Don’t be fooled by nonsense about prisons

There are six prisons in the county of Lancashire, with just over 4,000 total.

If we jailed a similar proportion of the population to the United States, that figure would not be 4,000, but 20,000.

There’d be a prison in every town in the county – including Burnley, Accrington, and Blackburn – and some would be huge.

So much for the nonsense which is now becoming a commonplace on radio and television, that the UK has among the highest jail population in the world.

It is untrue.

The United States has a prison population of close on 2,300,000 at the most recent count.

That’s 756 prisoners for every 100,000 – not far short of one in every 100 people being in jail (and a much higher proportion if you happen to be young, male, and black).

Great Britain has around 93,000 in its jails.

That’s 153 prisoners for every 100,000– almost exactly one-fifth of the United States’ rate.

Were we at US levels, there’d be 465,000 inmates in jails in England, Scotland and Wales.

So where did this nonsense come from?

For ‘the world,’ read ‘most countries in Western Europe.’ Our prison population is, proportionately, about half as big again as that of France, and Germany.

But it’s not the case for all western European countries.

Spain, for example, jails a slightly higher proportion – and many of the new members of the EU, in the East are way above us.

So what about the ‘old Commonwealth,’ whose systems and cultures are closer to ours?

Canada jails fewer than do we, but Australia’s prison population is close to ours (129 inmates per 100,000 population), and New Zealand’s above (at 185).

Apologies for these numbers, but I like to be accurate, and to provide readers of with the facts so they can make their own minds up.

I do not want to see any more people in jail than is necessary, but a sensible debate about the use of prison should be an informed one.

What’s going on at the moment, as part of a smokescreen to disguise and then justify severe cuts in prison budgets, is a campaign to convince the public that our prison population has somehow gone through the roof, and – in the current jargon – is ‘unsustainable.’ It hasn’t, and it isn’t.

When I took over as Justice Secretary in 2007 I worked hard to try to moderate the increase in prison numbers.

Three years ago the ‘medium’ projection suggested that the population now would be 5,000 more than it is; and that by 2014 it could reach 102,000.

Partly the rapid rise did not happen because the significant reduction in crime is now feeding its way through to fewer criminals – (fewer young people involved in crime, for example).

We are also getting better at diverting people from crime through the cheaper, and where appropriate, better method of punishing them in the community.

But such an approach does not work for all offenders.

And the next time someone claims that there are a number of people in jail for ‘petty anti-social crimes’ ask them to say which criminals precisely now in jail they would release – and to spell out the crimes they are in for.

They are far from ‘petty’ for the victims.

Coalition seems to be going soft on crime

It’s the end of the first term of this Conservative/Liberal Democrat government.

It’s been fascinating but above all extraordinary, as these two parties have entered a new upside-down world.

Take penal policy. I am tough on crime, as well as tough on the causes of crime.

What I could guarantee as a Minister is that whatever we did on crime and disorder as a Government, the then Conservative Opposition would shout ‘Not tough enough’.

Two years ago a national newspaper published photographs of long-term female prisoners at Holloway Prison performing in a fancy-dress show. A number of the prisoners were dressed a devils and vampires.

Some of these same prisoners were on life sentences for murder.

Understandably their bereaved victims were deeply offended by what they saw.

The newspapers called for a change in policy. They were backed by Conservative spokesmen.

I very rapidly changed the rules. I had no objection to prisoners taking part in drama, but I did say that there had to be a test of public acceptability.

Last week, out of the blue, the new (Conservative) Prisons Minister Crispin Blunt, evidently trying to out-liberal the Liberals, announced the repeal of my rules.

Prisoners could suit themselves in future.

I was castigated for ‘Dancing to the tune of the tabloids’.

This change lasted all of 24 hours before the Prime Minister took fright, and re-imposed my rules!

But he has not yet straightened out his Prisons Minister, or Justice Secretary, on the matter of short-term prisoners.

There are too many of them, we are told; they often go on to re-offend.

If we cut the 60,000 who receive sentences of six months or less each year we could reduce the record 85,000 in jail in England and Wales.

It’s simplistic nonsense. It’s true that 60,000 people a year are sentenced to six months or less. But precisely because their sentences are short – often very short – there’s only around 5,000 such prisoners in jail at any one time.

It’s true, too, that many go on to re-offend once they’re released. But these are the hard-core repeat offenders. All but a tiny handful – four per cent – have at least one previous conviction or caution; three-quarters have seven or more previous convictions.

So they are the people who’ve failed on community punishments, not the ones who have succeeded.

They are put inside not for trivia but for offences of domestic violence, assault on the police, robbery and such like.

But, on top of going soft on these offenders, the new Justice Ministers are talking of abolishing the ‘indeterminate sentence for public protection’ (IPP) introduced in 2003 with Conservative support, for serious repeat offenders who show no sign of reform via traditional sentences.

In one of the election Leader’s Debates, David Cameron spoke eloquently of how his mother, a JP, had felt compelled to jail such offenders, since every other thing had failed.

He was right in what he said then.

I just hope he uses a little of his summer to straighten out some of his colleagues in this very odd marriage which passes for a coalition.