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.

23 Responses to “Progressives should rally around coalition’s better instincts on prison reform”

  1. AltGovUK

    RT @leftfootfwd: Progressives should rally around coalition's better instincts on prisons: //t.co/Nc8xF1G writes @TheHowardLeague's …

  2. neilgall

    RT @leftfootfwd: Progressives should rally around coalition's better instincts on prisons: //t.co/Nc8xF1G writes @TheHowardLeague's …

  3. Jack Barker

    RT @leftfootfwd: Progressives should rally around coalition's better instincts on prisons: //t.co/Nc8xF1G writes @TheHowardLeague's …

  4. Anon E Mouse

    Sophie Willett – If you tried living on some inner city sink estate on unemployment benefit and you kept getting your house robbed you may feel differently. Does anyone at The Howard League come from a council estate?

    Prison works. If a rapist is behind bars he cannot commit the act of rape.

    People released from prison who go on to reoffend show they should be locked up for longer – the judges know it. Normal people know it. The last Labour government know it. The current government know it.

    The reason they are letting people out is to get the costs down and to try to argue that the last government were wrong means you aren’t living in the real world.

    Labour were right to lock people up for longer and the current government are wrong not to. (That hurt saying that)

  5. The Howard League

    RT @leftfootfwd: Progressives should rally around coalition's better instincts on prisons: //t.co/Nc8xF1G writes @TheHowardLeague's …

  6. Sue Allan

    RT @leftfootfwd: Progressives should rally around coalition's better instincts on prisons: //t.co/Nc8xF1G writes @TheHowardLeague's …

  7. Mark Pack

    RT @leftfootfwd: Progressives should rally around coalition's better instincts on prison reform //bit.ly/fyG496

  8. Joe Jordan

    RT @markpack: RT @leftfootfwd: Progressives should rally around coalition's better instincts on prison reform //bit.ly/fyG496

  9. Tara Majumdar

    @ Anon E Mouse

    How long exactly do you propose that we lock people up for? Do you believe that having your laptop and your playstation stolen means that people should lose their liberty indefinitely? If not (and I’m really hoping you have more compassion than that), it is more than likely that one day those burglars will be released back to the same place so they can commit the same crime. Unless something makes them change or if they feel there is a real alternative. That is what the current Government is proposing to do. Obviously it won’t be easy but it’s worth having a go and putting some political will behind something so important. After all, it may stop you being burgled next time.

  10. John

    Interesting comment that people should be locked up for longer – presumably then, the author believes that every crime should attract a life sentence, since there is no suggestion as to how much a time it would take before they didn’t reoffend. All the evidence suggests that the longer people are in prison, the more likely they are to re-offend, as they become less able to deal with everyday life. On that basis, with roughly 40% of the male working age population having commtted crime of some sort, we’d best fence off a big area!

  11. Sophie Willett

    Anon E Mouse
    I don’t believe prison prevents crime- it might interrupt it, but doesn’t stop it. Crime is still committed in prison by the way Mouse- the rapist could rape his cell mate or staff.
    So my house keeps getting burgled over and over again. The person doing it has quite a pricey drug habit. It makes sense to me to try and address their crack habit, rather than sending them to prison (be it one month or one year) where their crack habit will remain intact. If this programme stops them burgling my home, I’d want them on it.
    Drug programmes are largely unavailable to people in the community.
    It’s not about cost- it’s about being sensible.

  12. Anon E Mouse

    Sophie Willett – If a burglar is in prison he can no longer steal people’s property. Prison works.

    You may argue for rehabilitation blah blah blah but I’m with Labour on this because to say prison doesn’t work it deceitful. The government is wrong to shorten sentences.

    With longer sentences a deterrent (imagine that concept to protect the weak victims) might be introduced, training for employment in prison might become viable and by stopping methadone a drug habit may be stopped because the repeat offending rates show your bleeding heart liberal ideas don’t work.

    Do any of the staff at the Howard League come from the sort of deprived backgrounds the majority of prisoners come from?

  13. Anon E Mouse

    John – No one is even suggesting a life sentence unless it is necessary but really what planet are you on? I googled this and got this:

    //www.thisislondon.co.uk/standard/article-23623393-family-condemns-soft-jail-sentences-for-acid-rape-gang.do

    “Three men gang raped a 16 year old girl with a mental age of 8 and covered her in caustic soda to hide the crime. The girl has been disfigured for life and faces further surgery and skin grafts, as well as undergoing counselling for nightmares and panic attacks.”

