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The Relationship Between Prison Population & Crime

A comparative study of the crime rates of US and England between 1981 and 1996, carried by Prof David Farrington of Cambridge University, showed that as the risk of being imprisoned rose in the US, the crime rate fell. Conversely, as the risk of being imprisoned fell in England and Wales during the same time period, the crime rate increased. But, the story is significantly more complicated than this.

The study found that in New York State, policing reforms were preceded by stricter sentencing and an expansion of the prison population. The total prison population grew from 123 prisoners per 100,000 population in 1980, to a peak of 400 in 1999. Crime rate fell by 62% in this time period. The opposite was found in England - as the risk of getting put in prison fell, the crime rate rocketed. Comparisons of America's and the UK's crime rates can be found here.

In England and Wales, just 12 people are imprisoned for every 1,000 recorded crimes. In Spain, the number is 48. Spain's crime rate is roughly one quarter of ours. In general, countries that imprison a higher number of offenders have lower rates of crime.

However, from the Howard League, the UK is the most punitive nation in Western Europe. In 2003, England and Wales imprisoned 141 people per 100,000 population. The prison population hit an all time high on 6 April 2004 when it reached 75,544. In the ten years to 2003, the prison population increased by 66%, in the case of women, 191%. The rapid growth in the prison population has not been fuelled by escalating crime rates nor by an increase in the number of offenders appearing before the courts. Rather, harsher sentencing has resulted in our ever-escalating prison population.

According to Professor Mike Hough, director of the Institute for Criminal Policy Research at King’s College London, the sentencing of criminals has become a lot tougher over the past 15 years.“The prison population has risen from 43,000 in 1992 to just under 80,000 today, with little change in the number of people coming before the courts,” he said. “Over the 10-year period from 1991, the percentage of convicted burglars sent to prison rose from 37% to 60%, and for grievous bodily harm the figures are 28% rising to 54%.”

So how do we reconcile these two very different sets of statistics? One of the largest prison populations in Europe, yet one of the lowest rates of imprisonment for the number of recorded crimes. From above, "The rapid growth in the prison population has not been fuelled by escalating crime rates", yet the crime rate has been escallating. So, we either don't catch enough criminals or the courts are unwilling (or unable) to issue custodial sentences for less serious offences. However, Home Office data reveals that about 78% of people sentenced to immediate custody in 2003 had committed non-violent offences (i.e. offences that did not involve violence, sex or robbery), indicating there is a willingness for courts to sentence custodially.

It appears the burgeoning crime rate is most likely due to ineffective policing.

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