?

MJS said...

While I don't disagree with the Telegaph's editorial, I do take issue with the British media's obsessive stance that the grass is greener anywhere else but here. They quote the few well worn examples of imaginative sentencing in the US but make no attempt to find similar in the UK e.g.:
Court ends man's naked ambition by seizing trousers

Martin Wainwright
Friday May 24, 2002
The Guardian,11550,721297,00.html

The summery spell of imaginative sentencing in British courts has taken another step forward, with the confiscation of a royal streaker's pair of "quick-release" trousers.
Hot on the heels of a Cornish judge's order that a burglar must live in a garden shed while on bail, magistrates in Newcastle upon Tyne pounced on Brynn Reed's specially adapted jeans........
nor is there mention of restorative justice practices here.
Don't lets spoil a good story by being fair or balanced!
And don't forget that the US prison stats. per capita are higher than here - in fact the UK are 16th in the rankings -

Anonymous said...

Neil :"For lesser crimes the stocks & lash were effective & inexpensive solutions.

Which you explain. Funny and thought provoking and brief.

Nice one

Anonymous said...

"But we all know that there are many people in prison who would have been punished more easily and effectively by a non custodial sentence."

We know nothing of the sort. If it were so the Court of Appeal would be working overtime releasing all these wrongly sentenced people. In fact the opposite is true. In my experience (50 years in the law, prosecuting, defending and sitting as a judge)the courts lean over backwards to avoid sending people to prison. This is especially so with youngsters and first-time offenders. But few prisoners are first-timers. Most are persistent offenders on whom non-custodial sentences (fines, community service, etc.) have made no impact. Eventually the law has to say, "Enough is enough!"

Graham Smith said...

I really fail to understand why so many people are keen on imprisoning others for lengthy periods, particularly those suffering the effects of substance misuse or with other mental health issues who many of us would list amongst the more vulnerable members of our society. Over the last 15years we have seen a huge growth in the number of voluntary sector foyers, working to reattach disadvantaged 16-25 year olds to society. Perhaps there is a need for a similar movement to cater for the over 25s? IMHO giving folk a sense of hope, purpose and direction in their lives should result in them being less willing to commit crime.

At the other end of the spectrum, there are a small number of seemingly intelligent people who, by the severity and/or persistence of their criminal behaviour, have indicated they no longer wish to remain members of our society. Perhaps if their wish was granted this would free up some more places in prison? ;-)

Gareth Ellis said...

how about not putting people in jail for three years for writing racist emails?????

Anonymous said...

Benedict White says: "We do need to look at the whole thing again from a rehabilitation point of view as well as punishment and deterence."

Gosh! What an original thought! Do you mind if I quote you?

James Hellyer - I agree that education should be provided. Further, I would suggest that the minimum sentence for prison should be three years. It will take three years to teach an adult to read and write properly, do arithmetic, to teach him the history of his country and why he should be proud of it, to acquaint him with some basic philosophy and teach him to debate. (The latter so he doesn't feel compelled to resort to violence as his first means of defence.)

More serious crimes would attract longer sentences and more education. I would have no objection to long term prisoners being offered degree courses.

There also has to be an end to special pleading groups within prisons. Prison isn't a democracy. There must also be an end to special dietary/religious arrangements. If you don't want to eat humanely slaughtered meat, don't do the crime, Mohammad. Capice? If you don't want to crap with your backside to mecca, mohammad, don't get sent to prison. Capice?

No special cases. In prison, no one is special.

Prisons should also have secure factories attached - I would be fine with manufacturing companies having small facilities in prisons - so prisoners are not a drain on the taxpayers they have offended against. The factories could rent the space at concessionary rates.

For lesser crimes, especially those committed by violent, ignorant, brutish youths, our ancestors knew a thing or two about human behaviour. The stocks offer a very real punishment for this level of offender. "Respect" is everything to these little egostical jerks, and sitting pinned in the stocks to be jeered at by their friends - and their enemies - would be a real killer. Three days in the stocks - being taken into prison at night - should
do it. Rotten tomatoes should be provided for the jeering crowd of other yobs, who will all turn up to take photos on their mobile phones.

The Druid said...

I agree Iain. Prison is the best place for dangerous offenders but not every offender. There are quite a few people who could be effectively punished in the community. Here we could learn from Singapore's corrective work orders. Minor offenders do work in the community. For example sweeping the streets. They wear bright yellow bibs saying what they are doing. If people were made to perform their punishment in that way there might be more shame.

We have forgotten all the lessons of the Woolf Report. We could also listen to decent humane people like Lord Ramsbotham. But I guess Parliament will carry on passing penal laws with long sentences. Its a cheap easy way for politicians to look tough and appeal to the penal atavism of many.

If you want to see the mess that giving in to the 'hanging and flogging' lobby causes take a look at the mess that is the Californian Corrections Dept. Arnold Schwarzenegger, California's governor, said that the state's penal system was “falling apart in front of our very eyes”. Its overcrowded, drug ridden, and riddled with violent gangs.

