How to reduce the prison population

When you know your budget's going to be cut by between a quarter and a third in a few months time, it concentrates the mind wonderfully.

Much as it would be nice to think that Ken Clarke's announcement of an end to two decades of ever-increasing incarceration was inspired by questions of logic, principle and justice, the truth is, of course, that is being driven by money. The massive expansion in the prison population has been ruinously expensive and of dubious efficacy. Yes, crime has fallen since Michael Howard stood up at a Tory conference and claimed "prison works". But it has fallen by as much or more in those countries that have not been building prisons or directing judges to impose increasingly savage and in some cases utterly disproportionate sentences. That scarcely matters, however: once it has become established political practice that the way to demonstrate toughness and responsiveness to public opinion is to lock people up, both government and opposition become locked in a cycle of crackdowns, prison expansions and intensifying rhetoric.

It takes more than political vision or a consideration of criminological evidence to break the cycle. It takes a financial crisis. The budget cuts announced and in the pipeline will have many bad consequences for individuals and for society as a whole, but there will be benefits too, because some items of government expenditure are not merely wasteful but positively harmful. The lavishing of billions on punitive, crowd-pleasing justice is perhaps the prime example of misspent national wealth.

Unfortunately, cutting prison numbers is more easily said than done. It requires a transformation of attitudes at all levels of the criminal justice system. It is not just a case of not building more prisons or reviewing sentencing guidelines to encourage more community punishments. For they too cost money to implement and are not always effective in reducing reoffending rates. The truth is that the excessive prison population is not only wrong in itself but is symptomatic of a justice system that has become both too bureaucratic and too punitive.

The most effective single means of reducing the prison population, in fact, would be to tackle the numbers coming into the system in the first place. Fewer offenders should be brought before court. This means more use of cautions, but it also means fewer arrests. It means, to put it bluntly, more minor offences being ignored entirely.

So here are some humble suggestions to help the Justice Secretary achieve his laudable aim:

1) Abolishing as many as possible of the 4,000 new criminal offences invented under Labour.

2) Narrowing those offences that are too widely drawn. For example, the recent conviction of councillor Shirley Brown under the Public Order Act for calling a fellow councillor a "coconut" was an absurd waste of time and money. Such trivial matters should never be a matter for the police or the courts.

3) Reducing the number and application of ASBOs.

4) Re-writing the guidelines under which the Crown Prosecution Service operates, with special attention to the rule that a prosecution is in the public interest. At present, there is an assumption that any case where there is a good chance of conviction is in the public interest - this has led to such absurdities as a man in North Wales facing a full crown court trial over a six-second video-clip sent to him by a friend as a joke, but which the CPS decided amounted to "extreme pornography". In future, the public interest test ought to take into account the cost of court action in all but the most serious cases. In other words, there should in most cases be a presumption against pursuing a case to court.

5) Abolishing police arrest targets. Police forces should receive no benefit, either in financial or prestige terms, for making an arrest. Instead, inidividual officers deemed to have made unnecessary arrests should be punished with the loss of performance bonuses. The same should apply to those making excessive use of stop-and-search powers to, for example, harass photographers.

6) A cap on prisoner numbers, to be achieved by progressive use of early release and a "one in, one out" policy. With the exception of the most serious crimes (violence, rape and other serious sex offences, armed robbery etc) courts should be given an incarceration limit. Once reached, it would be impossible to send anyone convicted of a lesser crime to prison except in "exceptional circumstances" and with the approval of the Lord Chief Jusitce. The medium-term aim (to be achieved by the time of the next general election) should be a total prison population of 50,000.

7) A reduction in the number of magistrates (paid and unpaid) and courts, with a proportional reduction in the number of crown courts. This will limit the number of cases that it is possible to hear, thus forcing the police and CPS to prioritise the most serious offences. If a case cannot be heard in a reasonable amount of time, and it does not come into the category of the most serious offences, then it will be dealt with in another way or dropped entirely.

In short: fewer crimes; fewer arrests; fewer prosecutions; fewer police; fewer crown prosecutors; fewer magistrates and magistrates' courts - with those courts having fewer powers of imprisonment and punishment; fewer crown courts, too, and fewer judges. Fewer everything. These cutbacks will save money directly and lead, ultimately, to a smaller prison population. Of course, my suggestions would lead inevitably to more crimes being unpunished and more criminals going free. When compared with the vast expense of today's criminal justice system, however, that would be a small price to pay.


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