The case for the prosecution

16 min read

By Richard Tomkins
Published: May 18 2007 18:49 | FT.com

“Come on, how much do you make? Do you make ₤60,000 a year? Do you? Do you?” The prisoner is insistent, but he is trying to make a point. John (not his real name) is serving a three-month sentence at High Down prison just outside Sutton, south London, for an elaborate form of shoplifting: buying expensive goods, taking them home, going back to the shop with the receipt, picking identical items off the shelves and taking them to the customer service desk for a refund.

His point is that the roughly ₤60,000 a year he makes is more than he could earn from a legitimate occupation. A spell in prison is just an occupational hazard, he says; you rarely get caught, and if you do, the sentence is short.

Does prison work? It depends what you mean, says John. “Does it protect the public? Yes. Does it reform the offender? No. Does it deter people from committing crime? No.” Oh well, score one out of three for the system.

In England and Wales, the prison population has shot up from 45,000 to 80,000 since 1993. There are more people in prison than at any time in history. The Home Office predicts a rise to 90,000 and possibly to 106,000 over the next six years.

This presents the immediate problem of how to accommodate the extra prisoners. But beyond that, a more puzzling question arises. Britain is one of the richest countries on earth. Its citizens have enjoyed decades of peace and prosperity. Why, then, when we have never had it so good, are we locking up so many people?

The most obvious reason is that crime has soared since the second world war. In the early 1950s, the police were recording around 500,000 offences a year. By the early 1990s, that figure was above 5 million a year – an increase far too large to be explained by changes in recording practices or an increase in people’s propensity to report crime.

But why has crime risen so sharply? In search of an answer, I met Tim Newburn, president of the British Society of Criminology. In the senior common room at the London School of Economics, where he is a professor of criminology, he uttered the words no journalist wants to hear: “The answer’s terribly, terribly complicated.”

Since the 1950s, Newburn said, a boom in consumption had produced an enormous increase in the supply of goods for stealing. As he pointed out: “We now live in a world where a huge number of offences are to do with taking cars, or taking from cars; offences that didn’t previously exist.”

Second, said Newburn, blame the police. “If you increase police numbers, you increase crime. That is to say, the more cops you have whose job it is to record crime, the more crime you’ll record.” Since 1950 police numbers have grown from 62,000 to 140,000 and officers spend much more time filing reports when they would previously have been out patrolling the streets.

Third, “drugs and alcohol, certainly since the 1970s and 1980s, have started to play a more substantial role in both violent and acquisitive crimes”. Fourth, “there is some degree to which crime is a reflection of our socio-economic circumstances, specifically the gap between the very poorest and the rest of us.”

Lastly, said Newburn, came the decline in informal social control. In the 1950s, youngsters were rarely without adult supervision during the day. Mothers were at home and the streets were busy with delivery people and door-to-door salesmen. There were also people doing “secondary social control” jobs such as park keepers, bus conductors and caretakers. “That whole level of the informal neighbourhood watch has disappeared, and we’re now replacing it with CCTV, private security guards, gated communities, barbed wire and all the other accoutrements of modern, formalised, social control.”

Convincing as these explanations may be, there is just one problem. Although crime remains historically high, it hit a peak in 1995 and has since declined – by 44 per cent, if you take the total number of offences per year picked up by the British Crime Survey. So if there were good reasons why it was rising, I asked Newburn, why was it now coming back down?

“Well, I think, again, it’s for a number of reasons,” he replied. Then: “You’ll never get a straightforward answer out of a social scientist,” he added, apologetically.

This time, his list embraced government efforts to reduce the gap between the very poorest and the rest of society; greater police effectiveness, for example in cracking down on high crime areas; programmes to help drug users; “and fourthly, although I don’t think it’s in any way the major factor, imprisonment. I don’t think you can lock up an extra 35,000 people [since 1993] and have no impact on crime at all.”

So, we come back to imprisonment. But now we have a paradox. Crime is falling, yet we are locking more people up. Why?

