Why prison works

JACK Straw is right to say that the main point of prison should be punishment.

Of course, part of the reason behind prison sentences is rehabilitation – given the levels of recidivism today, we’ve a long way to go on that score. But prison is also – I would say primarily – about punishment. 

If the level of re-offending is the basis for claims that “prison doesn’t work”, then I guess that’s true from that perspective. But in at least one very real sense, prison does work: because while you’re behind bars, you’re not selling drugs (at least not to those of us outside), you’re not stealing cars, you’re not assaulting people and you’re not breaking into other people’s homes.

I recently heard Scotland’s justice minister, Kenny MacAskill, bemoaning the fact that we had too many people in prison in Scotland and that this was unjustified because crime levels were currently low.

“Er… Kenny… there’s something you ought to know…”

There’s a reason that crime levels go down when you put more criminals behind bars. What a pity that Scotland’s justice minister (a lawyer, as if you needed to ask) doesn’t get it.



Filed under Government, Politics, Scottish Government, Society

20 responses to “Why prison works

  1. John

    What annoys me most about Labour is their blasted “early release” system.

    Granted there are not enough prison places, but they’ve had 11 years to do something about that, and their solution has been to keep people in prison for less time? What the…?

    How about thinking outside the box, and focusing on the catagory of offenses? Keep the violent offenders and indeed anyone who poses an imminant risk to the public’s personal safety locked up, and impose harsher community punishments on the rest?

    Violent offenses will never come down unless there is minimum tarriffs. I wonder how many assaults there would be in our city centres on a saturday evening if conviction was a mandatory year imprisonment? I wonder how many burglary’s would be committed if there was a mandatory 5 year sentence for even breaking in to one house? How many people would be walking around with guns if possession was a year imprisonment? How many people would be walking around with knives if that carried a minimum sentence of a year?

    People have to be made aware that the law has teeth, which it doesn’t currently. Criminals are far too blase about spending the few months in prison. After all, what’s a few months really?

    I know of someone who has comitted two violent assaults, and got just 3 months each. Prison wasn’t too harsh on him, and the 3 months went quite quickly apparantly, so it’s not that big of a deal. He won’t think twice about lashing out again. Another victory for the criminal justice system?

    Sorry, rant over 😦

  2. Punishment and rehabilitation are inseparable.

  3. Surely the main point about Prison should be to protect society?? I can see your argument (although I don’t agree with it) if you say that punishment protects society by deterring criminals, but punishment should be a means to an end, not a ‘positive’ outcome in itself.
    I won’t be so crass and offensive to invoke your kids, and I hope (probably in vain) that nobody else will, but there’s a parallel to be made with smacking here…

  4. Johnny Norfolk

    Its just common sense and I agree with you Tom. There should rehabilitation but only after the punisment has beed served. The first 2 thirds of the sentance should be very hard work.

  5. James

    Having just flipped through the headlines of the stories in The Mail I came across two train stories which I wondered could have been influenced by a recent blog of yours.
    The first story stated that train company C2C is coating windows of certain ‘quiet’ coaches to block mobile phone signals.
    The second story concerned a passenger having to be rescued by firemen as a result of trying to retrieve his mobile phone dropped down a toilet.
    Apparently the train was delayed 2 hours whilst firemen cut away the toilet.
    Tom, in view of suggestions made in the comments of that particular blog that an effective way of dealing with those using mobiles on quiet coaches was to ‘dispose’ of their mobile down the nearest toilet, could you please confirm that you were NOT on board that train in Western France on Sunday night. 🙂

  6. My lawyer has advised me not to answer that question.

  7. davidc

    i would warm to any politician who said prison should be about revenge and retribution – even shifty straw has said that the dutt-paulkers that infest our country (both sides of the border) have gone overboard on’feeling so sorry for the criminal’ while ignoring the victims.

  8. You might like the justice minsiter to know that crime goes down when you put more people in prison, but unfortunately it’s just not true, at least over the last century.

    See http://www.parliament.uk/commons/lib/research/rp99/rp99-111.pdf (graphs on pages 14 and 15)

    (Hat Tip Red Deathy over at Dave’s Part)

  9. ani

    John mentions early release.
    I understood that to mean 14 -18 days before the end of the sentence, which I would have thought was insignificant.
    Can you confirm that? Or not.

  10. Brian Hall

    I know how we can get more prison places. Take back the playstations and the TV’s available to prisoners and sell them. May even lower the deficit!

  11. Indy

    I would be frightened if I thought you actually believed that the reason there are more people in prison now than at any time in recorded history is because crime is falling.

  12. joe bonanno

    Wow – take the donkey ears off and put them back in the attic (for today at least).

    Amazing that you should be congratulated for stating the bleeding obvious. Make this man Home Secretary (or whatever it’s called this week) or cross the floor while you’re still allowed on the floor.

