Alex Massie

The Prisoner’s False Dilemma

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Does prison work? I'm very pleased that John McTernan - who is one of the brightest and sanest of Labour buttons - is now ensconsed at the Daily Telegraph. Unfortunately he's not inoculated against daftness:

Suddenly it’s become fashionable to see ending short term sentences as common sense. Alex Massie is the latest victim of this strange policy meme. He praises “the presumption that prison sentences of fewer than three months are generally to be avoided on the reasonable grounds that they don’t do much good for or to anyone”.

This is quite an odd argument. You need to be a fairly bad person to get a prison sentence – however short – that does at least protect society. But the unspoken argument is that short sentences fail because offenders quite often go on to re-offend. So community-based punishment would be better. The difficulty with this argument is that it flies in the face of the facts. Scottish Government statisticians have analysed reconviction rates and concluded that “the number of previous convictions held by an offender appeared to be the dominant factor in terms of likelihood of reconviction”.

Put simply, people on short sentences re-offend because they are repeat offenders. Now those are exactly the kind of people the public think should be in jail. And I, for one, agree with them.

How many Straw Men must one wrestle simultaneously? John's argument seems to refute itself even on its own terms. He admits that short-term sentences do nothing to deter future criminality (this is bad and unfortunate) while insisting that short-term sentences are better than any alternative measures even if, as he acknowledges, repeat offenders are likely to reoffend because they are not discouraged by short-term imprisonment and can swiftly, therefore, return to their criminal ways.

This is not ideal. For the record, I have no problem with banging up repeat offenders for quite some time. But the notion that being in favour of reducing the prison population means one must be "soft" on defendents seems a stretch.

Then again, this is but an honest disagreement. John is a good chap and right on some things. But he has a much more generous view of the police than I do.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

Topics in this articleSocietycrimepolice