The answer is, until the 1990s, post-war governments had resigned themselves to the inevitability of rising crime. But in 1993, Michael Howard, then Conservative home secretary, launched a get-tough policy summed up by the catchphrase “prison works”. At the same time Tony Blair, shadow home secretary, was trying to reposition Labour as the party of law and order under the mantra “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”. Competitive punitiveness began, and has continued ever since.

One result is that, with 148 prisoners for every 100,000 inhabitants, we have a higher proportion of the population locked up than any large western European country (the United States has 748 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants – the world’s highest rate). France has just 85 prisoners per 100,000 of population.

Does this high imprisonment rate make any sense? I decided to ask David Green, director of the think-tank Civitas and an outspoken supporter of the “prison works” approach. Green said he saw no incongruity between rising rates of imprisonment and falling crime. Rather, crime was falling because more criminals were being locked up.

A few years ago, Green said, Home Office researchers asked offenders being admitted to prison how many crimes they had committed in the preceding year. The average was 140. At that rate, Green said, by putting away an extra 35,000 prisoners, you would expect to save 4.9 million crimes a year. Sure enough, crimes recorded by the British Crime Survey declined from 18.5 million in 1993 to just under 11 million in the most recent year. “So a large part of that is accounted for by incarcerating people who would otherwise have been committing offences. And we could get crime a lot lower if we put a lot more of them in prison.”

So was that the answer to crime: simply bang up more and more people until the problem went away? No; that was only part of it, said Green. The reason most people did not commit crime was because they had been brought up to believe it was wrong. But many youngsters were now being brought up without that moral guidance, and for this he blamed the breakdown of the family, which left a large number of young men being brought up with no father in the home.

He elaborated: “If I am asked to put forward a theory, it’s a combination of things. It’s getting the primary socialisation right, then it’s getting all the responsible adults in society conveying the right moral messages: that certain things are right and certain things are wrong. And that’s got to be backed up by the system of punishment. Punishment is not just about punishment itself; it’s moral reaffirmation. It’s confirmation that society is serious about certain rules.”

I left Green’s home feeling in need of an antidote to his uncompromising talk. I found it a couple of days later at the headquarters of the Prison Reform Trust in Clerkenwell, central London, where I met Juliet Lyon, the charity’s director.

If Green stood for “prison works”, Lyon stood for the opposite. Obviously, the public needed to be protected from the most serious and violent offenders, she said; but far from using prison as a last resort, Britain was using it as a social dustbin. “A very high proportion of prisoners have been in care. You’ll see people from fractured families, people who have suffered abuse, people who suffer from severe mental illness and people who suffer from addiction. And very often it’s a combination of these factors, so for example if you’re dealing with mental health you’ll have a dual diagnosis – someone who’s addicted to class-A drugs but who also has a psychotic illness.”

The evidence that prison did not work, Lyon said, lay in the “diabolical” reconviction rates of those coming out of prison. (Nearly 65 per cent of prisoners released are reconvicted within two years.) “Once someone’s been inside, it confirms them in a criminal identity in a way that nothing else appears to. They are ex-prisoners and they will carry that experience with them from then on,” she said.

“Prison is certainly holding people away from the streets but when they’re going out they’re offending again in droves, far worse than they’ve ever done, and that’s the bit that’s not put into the pot.”

And the alternative? If people were mentally ill, Lyon said, or addicted to drink or drugs, they should be given treatment. As for those “often streetwise but often developmentally delayed young men who commit strings of offences, you need something very different, I think: very strong supervision in the community, directing people into training and employment, getting them to a pitch where they can stand on their own two feet in a way that doesn’t involve crime; helping them unhook from their mates who are all part of the same picture”.

I was probably still nodding in agreement when I arrived back at the office; but then, something unexpected happened. I had heard about an anonymous police officer calling himself PC David Copperfield who was keeping a blog, purporting to expose life in the police force. The blog’s highlights had been published in a book called Wasting Police Time: The Crazy World of the War on Crime (Monday Books), and as I leafed through it, one passage in particular caught my eye. It was about “nominals” – police-speak for repeat offenders.