    The highest sentence was 9 years, the lowest 6 years and they’ll be out in 4.5 and 3 years respectively.

    So John, I really care more about that poor disfigured innocent young girl, than those horrible individuals and for rape as described, yes I believe there should be a life sentence.

    What I find worrying about all these do gooders is their lack of empathy for the victims requiring our protection. It just seems so uncaring…

  14. Anon E Mouse

    Tara Majumdar – Please read my reply to John above. I care about victims of crime Tara and not those who commit the crime.

    Sorry but in the above example I weep for that poor girl but will not shed a single tear for those horrible criminals who perpetrated that awful deed against her.

    And what will definitely stop me being burgled next time is if the burglar is unable to have access to other peoples homes because he’s in a prison cell.

    Sorry but I’m with Labour on this one. The government is wrong….

  15. Anon E Mouse

    Sophie Willett – Just to let you know what the judge said regarding that unfortunate wretch I mentioned to John:

    The judge said: “The life of this girl changed irretrievably on 9 January last year. It changed for the worse. In her eyes, and [those] of her mother’s, her life was ruined. She has been left with severe post-traumatic stress disorder and scarring to 50 per cent of her body. It is doubtful what form her life will take and whether she can operate fully as a young woman.”

    And in 3 years (minus any time on remand) an individual withe the capacity to behave that badly will be free on the streets to do the same again. That poor girl is ruined for life.

    I really think the types of people you work for need to start showing a caring attitude in this matter and think about the innocents not the perpetrators…

  16. John

    Anon Your example is clearly an extreme crime, and I would not suggest that a lighter sentence is appropriate – indeed I believe the sentence in those circumstances is ridiculously light. However, your argument is what is known as a “straw man fallacy”, in which an extreme and unrelated statement is made in an effort to prop up an argument that has no substance. Furthermore, what you are suggesting is exactly a life sentence – in the absence of some new approach to rehabilitation, we can predict that most offenders will return to their former activity, e.g. dealing drugs, stealing etc to feed what is frequently an addiction to some substance or another, because they have no prospect of employment, or indeed housing, having been released. Therefore, the only way that you can have what you claim you want is for the offender to remain in prison, because according to your argument, we should keep them in prison until they will not re-offend, which we know will not happen.
    Furthermore, the facts are that sentences have got longer in the past 10 years, without reducing rates of reoffending. You say prison works, well it depends what you mean by works – we have roughly doubled the number of people in prison over the past 20 years, and crime has fallen by around 9%, most of which can be explained by economic factors. In that time, reoffending rates have been unaffected. As has been stated by another contributor, prison doesn’t stop crime, it merely delays it through denying the offender the opportunity ( although plenty of crime happens in prisons, usually involving some degree of violence). As to thinking about the victims, I would have thought that reducing the reoffending rate would be a positive thing for victims, in that there would be less of them. It’s about thinking through the consequences and dealing with reality, rather than what we might wish were true.

  17. Anon E Mouse

    John – My argument isn’t Strawman look at Wikipedia – actually yours is: //en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Strawman

    You have misrepresented my position and made false claims yourself and the example I gave was on page 1 of google – it is not extreme John. You need to read the papers more or listen to the news.

    Your last comment about the victims shows exactly how you do not show any concern for their plight, seemingly seeing them merely as statistics.

    The group the author here works for clearly do not live in the world they constantly describe and should try walking a mile in other peoples shoes. I’d wager every one of the members of staff is educated to degree level and comes from a middle class background and not one has lived in a sink estate in an inner city. They do not know the real world because they are not affected by it.

    Finally this fine blog purports to be evidence based so let’s see you answer this one directly. And the numbers illustrate it is far from an extreme example. By the last election, under the Labour government, 81,578 offenders were released early from prison:

    16,334 of these offenders were serving sentences for violence against the person.
    1,234 offenders were reported for alleged re-offending while on early release.
    1,624 alleged offences were committed by offenders on early release.
    125 offenders recalled for alleged re-offending or breaching the terms of their early release are still at large.