Anonymous said...

Good point croydonian

What you do to get round the ethical problem is you use the American method.

In the states the judge can give an alternative to a prison sentence. The convicted then, when choosing community service forgos his human rights for what may seem to him/her a lesser punishment.

Judges can also issue an alternative option of a fine related to the convicted persons ability to pay. Sentences can be payed off on a "pay for a day" basis.

In many cases a combination of fines comunity centence local humiliation if fact just about anything the judge can think of can and is often given as alternatives to the convicted if he wishes to avoid prison.

If to many people choose prison its a clear indication that local prison is to soft so they make it a bit more nasty.

This method does not work well in keeping all the nutters off the street. In fact it is possibly a cause of crooks simply doing another quick crime in order to pay the fine. But it saves fortunes for the tax payer, and there is never a shortage of new prisons.

It also still works a mile better then our own does at formulating a criminal justice system appropiate for a FREE COUNTRY.

Anonymous said...

In Texas, for at least 20 years, possibly longer, gnags of convicts wearing bright orange jumpsuits that have stencilled on the back in big black letters: TEXAS DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS pick up litter, clean gafitti off walls and so on. But they are still locked up at night, though.

Anonymous said...

I’m not too keen to read about understanding criminals. Nobody is going to tell me to feel kindness to someone who hurts my girls, steals our property, fouls the countryside and makes life a misery for my family. They are not getting anything like my sympathy, only determination that they are kept away from me and my community – for a long, long time.

The softies who state all sorts of leftie blather about ‘understanding their minds’ and ‘giving them something’ (which I will undoubtedly pay for), have got all their values in a real mix-up. This describes a weak argument without a clue, and point to crazy stupid and misguided delusions of importance and political expedience.

Some silly twat on one of your blogs once mentioned ‘hurting criminals was tantamount to having big sticks and small willies’! What a stupid, deluded mind he/she must have, pillorying someone who has to cope with putting these little stealing shits in order and keeping them away from normal human beings. I hope he/she feels good when some little git creeps into his/her home and steals a few family treasures – worthless to anyone but themselves – and then they have to explain to the bored police why these objects were so important to his/her life. Then, if they’re lucky, they’ll get the same bored response from the insurance companies! Good life innit, being a leftie! Do something softies – don’t just prattle on!

Soft options on thugs and thieves are not the answer. Bang up every little turd/turdette that breaks into any premises for thieving purposes and really make them hurt while they’re there. These softies in ‘Lauranorder’ have to realise that most law-abiding citizens hate doing this to these little bastards, that’s why we pay for others, like the ‘government’ and ‘the police’ …duh…, to do it on their behalf. Check your next poll tax statement – if you pay it!

The Daily Telegraph article has one saving statement – if it hadn’t, I would have started buying something else. So now you know!

“Prison only does one thing well: it contains likely offenders”.

Amen to that.

Anonymous said...

Bring back coporal punnishment for lesser crimes, combine that with more realistic sentencing and people would be less inclined to commit crimes in the first place.

We have allowed the bleeding heart liberals to go to far. how does this country justify spending 30 years chasing a great train robber, to try and imprison him on his death bed.

Yet a peadophile that murders a child or a rapist who murders a woman can server a fifteen year sentence and be released after 7 years.

It would appear that theft of money, or property is worth a harsher sentence than murder.

There are more laws but less sense.

Anonymous said...

Look at the above and cringe, Mr Dale. Do you not sometimes get embarrassed by your bedfellows on the right? The hangers, the floggers, and the amputators. You attempt to comment intelligently upon issues of law and order and you have to wade through pages and pages of folk wanking themselves silly over dreams of corporal punishment and hard labour. These are your friends. Come and join us on the liberal left. You know we are right (as in correct). You know you want to.

Anonymous said...

Hate to say this, but my leftie liberal views on crime are being challenged, not least by being burgled recently. Scamps only just out of a Bristol school system which is failing dismally.

I agree there are alternatives to prison for first time offenders, but this relies on a/catching them and b/that this isn't then the 17th time they've offended, but the first time they've been caught...

Of course we need more prisons - trying to pretend that we have less crime by refusing to build more prisons is liking trying to pretend that the NHS is improving by closing loads of hospitals.

The Damilola Taylor verdict is instructive. Those boys were failed by a system which refused to set boundaries, and when they broke the rules before, refused to punish them. We can carry on as before, but how many more victims like DT does it really need ???

Anonymous said...

Anonymous 3:39 - Agree. Setting rules and enforcing those rules is seen as some sort of "prejudice". The only way you can make young humans fit for civilisation is to set rules and enforce them dependably.

Billy said with a typically socialist broad brush: "The hangers, the floggers, and the amputators." Uh ... the amputators? Where? Do we have some islamics commenting here?