    As a measure of the absolute lunacy of crime and punishment in this country try

    a) putting your parking ticket (which you’ve paid for) on your car window upside down and

    b) carry a 9 inch Rambo knife in your jacket on a Friday night,

    and see which carries the greater penalty.

    That’s your government for you.

  13. joe bonanno

    ps what in God’s earth is a dutt-paulker? (cf David C)

    And don’t say ‘google it’ – it defeated google.

  14. davidc

    mrs dutt -paulker was a character created by beachcomber, who spent her time wringing her hands and tearing up tissues and being totally ineffectual when dealing with life the universe and everything , what we would refer to these days as a guardianista

    mrs jellaby was a fore runner

  15. davidc

    joe bonanno – mrs dutt- paulker was a characture who appeared in the beachcomber column which was a feature of the daily express years ago (showing my age)

    she spent all her time tearing up tissues , wringing her hands and generally bemoaning the way in which the rest of the world did not share her tolerance and understanding of those who had transgressed.

    these days she would appear in the guardian – actually i think she does but not in fictional guise.

  16. Ah, the prophylaxis debate. You know, if you shot everyone who might commit a crime there would be no crime at all.

    Alternatively, perhaps we could start treating those who need treatment?

    Perhaps we could address a few of the social issues?

    I love the faux naivety that those in prison are cut off from crime – apparently ignoring fairly recent court cases.

    If you’re not careful you’ll end up a Minister …

  17. joe bonanno

    Thanks for that davidc – (both of you ;-).

    A slight mis-spelling which was why google couldn’t find her. Personally I think that Bert Brecht Ho Che Banana should live on – I await my call from the Express.

    As one of the greatest humorists of the 20th century, Michael Wharton, who died yesterday, constructed a parallel universe, more frightening and therefore even funnier than the so-called real world that it reflected week by week in a distorted mirror.

    In the 49 years that he wrote the Peter Simple column in The Daily Telegraph, his invented characters seemed to take on greater reality than the politicians, writers and busybodies he satirised.

    His anger against idiocies – town planners, trendy bishops, Marxist feminists, the race relations industry – may have been in the fiercely conservative vein of Jonathan Swift. But his fantasy followed the rare exemplar of Myles na Gopaleen, the Irish Times columnist, better known as Flann O’Brien, the author of At Swim-Two-Birds, whose real name was Brian O’Nolan.

    Wharton’s own alternative world was larger even than his cast of comic characters, drawn by Michael ffolkes: Alderman Foodbotham, “the perpetual chairman of the Bradford City Tramways and Fine Arts Committee”; Mrs Dutt-Pauker, the Hampstead thinker, her daughter Deirdre, Bert Brecht Ho Che Banana, Deirdre’s bearded little activist son, and Gjoq, the Albanian au pair; or Dr Heinz (“We are all guilty”) Kiosk.

  18. James

    Just read in the Telegraph that criminals on probation have committed more than 120 murders.


  19. Alan

    Hopefully it’s of some comfort to you that respectable sources such as “The Sun” Newspaper completely agree with you whereas 99.9% of academics in the field of criminology do not. I’m a criminology post-graduate student from Ireland and if there’s one thing I’ve learned it’s that prison does not work. Recidivism rates are 50% after 4years. If that’s not proof that prison doesn’t work then I don’t know what is.
    A logical response to this would be to increase the severity of the punishment and the harshness of conditions right? This would surely decrease the crime rate?

    The logic of this argument is undeniably attractive. By increasing the severity of the punishment, you increase the unattractive consequences of committing the crime and hence reduce the recidivism rate. This idea conforms with the idea of the Avoider class of criminal, i.e. he who balances the benefits of crime against the negative consequences. Similarly the low recidivism rates of sex-offenders who probably serve their sentence in the hardest way possible, in constant fear of attack and often in solitary confinement for their own safety would add weight to this argument.
    However evidence to the contrary is abundant. Firstly it is widely agreed that the U.S.A. have one of the most punitive regimes in the western world, with average sentence length greater than that of the UK or Ireland. However despite this, Irelands recidivism rates are roughly in line with if not lower than the U.S.A . (After 36 months, Irelands recidivism rate is 45.1% as opposed to the United States’ 52%). As the punishment inflicted on a person should be no greater than that necessary, an increase in the length of a sentence would not be of any benefit with regards to stopping a person re-offending and as such, should be avoided.
    Secondly if one looks at the recidivism rates of those sentenced to a custodial sentence in Northern Ireland, they are much higher than those who received a non-custodial sentence. (44% as opposed to 17% after 24 months).
    Thirdly if we accept the widely held principle that prison is an expensive way of making bad people worse and merely sites where “criminal values are acquired and criminal techniques are learned or polished”, then this would suggest that decreasing exposure to such an environment would be more effective at reducing the recidivism.

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