“On the walls of our parade room are photographs of around 15 key criminals,” Copperfield writes – “hopeless local scrotes who spend as much time with us as they do with anyone else apart from their dealers.” All were male, in their late teens or early 20s, all were taking heroin and/or crack cocaine – and all had long criminal records.

Essentially, the same faces were up there year after year, Copperfield said. One face might disappear when its owner went to prison for a few months, and occasionally a nominal might overdose or move away or be sent to prison for a long time, only to be replaced by another. But for the most part, police officers spent their careers staring at the same faces.

“That may explain why police officers don’t make particularly enthusiastic penal reformers,” Copperfield said. “In our experience, when these people are in prison, they aren’t doing any harm. When they’re not in prison, they’re stealing, mugging, assaulting or defrauding.” So prison was the only answer for hardcore, repeat offenders who committed the vast majority of acquisitive crime in the area.

If all 15 “nominals” were incarcerated for 10 years for their next offence, Copperfield said, the local crime rate would halve. Eventually, more criminals would take their place, but they would simply be locked up too. The quality of life locally would improve, because prolific criminals were responsible not just for burglary and mugging but for playing loud music, dropping litter and scrawling graffiti. “That’s the thing about prison. Dramatic effects can be seen almost immediately: crime drops in the area around where the offender lives and the longer the prison sentence, the longer the drop in crime.”

The reason this passage brought me up short was that it forced me to consider the competing interests of the criminals and their victims. Did not the rights of the victims trump our compassion for the criminals? More and longer prison sentences might do little to deter or reform, but as long as the offenders were inside, they would be prevented from making life a misery for the law-abiding majority.

Still, if you are going to talk about imprisonment, you ought to visit a prison. So, I arranged to visit High Down, the prison in which I met “John”. A modern prison built in the 1990s, High Down turned out to be not at all the gloomy, intimidating place I had imagined, but bright, clean and airy. I arrived during association, the time of day when the cell doors were open and prisoners were allowed to wander around the wings chatting or using the games tables on the landings. They seemed on friendly terms with each other and the staff. Most surprising at all, at least to me, was that about 30 per cent of the prison officers were women.

High Down serves the courts in south London and Surrey, holding defendants on remand and acting as a clearing house for those sent down. Only those with the shortest sentences serve them there; the rest are sent to long-term prisons, known as training prisons, which have better facilities for work and education.

Even so, drink and drug addicts are placed on detoxification programmes when they arrive at High Down and those with mental disorders are placed in a separate medical facility where they receive professional care. There are numeracy and literacy classes and courses leading to vocational qualifications. There is a library and a gym and most prisoners get the opportunity to work (at cleaning or decorating jobs, for example) for a small wage.

“Above all, we’re trying to handle prisoners in a way that’s decent and reasonable,” Phil Wheatley, director general of the Prison Service, told me when he came to meet me at High Down. “If you antagonise people and treat them badly, you can produce lots of friction which not only makes running a prison more difficult but also sends people out bristling with hate for the system – and that’s not going to make them go straight, it’s obvious.”

Had prison become a social dustbin, as the Prison Reform Trust claimed? Peter Dawson, High Down’s governor, said about 90 per cent of the prisoners had used drugs in the weeks before they were admitted and probably 75 to 80 per cent of them had a drug problem that they needed to address if they were going to desist from crime. Others suffered from mental illness but in many cases this was associated with drug misuse, giving rise to the dual diagnosis that Lyon had spoken of. However, it was another thing to suggest these people belonged somewhere other than prison, Dawson said. These were people with serious drug problems who had not volunteered for treatment and who were, after all, convicted criminals. There was no other institution where they could be compulsorily detained while they were offered treatment, and “to be honest, if you tried to invent such an institution, you’d probably end up with something that didn’t look very different from this.”

And did prison work? Clearly, it provided protection for the public, Wheatley said. And with the extra resources prisons had been given in recent years, they were now achieving a small but measurable therapeutic effect with the longer-serving prisoners, meaning reconviction rates were running at a lower rate than the statistical model predicted. However, the statistics showed no treatment effect for sentences of less than a year. “Short sentences disrupt people’s home lives, they stop them keeping the job they had, and by the way, people often come out saying that they’re now jack-the-lad because they’ve been inside.”

