Late in the evening

I agree with Ken Clarke, up to a point. A prison sentence is a bad thing to inflict on anyone, and one which often has bad effects on the lives of those who suffer it; the government’s priorities should be to maximise the chances of good outcomes, through education and training opportunities, and to minimise the number of people who go to prison in the first place. If that’s what Ken Clarke is saying, then I’m with Ken Clarke. I’ll add that our government should follow the Scots in abolishing short sentences, many of which only last long enough to disrupt offenders’ lives and exacerbate the problems they already have; and they should certainly abolish the monstrosity of Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection. It seems strange to place any hope for liberal reform in a Tory government, but – sadly – not as strange as it would have been to place those hopes in New Labour. (Incidentally, isn’t it funny the way we’re not talking about the crucial moderate and liberal influence being exerted by the Lib Dems? Yellow Tories, now and forever.)

So I’m a bit wary of Dave’s Conservative contradictions on crime and punishment. He’s certainly right about the contradiction between Clarke’s decarceral rhetoric and policies which will cut both welfare and jobs; Tory social policy is going to make for a landscape of unparallelled bleakness for the released ex-offender to return to. I’m just not sure that this tells against Clarke in the way Dave seems to think. I’m also concerned about a rather dodgy bit of cost-benefit analysis which Dave quotes, apparently approvingly. Dave:

Several academics – such as Prof. Malcolm Davies – have come forward to suggest that actually leaving potential re-offenders at large (and even with continuing educational measures, reoffending jumped by 8% from 2006-8) costs more than prison.

I don’t know about ‘several’ (more than two?) but here’s Davies.

Prof Malcolm Davies, from Thames Valley University’s law school, said sending criminals to jail was often the cheapest option.

“It costs a lot more to have persistent offenders out on the street,” he told the BBC.

“If you add in the full cost, other than sending to people to prison, which is the processing of the police, the prosecution time, the cost to insurance, the cost and trauma to victims.”

(BBC News story, but taken from an aggregator – the current version of the story doesn’t include the Davies quote.)

This poses two questions. Firstly, can it possibly be true? Secondly, would we want to act on it even if it was? The reoffending rate for released prisoners currently stands at 70%, up from 50% when Michael Howard took over as Home Secretary from Ken Clarke (for it is he); it’s reasonable to assume that this increase has something to do with the change in prison regimes brought about by Howard, for whom prison was all about locking up the bad men and not so much about education and training. But let’s assume that Clarke only manages to make a small dent in the reoffending rate, and it goes down to 66%. Then let’s assume that the aggregate cost of their offending is 1.6 times what it would have cost to keep them inside. So keeping all of them inside would be cheaper than letting them out. Of course, releasing the 34% who aren’t going to reoffend would be cheaper still, but unfortunately we can’t know who they are in advance, so we’re a bit stuck. So the only revenue-neutral option is to do a Minority Report on the 66%, incarcerating them in advance of the crimes they would have committed if they’d been released – and do a massive, unpardonable injustice to the 34%.

Then it gets worse. We’ve saved money – or at least broken even – in year 1, but what do we do the next year? Remember, we don’t know who the likely reoffenders are. For any given group of 1,000 prisoners, all we know is that it will cost society £38 million (say) to keep them all banged up, while – given our 66% reoffending rate multiplied out by victim costs, police costs, prosecution cost, insurance cost, other tax and so forth – it will cost £40 million to release them all. So when we look at each individual prisoner, we see an average loss to society of £2,000 per year if we let him out. But if prisoner X being free in year 1 costs £2,000 more than keeping him inside, then the same will also be true of year 2, year 3 and ever year thereafter until he’s too decrepit to offend. Ergo we should give everyone a life sentence for the first offence, with eligibility for parole only when they’re too old to hang out with drug dealers, too rheumy-eyed to hot-wire a car and too feeble to leg it when the police show up.

Either that, or we should try understanding a little more and condemning a little less; find fewer pretexts for locking up our fellow citizens and put fewer obstacles in the way of releasing them; and put most effort into giving offenders chances to go straight, both in prison and out of it. New Labour’s term was a long 13 years for anyone hoping for liberal reform to the criminal justice system. Let’s hope the Tories, in spite of everything – in spite of being Tories, apart from anything else – will do better.



  1. Posted 1 July 2010 at 08:52 | Permalink | Reply

    Truth is, I’m not bothered about the cost element. I’ve been interested in cutting reoffence rates for a while – especially having seen how a particular paedophilia project cut reoffence rates by ninety percent in the last decade. I was merely flagging that element up as it contradicts Ken Clarke’s chat about costs – and if we scale back my point from being “it’s more expensive” to it being “there’s not much more that can be squeezed out of the staff monitoring offenders and those out in the community without compromising on quality and putting the health of staff at risk” then I think I’m on much safer ground.

  2. Phil
    Posted 1 July 2010 at 23:10 | Permalink | Reply

    Well, maybe. Let’s say that release rates go up, probation budgets stay constant, legitimate opportunities contract, and as a result the reoffending rate goes even higher. You’re still left with the Minority Report question – was it wrong to release someone in January because you thought they’d reoffend in June? Can it become wrong retrospectively a year later if they have reoffended? And can it become wrong retrospectively to release 100 people if 70 of them have reoffended a year later?

    On the level of political rhetoric, you’re right – early release plus higher reoffending rate equals Clarke getting crucified by the Daily Mail, Melanie Phillips and Jack Straw (together at last), which would probably kill the early release policy. But if we’re talking about whether the early release policy is actually correct, then I don’t think reoffending should even be taken into account. If we justify making a prisoner serve 10 years rather than five in terms of avoiding reoffending, we can justify making him serve 20 years or 30 instead of 10 in exactly the same way. (I’m going fairly hard on this point because this isn’t a hypothetical – it’s precisely the logic of Indeterminate Sentences for Public Protection, a dreadful New Labour invention which I’m hoping the Tories will scrap.)

  3. Chris Williams
    Posted 2 July 2010 at 22:30 | Permalink | Reply

    “Howard, for whom prison was all about locking up the bad men and not so much about education and training. ”

    Although today I heard him claim that he was in fact all for educating and training them once he’d locked them up.

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