Blame soft, liberal justice for Britain’s high incarceration rates

A toxic combination of soft-sentencing and a complete lack of prison authority have left our prisons in a rotten state. We must restore the principle of deterrence to have any chance of reducing Britain’s high incarceration rate.

During my time as a prison officer, prison overcrowding was always a serious problem. When I joined the service in 2005, I can recall in the many lectures I received during my initial training, especially being told that the prison estate was at close to bursting point.

The prison population in 2005 was just over 80,000, having been only 45,000 just a decade before. When I left the service in 2015, the population was just over 85,000 – the figure fluctuates between 80-85,000 each year.

The many criminologists and prison managers who delivered our training, informed us that prison overcrowding was the result of “tough” prison sentences and more crimes of a serious nature appearing before judges, warranting an immediate prison sentence.

However, what would always strike me as strange is that overall crime statistics would always seem to show a downturn, whilst prisons became more and more overcrowded, with the same people coming through the door, week after week after week. Why was this so, when sentences were supposed to be getting tougher?

In the new post-austerity world, it is now common to blame all failing public services on a lack of money. But a failing prison system was something I can recall way before 2010, and huge incarceration rates before a lack of resources was ever mentioned. I quickly realised that what I was being told by the so-called experts was different to what I was witnessing every day.

I therefore read with interest a recent study from Cardiff University, which sought to explore why Wales has the highest prison rate in Western Europe, with 154 people in jail per 100,000 compared to 141 in England. The report highlights many of the serious failings in the prison system which need addressing – particularly the ridiculous concept of “indeterminate sentences.”

The changing demographics of criminal behaviour alongside the changing nature of the criminal justice system makes trying to explain why prisons in England and Wales have the highest incarceration rates in Western Europe difficult and complex.

However, many of the issues which I believe have caused the surge in prison numbers – mainly the removal of deterrent sentences and the abolition of authority from prisons – are often largely ignored by criminologists, as they have been in this report.

Firstly, prison overcrowding and high incarceration rates are the result of soft justice. In 2016, a report by Civitas  highlighted the difficulties offenders have getting into prison, and how many crimes are committed by an offender before a prison sentence is handed down – 70% have seven or more previous convictions and 50% had fifteen or more – but it also conceded that many offenders have offending records much higher than this. So few offenders are sent to prison for a first offence, except for cases of serious violence or a sex offence, as the report from Cardiff also confirms – 77% of crimes do not involve a custodial sentence at all.

Time after time, liberal judges have handed down (as per guidelines from central government) a series of soft punishments – fines, community orders, suspended sentences – a prison sentence is a last resort. Judges, when faced with a repeat offender, have no choice but to impose a custodial sentence. Furthermore, the sentences themselves are lies. All custodial sentences are halved, with time off given for guilty pleas (up to one third of the sentence imposed). In reality, a 12-month sentence is probably more like 8 weeks or less, with the criminal then free to continue their offending behaviour undeterred, owing to a complete lack of severe punishment and a police force more interested in diversity awards than protecting the public.

Then, whilst in prison, they are treated with kid gloves; TV’s, own clothing, stylish haircuts, luxury items delivered via mail order, bodybuilding supplements – all showing the offender that at no point is the prison system serious about their behaviour. The problem is that people are sent to prison as punishment, rather than for punishment – and only then when all other avenues have been exhausted.

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Because the entire system has no teeth, reoffending rates and incarceration rates are high. Criminals do not see prison as a deterrent to stop them, they only see it as part of their criminal lives. Almost every statistic proves this to be so, but yet government and criminologists ignore this and still push ahead with the nonsense idea that prisons are too harsh because of government action. In fact, soft justice has meant that prisons are harsh in a different way.

The terrible rate of suicide and self harm inside prison does not necessarily show that there is an epidemic of mental health problems, but rather that bullying, drug taking and criminal activity are rife, a result of liberalised regimes and the removal of authority from prison officers.

But yet, we still wish to blame supposedly harsh judges and non-existent tough prison regimes for the rise in crime. In response to the report, Plaid Cymru’s Liz Saville Roberts stated that the findings present an opportunity to have a “genuinely rehabilitative system to break the vicious cycle many inmates fall into.” It’s a statement that is warm and nice, but a typical politician’s response. First, what would rehabilitation look like? As is much the case, rehabilitation is a word which is bandied around to try and sound important, without really understanding the implications. During my time as a prison officer, hundreds of people would go out of their way to ensure prisoners had access to a range of services in the hope of stopping them reoffending – drug programmes, housing, work placements, medical treatment – but yet reoffending rates remained constantly high.

This does not take into account the thousands of crimes committed each year by those already under the supervision of the probation service (56% in 2015 and rising).

Secondly, given that almost all offenders are sent to prison when they are already violent and habitual criminals, what is the point of trying to rehabilitate them during their 6 weeks in prison? Any attempt to rehabilitate a person who has already committed upwards of 15 offences is complete nonsense.

As mentioned before, even when offenders were given a substantial opportunity to turn their lives around, many chose not to take it. That is because those who want to change, will change – those who don’t, won’t. Prison as a place of rehabilitation therefore is not what the criminal needs. It is a flimsy attempt to try and manipulate a person’s behaviour, by mitigating their own failings, without stopping them from doing it in the first place. Therefore, every person sent to prison represents a failure in the primary cause of a criminal justice system – to deter people from doing stupid or bad things. Which is why prisons are now chaotic, drug infested warehouses, places where criminals come and go for a few weeks. Rehabilitation has already been tried and has already failed.

The report attempts to conclude with the idea that poverty is to blame for the chaotic state of crime, despite a reduction in overall levels of reported crime in Wales. It states that, “…….data should be considered in light of Wales’ status as one of the poorest parts of the UK.”

No question it is, but I thought the idea that poverty causes crime was put to bed years ago? No question that many who choose a life a crime are from the poorest sections of society, but why try to use this as propaganda that poverty causes crime? I know it isn’t fashionable to say that crime is a lifestyle choice, but I came to know hundreds of thousands of people from all walks of life – rich, poor, middle class, working class and from a variety of professions – who went to prison for various offences.

Thousands of people are brought up in poor households and never commit crime. Similarly, there are those who have had a more affluent journey in life who have turned to a life of crime, without a history of family breakdown or lack of opportunity. Neither is it ever mentioned that we live in times of unprecedented wealth, with universal healthcare, job opportunities and very generous subsidies from the welfare system, now, compared to generations before – but yet crime is higher now, both in terms of population and overall, than it was fifty and sixty years ago. There is a complete unwillingness from those who wish to appease criminals to accept this. Nor will they ever concede that the idea of instant gratification which has emerged from our culture over the last thirty years, has contributed to the rise in crime, particularly the rise in violent crime.

Nor will they ever make the correlation between rising policing numbers and huge increases in the prison population with various liberal reforms of the criminal justice system. They seek to blame other factors, without looking in the mirror first.

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