A small milestone was reached this week. The Prison Service announced that for the first time the prison population has passed the 75,000 mark. To be precise, a total of 75,007 people now reside at Her Majesty’s pleasure, or the people’s pleasure as it will perhaps soon be known.
It has become customary to greet statistics on prison population with shame, scorn, despair or a mixture of all three. Liberals will bemoan the failure of this or indeed any form of punishment, suggesting that Sid Noggs and his fellow safe-busters instead be sent on safaris in Africa in order to improve their interpersonal skills and boost their self-esteem. Pessimists will shake their heads and say it all just proves what a beastly place the world has become. The motoring lobby will complain that in 2002 15,039 motorists were sent to jail but only 10,178 burglars, which only goes to show how the police are targeting ‘law-abiding citizens’ at the expense of real criminals.
But instead of finding someone to blame for the new record for prison population, how about offering some words of congratulation? Congratulations, that is, to the police, who have laboriously ploughed through the multitude of forms it now takes to bring a case to court, to the magistrates who have resisted the pressure of liberal opinion to forgive and forget, and to those juries who have stood their ground and refused to be nobbled.
We would like to be able to congratulate, too, the government for its commitment to law and order. But sadly the prisons minister Paul Goggins has flinched at the latest prison figures and severely weakened that commitment. ‘The use of short prison sentences for non-serious offenders continues to clog up the prison system with offenders who could be better punished and rehabilitated in the community,’ he said this week.