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No deterrent + bad at rehabilitation = poor value

man looking through the bars in prison

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Ken Clarke’s attack on the Michael Howard/New Labour bang ‘em up culture is welcome.   With currently 85,000 prisoners behind bars, by far the highest rate of detention of any country in Europe, he is right to demand alternatives.   Prison does take violent men out of circulation so as to protect the public for a time, but it is not a deterrent (i.e. not a punishment sufficient to prevent a large majority from re-criminalising after release) and it fails drastically in rehabilitation – the main effect of prison experience is to intensify criminality.

It’s obvious that prison is not a suitable repository for most prisoners.   Half of the men and three-quarters of the women have no qualifications.   Two-thirds are innumerate and half are illiterate.   Two-thirds were unemployed and one-third homeless when they were detained.   Three-quarters are either mentally ill or mentally unstable (compared with 5% in the wider population).   Over half suffered from alcohol excess or drug abuse.   And economically the system is counter-productive: it costs over £40,000 per prison place per year (over £3.2bn), while the cost of re-offending (which 60% even of short-term offenders do) is put at £11bn a year.   So what should be done? A far better alternative for the great majority – excluding violent, sexual and dangerous offenders – is community sentencing in local secure units.   Some 10% of the current prison population are women, and the overwhelming majority would be better managed and treated in such local community units.   Short-term prisoners (i.e. those with a sentence of less than 6 months) would also be far better rehabilitated if their links with the community were preserved.

But none of this means that those who do have to be held in prison to protect the public should be consigned to detention oblivion.   Their smaller numbers and longer sentences make possible a much more robust programme of rehabilitation.   That should include individual and group therapy, having to face and listen to the victim (if the victim wishes it), getting basic (or higher) education, learning a trade, and having to work for a low wage where 90% is then transferred to pay back the victim, his or her family, and society.

But Ken Clarke still faces huge problems in driving through any such reforms.   The public (excluding the Daily Mail which is perverse and incorrigible) have to be won over to the idea of community secure units.   Housing and jobs are needed to re-integrate into society those released from detention, but current policy is going backwards on both these fronts – unemployment set to rise by 1.3m over the next 5 years and the lowest house-build this year since 1923.    And most problematic of all, how do we stop (or, more realistically, significantly reduce) offending in the first place, let alone the constant recidivism once the prison cycle has started?   We are back to the most fundamental problem of all in modern societies – integrating an alienated under-class into accepting that they have better prospects and rewards from joining society rather than pillaging it.

An alternative view from Labour’s front bench spokesperson may be found in the Daily Mail.

"I let 80,000 criminals out early vote for me" with a picture of gordon brown

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