After this glimpse behind bars, there was one more person I wanted to talk to about crime, and I found him, retired and living in west London. He was Robin Marris, an economist who, with a firm called Volterra Consulting, was retained by the Home Office in the late 1990s to carry out the most comprehensive study yet of the available research on crime and its causes. (The Home Office published the results in December 2000.)

Sitting at his kitchen table, I asked Marris what this study revealed. His answer, summed up, was this:

Most crime is committed by a revolving gang of about 100,000 young males aged 10 to 35 but heavily concentrated in the 18-25 band. Although the police solve only a small proportion of crimes, those joining the gang commit so many offences that in any two-year period, they are likely to be caught. If sent to prison, they serve a short stretch, get out, rejoin the gang and continue to revolve through the system until they eventually desist from crime altogether, their place in the gang being taken by a newcomer.

The highest “risk factor” for young men is a poor home, where there are three or more children and where the natural father has been replaced by another male (the risk is higher because he distracts the mother from parenting). “Poor lone mothers with small families often do well, but if they have three or more children, especially boys, they have difficulty in preventing at least one of them from going astray,” Marris said.

Another risk factor is low educational achievement; boys doing badly at school bunk off, once on the streets they meet criminals and, having nothing better to do with their time, join them.

Finally, the number of crimes that active criminals commit depends on four factors: the value of goods available to be stolen, which rises with gross domestic product; whether the criminal can earn more by stealing these goods than he can in the job market (almost a given, if he has poor earning prospects); the security measures taken to protect these goods; and the chances of being caught. From this, Marris concludes that as GDP grows, crime will rise with it (though not necessarily violent crime such as street brawling and domestic violence, which have been shown to track the level of beer consumption). This will hold true unless two things happen: first, police numbers rise faster than GDP, and second, the income level of the least well-off rises faster than the national average.

So, I asked Marris, would putting more people in prison reduce crime? If more police caught more criminals, he replied, that would produce a number of people who had to go to prison. “And that number, in a society that can’t solve all of its problems, including its drug problems, its poverty problems, its low intelligence problems and so forth – that number may be an increasing number. Therefore, we may need to build more prisons. In fact, I’m pretty sure we do.”

Disappointingly, it seems, crime will always be with us. All we can do as a society is choose what level of crime we find acceptable. To judge from the public mood, present-day levels are too high: significantly, in February, a United Nations survey showed that Britain had the highest rates of assault and burglary in the EU and that other common crimes were way above the EU average.

Can we reduce the supply of criminals? Social change affects crime levels but you cannot bring back the 1950s, nor can you force people to be good parents or live in happy families. The government is working hard to alleviate relative poverty but so long as there is a social heap, there will always be people at the bottom of it.

It is also difficult to increase the rate at which criminals permanently desist. Most criminals quit because they tire of crime, not because they have been reformed by the system. Of course, many people steal (or engage in prostitution) to support a drug habit, and a proportion of these would desist if hard drugs were legalised. The government, however, regards discussion of this subject as taboo.

Probably, then, the biggest opportunity for reducing crime lies in reducing the number of crimes that active criminals commit. One way of doing this is to make crime more difficult, by increasing security; another is to make it more risky, by increasing the number of visible police; and the third is to incapacitate as many active criminals as possible, by locking them up in prison.

I think we should be doing all three, which to an extent we are. But – and I never thought I would say this – I think we could go further. If, like Copperfield’s “nominals”, criminals persistently re-offend, turning down all offers of help and all opportunities to reform, then, for the sake of their victims, they need to be incapacitated for a period of years, during which, properly accommodated in comfortable conditions, they should receive education and training that will equip them for a better life when they come out.

Perhaps I am wrong. Perhaps high rates of imprisonment do not reduce crime. But if you believed that, you would also have to believe that letting out the 35,000 extra criminals imprisoned since 1993 would have no effect on the crime rate. It would be a fascinating social experiment, but would anyone want to try it?