Professor Carol Hedderman, Professor of Criminology, University of Leicester:
Prison punishes effectively, but if we want to reform people who offend, and thereby reduce the number of victims, we should stop sending so many of them to prison.
I accept that there are dangerous people who commit terrible crimes and that, however imperfectly they deal with such people, prisons are needed to isolate such people from the rest of us. But those sorts of people and the sorts of crime they commit are thankfully rare in this country. They are not the people filling our prisons.
I also accept that most of those serving long prison sentences are doing so because we not only want to keep them out of circulation but also want to express our outrage and condemnation by punishing them in this way. But it is important to understand that while prison may express our disapproval and may punish effectively, it has an extremely poor record when it comes to stopping people offending again.
Perhaps if we made prisons tougher, it would have the desired effect? I do not think so, but even if it did we cannot afford to make prison conditions worse for two other reasons. First, prisons only run with current staffing levels because most prisoners cooperate. Prisoners are not given TVs in their cells because prison governors are soft but because it is cheaper to spend £100 on a TV than many thousand on an extra officer. Second, we know that the majority of those in prison are suffering from a mental illness, they are 13 times more likely to have been in care, and most cannot read and write as well as an 11 year old. I am not seeking sympathy for them or trying to excuse what they have done, I am simply questioning whether inflicting more suffering on such people is morally defensible. As Winston Churchill said almost exactly 100 years ago, how we respond to those who offend “is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country”.
Of course, you can always find one prisoner who says either that prison was easy or that it transformed their lives for the better. Equally, you can always find one 98 year old who ascribes their long life to smoking 60 a day. Such individual stories are a poor basis for working out how well prison or smoking works out for most people. Indeed, when it comes to those serving sentences of less than a year, reconviction rates seem to suggest that short prison sentences actively make people worse. This is partly because those on short sentences stay inside just long enough to lose their jobs, their homes and their family ties; and partly because they get no official help from probation on release. This is a recipe for promoting, not reducing, reoffending and creating, not preventing, fresh victims.
We are paying a very high financial price for this too. It costs about 10 times more to keep someone in prison for a year as it does for Probation to supervise them. This might be justified if prison was 10 times, or even twice as effective, but it is not. Comparing like-for-like people, a recent government study has shown probation is at least 7% more effective in reducing reconvictions. And when you look at reoffending rates over time you discover that short sentence reoffending rates have gone up while probation’s have remained stable.
So am I just an uncritical advocate of probation? I certainly think it offers a more effective and cheaper way of stopping most of those on short sentences from reoffending. And probation can certainly be hard work, demanding and uncomfortable. But it is not in the same league as prison if its punishment you want. So the question is should we punish or reform, because it’s a con trick to suggest that either prison or probation is good at doing both.
Carol Hedderman, BA (Hons), M. Phil (Cantab), PhD (Cantab) was appointed Professor of Criminology at the University of Leicester in October 2004. Her research interests include the effectiveness of sentencing; ‘rational’ approaches to sentencing; the comparative effectiveness of different approaches to enforcing court penalties; and the broad question of ‘what works’ in prison and probation.
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