More prisons are not the answer

Instead of pumping more public money into prisons, we should invest in education, health, and community programmes

by Juliet Lyon

Article first published in the Guardian's Comment is Free

Politicians rarely agree publicly about crime and punishment. But today the justice select committee presents a united view on how to cut crime. Following a substantive two-year inquiry, it states that the next government, of whichever stripe, must invest in prevention and rehabilitation instead of pouring scarce public monies into an unsustainable prison building programme.

In its report, Cutting crime: the case for justice re-investment, the committee shows how justice policy has swerved off-track. It reveals the high economic and social price of almost doubling our prison population in 20 years. Driven by political rhetoric, fear-mongering in the popular press and harsher sentencing, prison numbers in England and Wales have increased by 84% since 1990, from 44,975 to just under 83,000 today.

England and Wales currently has an imprisonment rate of 153 per 100,000 of the population, while France has a rate of 96 and Germany has a rate of 89. Government plans to increase capacity by 2014 would have pushed the rate to 178 per 100,000, far outstripping our western, and many eastern, European neighbours. These could now be abandoned in the light of this new evidence and economic constraints.

Figures from the Prison Reform Trust's Bromley Briefings factfile give an idea of the costs racking up because of what amounts to a national addiction to imprisonment. The overall cost of the criminal justice system has risen from 2% of GDP to 2.5% over the last 10 years. That is a higher per capita level than the US or any EU country. Each new prison place now costs £170,000 over the life of the accommodation. The cost per prisoner per year is £41,000. The justice committee warns that, on current estimates, the government's new prison plans would condemn it to finding an extra £4.2bn over the next 35 years.

Yet prison has a poor record for reducing reoffending – 47% of adults are reconvicted within one year of being released. For petty offenders, serving sentences of less than 12 months, this increases to 60%. For children and young people in custody the rate of reoffending rises to 75%. Reoffending by ex-prisoners costs society at least £11bn per year.

No surprise then that the justice committee saw the need for a rigorous examination of more effective ways to cut crime. 

Justice re-investment would shift the focus of expenditure away from incarceration and towards rehabilitation and prevention. This would involve investment in local education, health, drug, alcohol and community programmes in targeted areas based on analyses of where offences occur, where offenders live and what works in reducing offending. Investment in local solutions would free prison governors and staff to deal more effectively with people whose offending is so serious or violent that there can be no alternative to custody.

Re-investment of this kind will require funding transfers between the criminal justice system and service provided outside it, often at the local level. In turn, these will help to address the problem of centrally funded prisons being seen as a "free good", while potentially more effective interventions depend on the budgets of local authorities, health trusts or other local agencies and may not be available for courts to deploy. According to the justice committee, many community-based programmes aimed at tackling problems like alcohol misuse and mental ill-health are chronically under-funded.

The term "justice re-investment" refers to criminal justice policy reforms developed in some states in America over the last 10 years to stem rising prison populations by addressing the root causes of criminality. Justice re-investment approaches implemented in Kansas since 2004 have produced significant savings. The state has closed three prisons, and part of a fourth, generating annual savings of $4m (£2.5m), and has avoided spending $500m on a new prison planned on the basis of prison population forecasts prior to the re-investment programme taking effect.

The justice committee examined examples of joint working in the UK, such as the use of anonymised data from a hospital accident and emergency unit in Cardiff to guide policing priorities leading to a 40% reduction in violence-related A&E admissions. Outcomes from the Greater Manchester Against Crime partnership included a 75% reduction in arson in some areas. The committee's approach is in line with the government's new strategy to divert women away from crime, which explicitly links the reduction of expenditure on women's prison places with the funding of women's centres in the community.

With a general election around the corner, and close attention on value for money and effectiveness in public services, the report provides a sensible, blueprint for reform of the criminal justice system. Described by Alun Michael MP, a senior Labour member of the committee, as "the most important piece of work that the justice select committee has ever undertaken", it shows how to build a vital bridge between social, health and justice policy.

Introducing the findings and recommendations, Sir Alan Beith MP, the Liberal Democrat chairman of the committee, said: "The public are entitled to be sure that crimes from which they suffer are being treated seriously; but seriousness should be measured not by the length of a prison sentence but by whether it is a sentence which stops further crime and enables restitution to be made to the victim and to society. Instead of sinking endless resources into prisons, it is time to make tough choices and reinvest in other parts of the criminal justice system, and, equally importantly, invest in a range of community and public services outside the system that can do most to cut crime."

A cross-party report with 98 detailed recommendations is unlikely to make headlines, but most people would rather have sane justice policy informed by evidence and effectiveness than one driven by media hype and kneejerk reactions. As Andrew Tyrie MP, a senior Conservative member of the justice committee, commented: "Investing funding in preventing people getting enmeshed in the criminal justice system in the first place, re-examining the conveyor belt into expensive custodial provision, and looking at better ways to prevent the same people reoffending, are patently the right things to do; it is depressing to have to spend nearly 500 paragraphs saying so."

It seems that the expensive and counter-productive "arms race" on being tough on crime belongs to a different era and, as this report shows, the prison population can be safely reduced by one third in the next few years.