One of the many ludicrous Liberal Democrat policies which Tories enjoyed rubbishing during the general election was their plan to send far fewer criminals to prison. But, alas, it seems that some bad ideas are infectious. Last week Ken Clarke, the new Justice Secretary, suggested that we can no longer afford to keep so many prisoners — so we should sentence fewer, and for shorter periods. Why, he asked, is the prison population twice what it was when he was at the Home Office in 1993? Isn’t it time to cut costs?
As George Osborne prepares for his budget next week, he should be wary of this false economy. Locking people up offers a very good return on the taxpayer’s investment. It may well cost £29,600 to keep someone in prison for a year. But we must set against this the fact that the average prisoner commits a remarkable 140 crimes per year before incarceration — and, according to the Home Office, the average crime costs £2,970. So out on the streets, the prisoners inflict £406,000 of damage (including the £30,500 cost of sentencing them in a crown court).
Mr Clarke also suggested that the public’s fear of crime is exaggerated. If only. Sixty years ago, there were just over 1,000 crimes for every 100,000 people; in 1992, the postwar peak, this figure had soared to 11,000. As of last year this had subsided to 8,500 — but crime is well over eight times what it was in the postwar years. Compared to other countries, Britain is a ‘crime hotspot’. The latest European Union figures, collected three years ago, show England and Wales to have the third-highest crime rate in Europe.
Yes, Britain locks up more people than most European countries. But this is because we suffer more crimes. The way to determine if judges are issuing too many prison sentences is to look at the number of inmates, as a proportion of crimes committed. Here, it is 16 — well below the European average of 21. Far from being vindictive, our prison system seems to let go of the most persistent offenders. A study of career criminals — that is, those with 15 convictions or cautions behind them when being sentenced — show that most walk away without any custodial sentence. To reduce this further, as Mr Clarke suggests, is simply to subject the country to more crime.
Gordon Brown was right to boast that crime fell during the Labour years. This was because his government locked up more bad guys. When Lord Carter reviewed Blair’s policy in 2003 he concluded that crime ‘would fall dramatically’ if persistent offenders were jailed. Labour duly increased the prison population by a third to nearly 85,000 — with another 11,000 in the pipeline Yes, it cost more money upfront. Calculations based on Home Office figures suggest this approach saved the country from 3.2 million crimes.
Mr Osborne has the devil’s own job next week, as he lays down his spending limits for the next five years. But as he wields the axe, he should remember that it is invariably the poorest who suffer the most from crime — due to the low levels of policing in poorer estates. There is indeed such a thing as a progressive cut. But taking the axe to the prisons budget is not one of them.