Peter Cuthbertson is the Director of the Centre for Crime Prevention.
Writing for ConservativeHome last week, Nadhim Zahawi MP made some solid points.
While the prison budget is a tiny part of overall government spending, Zahawi is right that the actual cost per inmate is too high. The government is thankfully already pursuing ways to reduce this cost by replacing the older, smaller prisons. Some large private prisons have a cost per inmate around two thirds cheaper than the average.
Likewise, few would disagree that rehabilitation within prisons is a worthwhile objective. Indeed, stiff prison sentences themselves have a role to play in rehabilitation – or at least frightening criminals away from crime. As one policeman puts it:
“If you have someone in custody who is facing a proper sentence, they change. Suddenly, they want to talk to you and grass their mates up, suddenly they want a lawyer, suddenly they need consultations for hours, suddenly they are in tears and want to see their family, suddenly they are asking their missus to bring in their favourite pictures of the kids. They are calling you Sir and smoking 20 fags an hour. When you have the same men in for a summary-only offence (only triable before the magistrates, with no custodial sentences beyond six months and terms that long an extreme rarity), they’re sneering and swaggering and hoping the police officers and their families all die of cancer.”
The data bears this out. It’s not just that prison protects the public for the duration of the sentence. The longer the prison sentence, the lower the reoffending rate after release, too. This is quite starting given that stiffer sentences go to more serious offenders.
But Zahawi should be cautious about any suggestion that this government is overseeing overly harsh sentencing, or that large numbers of people who are no great risk to public safety go to prison. Nothing could be further from the truth.
He writes that: "When our house is burgled and we see the culprit get three years instead of the 50 that we would have seen them get for violating our home, it leaves us fuming."
This implies that burglars usually get three years. But in fact, fully half of all those convicted or cautioned for burglary got a non-custodial sentence in 2014. Of the other half, only 13.4% got a prison sentence of three years or more. Burglars were actually more likely to get a caution (1,418 cases) than a prison sentence of three years or more (1,289 cases)!
Zahawi goes on to write that: "[M]ost people in prison in the UK are not there for the heinous acts that inspire lurid headlines. Every three months, around 10,000 people are sent to prison on short sentences of less than 12 months."
But just because someone gets a prison sentence of less than 12 months hardly means they are no real threat to public safety. It may just imply that prison sentences are too short.
The 2014 data is clear. Of all those in prison, only 8.4% were there for a first offence and that includes people inside for very serious first offences. 49.7% of all prisoners had committed at least 15 previous offences. Is that because everyone with 15 previous offences goes to prison? No. In fact, more than 61% of people who appeared before the courts with 15 previous convictions or cautions got a non-custodial sentence.
If you find these figures shocking and counter-intuitive, you aren’t alone. There are lots of people who innocently ask: "Can't we reserve prison for serious, repeat offenders and give the minor and first time offenders a second chance before we bang them up?". But as Nick Herbert MP likes to put it, the only factually accurate response to this is: "That's exactly what already happens".
Most people are shocked when they see the data on how many serious offences the typical criminal needs to commit before they first end up in prison. By the time someone goes to prison for the first time, they tend to have a string of previous convictions and cautions, community sentences and fines and so on.
Even people convicted of multiple serious offences find the courts bend over backwards to avoid sending them to prison. In a single twelve month period, there were over 29,000 cases of criminals avoiding prison despite 25 or more previous convictions.
The fallacy that sentencing is overly harsh doesn’t emerge from a vacuum. Ever since Michael Howard began to drive down crime rates by locking up more and more serious, repeat offenders, very well-funded anti-prison lobby groups and rehabilitation charities have waged war on this method of protecting the public. For decades they have beavered away, painting a false picture of a country obsessed with banging up largely harmless people. If the very rare harsh sentence helps their case, they milk it for all it is worth, pretending it is typical.
But prisons are almost empty of first time, minor offenders. They are full of tens of thousands of serious, repeat offenders.
Like Zahawi, I think we should continue to experiment with different ways to rehabilitate these serious, repeat offenders once they are in prison. But the system already makes almost endless efforts at rehabilitation, both inside and outside of prison. If some choose to go on committing lots of crimes, it isn't for want of effort to rehabilitate them.
The question is really what happens to those who continue to be a threat to the public. If you want to cut prison numbers in any noticeable way, there just aren't enough first time or minor offenders to do it. So you must turn immediately to the serious, repeat offenders. But given that only 39% of people with 15 or more prior convictions go to prison as it is, how much further can we realistically go? Only 20% of them going to prison? 10%?
So yes, we can all hope for and work towards a mass rehabilitation revolution.
But we have no good reason for thinking prison is overused.