    The numbers that prove my case and disprove yours are the last three, 2983 people possible crimes against the person. Not laptops stolen – acts of violence against human beings.

    My position is that if all those 16,334 criminals were still in prison they could not have reoffended upon their release. That is an indisputable fact John.

    You can care about statistics on a computer John to illustrate your position and I’ll continue to care about victims of crime. You may have a case about rehabilitation and we may have common ground there but this misguided article isn’t doing that and I’m with Labour on this one I’m afraid…

  18. Tara Majumdar

    Anon E Mouse

    I understand your position and you are consistent in always putting victims at the heart of your responses, which I respect.

    Do you suggest that all criminals should be in prison for longer/forever, including benefit cheats, insurance dodgers, drink drivers, rapists, murderers and pedophiles? Or do you think the sentencing framework for the more serious crimes should be scaled up to allow for longer sentences?

  19. Anon E Mouse

    Tara Majumdar – Now you’ve got me.

    I agree absolutely with the sentiment in your post. There is a huge difference between a crime against the person – anything violent and what I would describe as “corporate crime”.

    Pedophiles I would only let out with either chemical castration or after they are no longer sexually capable to inflict their perverted crimes against children (My partner is a child protection social worker so I am aware of the mindset of these horrible people).

    Rape and murder I would categorise to allow different types like the in the US, so a woman who has lived a life of misery at the hands of a violent husband and eventually lashes out and accidentally kills him should not be treated the same Ian Huntley or Fred West.

    Benefit cheats I would fine them and the mother shoplifting to feed her child should also be treated differently from a burglar who has invaded someone’s home and stolen their property.

    Your final part regarding scaling up the punishment I agree with whole heartedly and just wish these types of groups like the Howard League could act intelligently with the system to cater for the victims who without exception will always get my sympathy before criminals.

  20. Tara Majumdar

    Ok then, we agree that there is a real difference between the pedophiles and the benefit cheats and how they should be treated by the criminal justice system.

    As you said, benefit cheats should be getting fines and not be clogging up our prisons with their paltry sentences, which often amount to no more than some weeks or a few months. It is also unlikely that any meaningful rehabilitative programmes can be provided to them during this period. Pedophiles, on the other end of the spectrum, we both agree should be in prison although we differ in what punishment they should be given whilst in there.

    You also make a distinction between the mother shoplifting to feed her child and the burglar who breaks into someone’s house to steal their property. Not wanting to complicate the examples anymore than we have done, what do you do if both the mother and the burglar are drug addicts? At the moment, there’s quite a high statistical chance they are.

    Do you make sure they come off the drugs so they don’t shoplift and burgle anymore? Do they both deserve to come off the drugs in prison or in the community with proper supervision? Should we save our prison places for the more serious offenders, the one’s that we’re really scared about and not the ones that are just a nuisance?

    I also think that victims should have more of a voice in our criminal justice system. Right now, it’s very much about either the victim or the offender winning or losing and the only way the victim can contribute is by voicing their opinion (which no one is obliged to listen to) that the offender should be sentenced for longer. Having been a victim, I’d rather know that they’re not going to do it again and for the offender to realise the impact they have had on the victim. That’s why at least advocating restorative justice seems like a good move to me.

  21. Anon E Mouse

    Tara Majumdar – On the pedophile I’m afraid for me there is not way back – children are too venerable to be put at risk. The law needs to be finessed – a 16 year old engaging in sexual activity (I know about legal consent) with a 15 year old is not the sort of example I would cite.

    This despicable 53 year old individual here: //www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/2011/03/12/orphanage-man-jailed-91466-28322774/

    set up a children’s orphanage to abuse children and only got two years.

    Drug misuse should not be an excuse for crime and too often it is. I worked for years with a guy who was a heroin addict and he injected into his foot nightly yet never once missed a single shift at work. I know several people who smoke cannabis regularly and two who snort cocaine socially.

    None of these people commits crime to feed their habit and to me it is simply an excuse for bad behaviour.

    I’d lock them up to go cold turkey – no drugs or methadone in prison as far as I’m concerned and unlike the current system anyone leaving prison would definitely be drug free as they walked through the gates to freedom.

    Restorative Justice and the like are simply tactics and I am more interested in strategies to prevent people becoming victims but from what you have posted so far Tara I think you should be working for these people because you seem very knowledgable on this subject!

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