How many should we imprison?

In my late 20s, I spent two years (1976-1978) working at the Home Office as Special Adviser to the then Home Secretary Merlyn Rees. I visited several prisons and officials always gave us a written brief beforehand. One of the figures in the brief was what was called the CNA (Certified Normal Accommodation) which was the figure for the number of prisoners for which the institution was designed. The actual prison population always exceeded the CNA.
Three decades later, the prison population in this country is much, much higher. Indeed this weekend the prison population in England & Wales reached an all-time high of 80,316. The UK as a whole is the most punitive country in Europe. We imprison 148 individuals for every 100,000 population. This is even higher than Spain (145) and the Netherlands (128) and much higher than Germany (95), France (85) or Denmark (77). On the other hand, the figures for Russia (611) and the USA (738) are hugely higher.
We have to ask ourselves serious questions about whether prison works and whether it is value for money. In my view, we cannot simply keep imprisoning ever higher numbers and offering less and less rehabilitation. In the immediate term, we need a new early release progamme for less serious offenders. Then we need to look hard at the numbers of children, drug addicts and mentally ill that we imprison and consider whether alternative programes would not be both less costly and more effective.
The “Guardian” discusses these issues today here.


  • Nick

    I think increased drug use, and the judicial approach to this, is key to the prison population. See e.g. Our jails are full to bursting – and it’s almost all down to drugs, in the Observer, from four years ago. We need a more rational, less hysterical, approach to drug use.
    The International comparisons of criminal justice statistics 2001 (via International Review of Crime Statistics) brings together statistical information on criminal justice collected by the Home Office and the Council of Europe.” As the document notes:

    The prison population in a country reflects:

    1. The crime rate;
    2. The extent to which crimes were cleared up;
    3. The extent to which the accused were remanded in custody;
    4. The length of pre-trial detention;
    5. The extent to which courts impose custodial sentences;
    6. The length of custodial sentences (more precisely, the length of time served); and
    7. The extent to which custodial sentences were suspended.

    Although comparison of crime statistics across countries is difficult, I think point 1, above, together with tables 1.1-1.7 in International comparisons of criminal justice statistics 2001, go some way towards explaining the higher per capita rates of imprisonment in England and Wales. For example, according to table 1.3, “violent crime” in England And Wales in 2001 numbered 813,271, compared to 279,324 and 188,413 in France and Germany, respectively. Hardly surprising, then, that our rates of imprisonment are higher that those in France and Germany? I think this adds some perspective to the raw “per capita” figures often presented. But whatever the reasons, ranking highly on the “per capita” figures is clearly undesirable.

  • Mavis

    Can I pick up on the drugs question?
    I remember in my teens (many years ago) addicts picking up their prescriptions, mainly at midnight, from the all night chemists in Newcastle. It was never a large queue.
    Prohibition never seems to work. Just look at history.
    When you go to work in a biscuit or sweet factory, you are told there is no bar to what you can eat, after a couple of weeks you never want to touch the stuff again.
    If drugs were legal and sold over the counter, there would be no thrill in taking them. The drug dealers would be put out of business and in all probability drug use would go down.
    Why do we persist in making things illegal and then wondering why people make a criminal career out of supplying.
    Or am I naive?

  • Nick

    The drug problem seems to be a problem with no good solution. The idea of legalising drugs is seductive in that it seems to solve so many problems, but I suspect the actuality would not be as clean and simple as the theory.
    For one, there would still need to be some prohibition, as we would not want children to take drugs. Also, I’m not so sure demand for legalised drugs would stagnate; I believe cocaine and heroin provide a more impressive high than biscuits! (I’m not speaking from personal experience.)
    Some of these newly legalised drugs may well be at least as dangerous as alcohol and tobacco. So the net result could be reduced productivity and increased health care costs. What of the Chinese experience in the nineteenth century? (See History of the Opium Trade in China.)
    All in all, I’m attracted by the libertarian argument for legalisation, with its potential for crime reduction, but more wary of the possible messy consequences. Either way, we need more and better rehabilitation programmes.
    Some interesting reading:
    Don’t Legalize Drugs, by Theodore Dalrymple
    Thinking About Drug Legalization, by James Ostrowski of the Cato Institute