Progressives should rally around coalition’s better instincts on prison reform

Sophie Willett, of The Howard League for Penal Reform, reports on public attitudes to crime and punishment and the need for more evidenced based policies to reduce crime.

Prison cell

Sophie Willett, of The Howard League for Penal Reform, reports on public attitudes to crime and punishment and the need for more evidenced based policies to reduce crime.

The Times’ poll (£) into public attitudes on crime and punishment has found the public worried that sentences are too short and they blame the lack of deterrent as the principal reason for their fears over crime.

The timing of this poll is important; at this moment the prison population is teetering on the brink of a record high. Never before have we sent more people to prison; 126,000 men women and children last year alone. Consecutive governments boast about locking up more of their citizens in prison than ever before; a badge of honour for being the tough guy of politics.

But this tired rhetoric has failed to engage with the common man. After 20 years of being tough on crime, at a cost running into billions of pounds for the taxpayer, people still aren’t happy. Three quarters of those polled say that the coalition is no tougher than the previous government.

The reality is that sentences have got steadily longer over the past 10 years. The average time served of those on determinate sentences has increased by 14 per cent since 2000 and we now jail more people on life and other indeterminate sentences than the rest of Western Europe combined. Sending ever increasing numbers of people to prison does not work. People are still fearful of crime. So maybe it’s time to look beyond the Mitchell brothers’ school of tough politics.

Now is the time to focus not what is tough, but what is effective. If given a choice between a punishment that will reduce the chances of somebody going out and doing the same thing to someone else, or a punishment that will encourage it, I know what I’d pick. It doesn’t really matter what the remedy is, as long as it works.

Ever increasing prison populations are a sign of failure, not success. In recognising that the criminal justice system is a blunt tool, and that lasting solutions to crime lie outside the confines of the prison cell, the government is taking a major step towards meaningful reform that will shape the way we respond to crime in the 21st century. I just hope they rely on empirical evidence on reducing crime to inform public opinion, and not the other way round.

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