MORE THAN 4000 criminal offences have been created since 1997,
three-quarters of them potentially imprisonable. Sentences also
keep getting longer. Once again, we approach Prisons Week (17-23
November) with a prison population close to the 86,000 maximum
We know the harmful effects, especially of short sentences; so
it makes no sense to persist with this policy. This is a world-wide
failure. The International Centre for Prison Studies regularly
reports overcrowding and appalling conditions in every
In the UK, punishment heads the list of the purposes of
sentencing, even for community sentences. Presumably ministers
either believe that it works, or that the electorate wants it,
despite research funded by the Ministry of Justice suggesting that
81 per cent of victims of non-violent crime would prefer an
offender to receive an effective sentence rather than a harsh one.
A similar proportion would favour community sentences, if they
The reason for creating more and more imprisonable offences
seems to be something like this. An offence hits the headlines,
such as knife crime, or fraud by welfare claimants or bankers.
"Something must be done," goes the cry.
The easiest "something" is to increase the maximum penalty.
Later, more appropriate preventative measures are introduced, such
as stop-and-search, identity checks, stronger regulation, and
(easier said than done) changing the culture. Some of these are
effective, but people assume that the penalties, not the
preventative measures, are responsible for any improvement.
Imprisonment generally makes things worse. The Prison Reform
Trust's Prison Factfile (December 2012) shows that 47 per
cent of adults are reconvicted within one year of release, and more
of those with sentences under 12 months (57.6 per cent), young
offenders (71 per cent for ten- to 17-year-olds), and those who
have been in prison before (76.4 per cent with 11 or more previous
sentences); but eight per cent fewer of those given community
sentences than similar offenders imprisoned for less than 12
Plans for massive prisons, such as the 2000-place institution
proposed at Wrexham, mean that more prisoners will be held far from
home, which will make it difficult to keep contact with families
and friends. Few prisoners have work inside (averaging 11.8 hours
per week in 2009-10), education (82 per cent are at or below GCSE
grades D to G in writing), or treatment (three-quarters of mentally
disordered prisoners are returned to the community with no
appointment with outside carers).
Many prisoners have been taken into care (24 per cent) or
experienced abuse as a child (29 per cent), and have no
qualifications (47 per cent). Locking them up far from home, with
little to do, and a stigma when they come out, is hardly likely to
help them to stop reoffending, although 97 per cent of them say
that they want to.
Once a court decides that the offence is so serious that prison
is necessary, the length of prison sentences is determined on the
basis of an arbitrary attempt to ask "How bad was the crime?", and
translate this into a period of time. So the Sentencing Council
guidelines give a range within which a sentence may be increased or
reduced because of aggravating or mitigating factors. These
periods, however, have little relevance to what is needed to
(re-)habilitate people from (mainly deprived) backgrounds with all
sorts of needs.
We need to ask different questions: how to make things better
for this victim (by the offender or the community); how to
encourage this offender not to harm anyone else; and how to
reassure the victim and the public that enough is being done.
Traditional questions are "Which law was broken? How much should
the offender be blamed? What should the punishment be?" They focus
on the offender. But making things worse for offenders does not
make things better for victims.
Instead, we can begin with the victim, by asking: "What
happened? Who was affected? What needs to be done to make things
better?" The offender should be held accountable and make amends;
but the community has to enable him or her to do better. Meeting
victims (if they are willing) to hear first-hand the effects of the
crime is one way; it might also make more impression on some
white-collar offenders in their remote offices.
WE NEED to avoid criticism of the "Jail let-off for shoplifters
if they apologise" variety (as The Sun put it on 2 March
2011). We all, including victims, need to feel that this "something
that must be done" shows enough concern. One way is by taking away
people's liberty, but purposefully: by requiring them to work and
attend programmes in the community in their own time, not by
warehousing them in institutions that do more harm than good.
Second, people naturally feel that wrongdoers should experience
pain; accepting responsibility for causing harm to others is
painful, but in a restorative way, and allows them to earn
redemption by making amends.
Third, imprisonment is not excluded in certain cases if we have
a clearer idea of what it is for: to enforce community-based
programmes if offenders do not co-operate, or for public protection
if there is a risk of serious re-offending. Where some crimes are
concerned, it may be appropriate to remove the perpetrator from the
community for a time to take stock. But these should be prison's
primary purposes, not by-products achieved in spite of the
Last, both conventional and restorative justice theories lack
the idea of feedback. The factors in the lives of offenders which
led them to commit crimes should be studied more by policy-makers
and community leaders.
We have created the pressures of an increasingly unequal
society, cut back on care for the weak, and failed to educate the
privileged about their responsibilities to the less fortunate. If
we cause our brothers and sisters to stumble, they are crushed for
Dr Martin Wright is joint editor of Civilising Criminal
Justice (Waterside Press, 2013), and a former director of the
Howard League for Penal Reform.