One step forward on probation, then one giant step back on jails

Published in The Guardian (January 11th, 2013)

According to the latest figures there are 83,632 locked up in English and Welsh prisons. This is an obscenely large number that should shame the nation. It is almost double the number in jail when the last Conservative prime minister took office, and more per capita than any other country in western Europe.

But believe it or not, that swollen sum marks a tiny triumph. For last year the number of people in prison fell. The fall was only slight – just under 3,000 – but it reversed a trend going back to the end of the last century. It was accompanied by a sharp fall in recorded crime in defiance of the economic downturn. Robberies, for instance, dropped more than a fifth over the last two years, and burglaries were down 13%.

You would expect the coalition to be shouting this success from the rooftops, given the paucity of things to celebrate. It could have formed the centrepiece of the mid-term review: David Cameron and Nick Clegg might have stood at their lecterns and boasted of cutting crime, cutting the numbers in jail and cutting costs for the taxpayer. A triple helping of welcome good news.

No such luck. Instead, Ken Clarke – the man who orchestrated this triumph after finding prison populations had ballooned since he last held responsibility for them under John Major – was shunted aside from the justice job. Now his successor, impervious to lessons from both abroad and his own country these past two years, has returned to the tired old mantras of tough-guy politics.

Chris Grayling, who stamped his mark on the justice department with a burst of hyperactivity this week, is planning Britain’s biggest prison – a large slab of red meat for the right. This marks a setback for Tory modernisation. I had hoped he might emulate those Republican reformers in the United States, who became fed up with wasting vast sums of taxpayers’ money locking up more and more miscreants. They declared prison a sign of failure, and in states such as Texas diverted resources into rehabilitation.

As Grayling recognises, there is plenty of evidence that prison is among the most grotesque public service failures. In England and Wales we spend £45,000 a year on each inmate, far more than the fees for a public school like Eton, yet almost half reoffend within a year of leaving the prison gates; in some jails, seven out of ten end up back behind bars. The National Audit Office estimates that the cost of reoffending by recently released prisoners could be as high as £13bn, a crude financial calculation that excludes so many stories of human misery.

So this week it was gratifying to see the justice secretary announce his genuinely held desire for a “rehabilitation revolution”. As he said, it is madness to carry on with the same old systems in the hope it might lead to different results. He plans more supervision, mentoring and help with substance abuse for short-term prisoners, who have the highest rates of recidivism. Hugging hoodies remains the right idea.

Grayling is sensibly extending payment by results – rewarding private bodies and voluntary groups able to prove they can make a difference. The probation services, while often wrongly maligned, will benefit from competition – although there are justified fears that a handful of private behemoths will sweep up the contracts while failing to improve services, as in some other parts of the public sector.

But then came today’s announcement to build a giant new prison, along with four new mini-prisons. Yes, close down those creaking Victorian prisons – but the savings should be poured into probation and rehabilitation, rather than spent on a mega-jail that will inevitably be far from many inmates’ communities, one of the key social dislocations that drives reoffending.

One step forward, one super-sized step back. So much for the coalition’s previous pledge to cut prison numbers. Now Grayling says he does not aim to shrink prison places; instead it is a return to the ridiculous rhetoric that prison works, ensuring the nation blows huge sums it can ill afford on locking up people who should not be in jail.

The Ministry of Justice admits that non-custodial sentences are 9% more effective than a short-term prison sentence, while the campaign group Make Justice Work points out that a year-long intensive community sentence costs half the amount of a three-month stint in jail. In Texas, sophisticated rehabilitation services cut the proportion of low-risk offenders committing another crime within a year from one in four to one in 100 in some areas.

You can find similar incontrovertible examples from Canada to Finland, from Germany to the Netherlands. Briefly locking up the damaged, deranged, drunken and drugged members of society who commit the majority of minor offences does not solve crime; they just come out and reoffend. Shift resources from prison to modern probation methods, and you can solve some of the social problems that lie behind so many offences.

This is not soft on crime – it is smart on crime. But the coalition seems determined to undermine an unlikely success story by returning to the failed prison obsession of its predecessors. We will all suffer the consequences.

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