Monday, 1 February 2010

Prison policy should be based on fact rather than scare stories

There seems to be a dangerous trend whereby policy enacted by government is increasingly being driven by media headlines. Take prisons policy.
The latest report confirming that prison does not work comes from the cross party Parliamentary Justice Committee.
In its report to government, the Justice Committee recommends that jails should be cut by a third and the money saved put into community penalties. It claims that the £2.4 billion prison building plan was a “costly mistake.”
The cross-party committee said evidence showed community punishments would have a better chance at cutting re-offending.There are more than 82,000 people in prison in England and Wales.With a major building programme under way, there are likely to be 96,000 prison places by 2014.''The prison population could be safely capped at current levels and then reduced over a specified period to a safe and manageable level likely to be about two-thirds of the current population,” said the Committee.This is not the first time that government has been told and presented with evidence that prison does not work when it comes to cutting offending.
When Lord David Ramsbotham left the job of chief inspector of prisons in 2001 the prison population stood at 63,000. He said this number could be reduced by 40,000 if the kids, elderly, mentally ill, asylum seekers, and those in for trivial shop lifting or drugs offences were taken out.
What has happened since would suggest little notice was taken with the prison population going up by another third. Recently, clearly exasperated by the moves in the opposite direction to his recommendations Lord Ramsbotham said: “They (government) are frightened of facts because facts interfere with their theories. There has been no improvement in the prison system because the policies are based on fudge.”
The question must be why do government ministers constantly ignore such experts and go on with a failing policy. Despite much rhetoric about rehabilitation, the policies of the present government seem only to have entrenched the view of the previous Conservative administration, whose Home Secretary Michael Howard coined the phrase that prison works.
No doubt there are a number of forces at play. Locking people up has become big business. More and more of the prison sector is being run by private companies whose prime aim is to turn a profit. Bishop Terence Brain illustrated this point when he recalled the builder of a new private prison in his diocese declaring he had brought long term employment to the area. A full prison seemed a prerequisite.
Another force that pushes a vengeance model of punishment as the only solution to offending is the media. The statistic that 60 per cent of those sent to prison re-offend inside two years rarely figures in much coverage.
Chair of the Justice Committee Sir Alan Beith confirmed the role of the media when he spoke of “a demand-led policy of building ever more prison places is being fuelled by political and media pressure for more and longer custodial sentences, diverting resources away from measures which are more likely to prevent future crime."
On the face of it, it seems that government policy in this area is being run in the interests of private enterprise and media headlines rather than expert advice and research. The role of media is nominally to educate, entertain and inform but the prime driving motivation is profit. What sells papers is often appealing to the lowest common denominator in society. Locking people up as an answer to the problems of crime, stirring up racist insecurities over fear of the other in terms of immigration both sell newspapers but they should not be the basis for making policy. It is a sobering thought at a time when actual crime is probably at a lower level than for many years, public fear of crime is higher than ever. This says much about the discourse engendered by the media, which is more about engendering fear that articulating solutions.It must be hoped that whatever political colour of the next government that it returns to making policy on the basis of empirical evidence rather than media headlines. The evidence of the Justice Committee and the reports of a series of chief inspectors of prisons would be a good place to start for moulding a new criminal justice system. At present all of this good advice appears to end up in the bin whilst policy is formed, based only on the latest scare story engendered to sell media products.

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