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A Review of the arguments for and against increased use of prison sentences.

law abiding citizens

The headlines today are presenting Home Secretary John Reid as tough on crime. Whether this turns out to be the case is problematic as Blair, Straw, Blunkett and Clarke talked equally tough, but what they delivered over the last nine years was severely limited by the almost fanatical opposition waged by our liberal elite, and by those working within the criminal justice system. John Reid is still at the talking tough stage so it remains to be seen if he will be able to stand up to the inevitable liberal backlash which will follow, or if his name will be added to the long list of compromised New Labour politicians.

In the light of these developments exactly where are we with the tough on crime/soft on crime, prison works/prison doesn’t work debates. Where is the evidence supporting the two sides of the argument?

Before we consider evidence, let’s briefly look at the problem from first principles.

On a fundamental biological level who can deny that deterrence works. Why is it that African carnivores prefer to attack small prey such as antelopes rather than elephants, even though they would have no trouble at all catching an elephant, and it would give them a much bigger meal. Well, the answer is pretty obvious, they are deterred by the knowledge that if they attacked an elephant they would be trampled to death. I’m not suggesting this remedy to deter criminals, but it serves as one of a million examples one could give of deterrence in the real world working.
Why is it that so many prison reformers insist that prison isn’t a deterrent? How can it be the only unpleasant experience across the whole spectrum of life’s experiences that doesn’t illicit the pavlovian response, “I don’t like going to prison, therefore I will refrain from actions that will cause me to go there?”

I can see no logical, behavioural, or philosophical basis to maintain that, “Prison doesn’t work.”

Another logical proposition that cannot be refuted is that when someone is jailed it is evidently impossible for them to rape, murder, or attack law abiding citizens in the outside community. Imprisoning re-offenders, for progressively longer terms up to and including life if they repeatedly re-offend, would be a policy guaranteed to cut crime dramatically against which there can be no argument as to its efficiency in achieving its stated aim.

Those who are against the use of prison as a means to segregate offenders from their victims, or at least the proportion of this group who have the courage to argue against this irrefutable point, say that this strategy couldn’t be adopted for practical and humanitarian reasons. Prison numbers, we are told, would increase indefinitely to unsustainable levels of many hundreds of thousands. The financial cost, and the resulting damage to families would be unacceptable.

Once again prison reformers display their poor understanding of human nature. Every actor in society, with the exception of some with very low intelligence and some with mental health problems, makes hundreds of cost benefit analyses every day. These calculations are so frequent that we often do them subconsciously. As soon as it became an ingrained, almost innate, and universally accepted view that:

Criminals go to prison.

Persistent criminals go to prison for a long time, possibly even life.

…..then every actor in society with sufficient intelligence and mental stability to function within society would get the clear message. Prison numbers would not have to keep on rising, they could just as easily start falling once the clear message sinks in. The majority with the mental capacity to act rationally will do just that.

So what about those remaining, those of very low intelligence, and the mentally ill? Well this is perhaps the one area where I have some sympathy with prison reformers. The prisons should do more to rehabilitate, and they shouldn’t be filled with the mentally ill.

Maybe, paradoxically, deterring career criminals and the large numbers of those whose behaviour can be turned around by a much more aggressive criminal regime will enable us to concentrate our resources on those that need the most help in better prisons and secure mentally hospitals.

Whatever form a future prison service takes, reforms would at least then be done against a backdrop in which the default position is that criminality = detention. The innocent general public would be receiving maximum protection, as opposed to the situation that presides today in which one experiment after another is played out within the community.

We now turn to the evidence. Does prison work?

Sorry to disappoint, but a review of the evidence is a mammoth task which I am attempting to collate at the moment. This is more difficult than one might imagine because there appears to be almost a wilful attempt on behalf of the authorities to muddy the waters. New Labour usually claim things are getting better, and the Conservatives usually claim things are getting worse. Both back up there claims with statistics.

In the UK we have police crime figures and the British Crime survey data which frequently come up with contradictory findings. Definitions of particular crimes are frequently tinkered with, and perfectly workable old laws are re-written under new legislation for no apparent reason other than to allow our legislators to demonstrate their zeal and commitment. Data recording periods change from a calendar year to a fiscal year.

I’m not claiming conspiracy here, just the inevitable chaos one might expect from a system floundering and in disarray. Even so, the task is difficult.

I hope to post evidence for and against prison in the next post in this series in the near future.


If you were an abolitionist you would have much better access. Whilst you are shining the light on the Prisons Service in a dispassionate/scientific manner you will not readily get the information/access that would help. I am sure there is a lateral solution.

It isn't helped by the 1998/9 change to police crime statistics. In their infinite wisdom, the government decided to include "summary justice" incidents to the statistics on reported crime. Unfortunately, they did not add them in a way that would allow us to compare data directly before and after the change. i.e all of the reported crimes, whether dealt with by summary justice or court system, were lumped into one big pot, instead of making them separate (which could then be added together, if desired).

This effectivley rendered one of the few ways of comparing long term trends in crime useless. A cynic would accuse the government of foul - as the only other way of doing it is with the British Crime Survey (the government's preferred measure). I don't know if I should be cynical or not.

Comment removed. Reason: spam.

I'm not trying to be offensive, but I don't think prison works for those with mental health or drug abuse issues. You touched upon this.

I also think that the criminal justice system has been messed about with for far too long. Politicians should let _all_ the relevant professionals decide how to achieve the policy outcomes desired.

I disagree with you that prison doesn't work for drug addicts and the mentally ill, but first we should define our terms.

When the vast majority of prison reformers, (too frequently these days this is newspeak for prison abolitionists), use the phrase “prison doesn’t work” what they mean is “prison doesn’t rehabilitate”. It would be nice if rehabilitation worked, but this should be a secondary objective. When I say “prison works” I mean it in the sense that when a criminal is incarcerated he can no longer commit any crimes against innocent victims in the outside world. Period. If this sounds a bit harsh, give me the evidence that community punishments are capable of rehabilitating criminals, or that crime rates have fallen since the 1960’s when the massive growth of non-custodial sentencing supervised by a growing army of social workers began, and I might be open to persuasion.

Returning to drug addicts and the mentally ill, what are secure drug rehabilitation units and mental hospitals like Broadmoor if they are not just prisons with different names? Should one campaign for the release of the person who will perhaps go on to murder someone’s wife or rape their daughter because “it’s not their fault”, they happen to be a drug addict or insane?

As for politicians standing back and letting all of the relevant professionals decide how to achieve the policy outcomes desired, this would fill me will alarm. We might share a low opinion of most politicians, but my disdain for the average professional or expert in the humanities like sociology, criminology, psychology is far greater. Yes, there are many good people who have worked in these fields, but increasingly in the modern world the wrong decisions are being made by twenty something liberal graduates who have too little experience of real people, who have too much experience of the latest ideological fads and fashions being preached in the universities by other out of touch liberals, and who confuse wishful thinking with science.

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