Wednesday, March 25, 2009

How Many Prisoners in Jail is Enough?

Incarceration rates have been increasing in several western countries for the last few decades. Politicians in the UK are planning for another 5000 prison places (2008/9). Where will it end? What proportion of young males do we want to see in jail? There are other options.

While 'zero tolerance' may have reduced personal and property crime in the USA, it roughly doubled the prison population. Society becomes less secure, and nastier, as the cycle of offending and criminal justice goes on, while prisoner numbers continue to rise.

Approximately 1 out of 75 males of all ages in the USA are in jail (derived from DoJ) - and 1 out of 10 young males in some minority groups (mainly blacks). This proportion would be equivalent to 300,000 male prisoners in the UK - 4 times more than at present.

Should we simply jail all delinquents (the vast majority males) from the age of 17 to 35? This might equate to a prison population of 750,000 in the UK. Surely not - there are other options that are more efficient, and more humane and friendly.

Within a few years the vast majority of offenders are released (average jail sentences are much less than 2 years) - bringing with them bitterness at their treatment, and crime skills acquired in jail. Are we simply going to carry on locking up ever greater numbers of young men, and putting up with a more and more dysfunctional society?

There are better ways. In Iceland there were only 115 prisoners out of a population of 300,000 - or 1 out of 1,300 males in jail (OECD, 2006). At that sort level of crime it would be feasible to 'micro-manage' each offender with social workers (or community enforcer/motivators). Such a society would be a much nicer place to live than one where you have to lock up 1 out of 75 just to keep a lid on high rates of crime. Micro-management would be feasible in a service economy and, with less crime, would be cheaper than locking up so many.

It would be very cost-effective to address the motivations for crime, and lack of cohesive (efficacious) communities around the world, rather than massive expenditure on crime and 'criminal justice'. And, a lot could be done by correcting misapprehensions, lack of education, or opportunities, and gross inequalities.

Societies that succeed in reducing crime, rather than punishing ever more offenders, will be nicer ones to be part of (and much more humane).