Putting more people in prison is not the way to cut crime

16 Aug 19

If Boris Johnson wants to be tough on crime he must reduce re-offending rates, says Reform researcher Aidan Shilson-Thomas. 

Handcuffs in a prison


Boris Johnson wants to restore his party’s ‘tough on crime’ reputation.

The new home secretary, Priti Patel, has said she wants criminals “to feel terror”, and recruitment will begin shortly for 20,000 more police officers. 

In a less-publicised move, Boris Johnson is also considering whether to scrap plans to abolish short-prison sentences.

But if the ultimate aim of a tough stance is to cut crime – and thereby make the public safer – then this would be a foolish move.

The new PM can only cut crime if he is tough on reoffending.

Three quarters of all crime is committed by someone with an offending history, costing a staggering £18 billion a year. Sixty-five per cent of offenders serving short sentences reoffend, but the Ministry of Justice has shown that community sentence reduce the chance of further crime by 4% – a significant margin for reoffending rates.

The MOJ estimate that if all those who are currently given short sentences were punished in the community instead, there would be 32,000 fewer offences committed each year. 

There are several reasons for this. Having accommodation, a job, and strong links with family make someone far less likely to reoffend. In many cases, imprisonment will be proportionate and necessary, but for too many people, it simply leads to a cycle of reoffending – creating more victims and far greater costs to the taxpayer.

Fewer than half of prisoners are released to settled accommodation, and fewer than one in five are in PAYE employment one year after release. In contrast, an offender who is punished in the community may be able to keep any employment they have, remain in their accommodation and maintain family relationships.  

Politicians and the public are attached to the idea that prison can both punish and reform offenders. In the case of short sentences, this is simply not true. There is not enough time to address offending behaviour, complete education or training courses, or prepare a prisoner to return to their community. This is exacerbated by the regime restrictions that plague most of the estate.

It should be unacceptable to imprison an offender for six months at a cost of £11,000 and achieve so little, when a community sentence can deliver better outcomes at half the cost

If Boris Johnson really wants to be tough on crime, he should have the courage to reverse the decade long decline in the use of community sentences, rather than pandering to a ‘lock-em up and throw away the key’ view of prison.  

There is, however, a caveat: community sentences are only effective when they are tailored to individual need and when punitive measures are enforced properly. The quality of probation services has declined markedly, with poor-quality delivery of sentence requirements, poor accountability for non-compliance, less face-to-face supervision, and high caseloads. Underfunding has damaged service quality. 

A new model for probation is currently being developed, with supervision provided by the state-run probation service, and the delivery of accredited programmes being outsourced.

Nationalisation in itself is not, however, a silver bullet. Improvements will only be achieved if probation services are properly funded. And to increase the use of community sentences, more probation officers will be needed.

But the savings from locking fewer people up and reducing reoffending would more than cover this additional cost. 

A shift in attitudes to community sentences is also required. Too many people see them as the ‘soft option’, and one recent survey of magistrates found that 65% do not believe they are effective.

Magistrates should have full knowledge of the range of interventions a community sentence can provide – and information of their efficacy versus short prison sentences. 

In my time working in a local prison I saw countless prisoners on short sentences fall into a cycle of crime, at huge social and economic cost.

Boris Johnson would be negligent to continue to use costly and ineffective short prison sentences knowing that they do not cut crime or keep the public safe. 

Did you enjoy this article?