I’ve been tracking the UK prison population since the beginning of the year to get a sense of some of the underlying trends. My interest here is the UK prison population, not just the prison population of England and Wales, a figure more commonly the focus of London-based policy elites. I’m also interested in the total population under a prison sentence. This includes those serving a Home Detention Curfew: the latter stages of a prison sentence served under a form of house arrest.
So what’s the current picture? In the four months from the start of January to the beginning of May, the total UK prison population went from 99,516 to 100,540. That’s 1,024 more prisoners now than at the beginning of 2012.
Put another way, the UK prison population is currently growing at the rate of nine prisoners per day. If this trend continues the UK is on course for a prison population of around 102,500 by the close of 2012.
The good news is that there is no inevitability here. As the graph above shows, the growth in the UK prison population has been a lumpy affair. It grew by 39 prisoners a day during January, slowing to 10 prisoners a day during February. During March it fell by 5 prisoners a day and by 10 prisoners a day during April.
The riots probably had something to do with the rise and subsequent fall in the prison population. Those sentenced to custody late last year will have started coming up for release over recent weeks. Against this, news that there remain hundreds of outstanding cases to prosecute suggests that we may not have seen the end of riot sentencing-induced prison growth.
That said, the underlying drivers of the prison population in the UK, as in other countries, are political and economic factors external to the criminal justice process. Tinkering with sentences in themselves will not solve the problem.
The bad news is that there is little sign that policy makers have grasped this basic fact, never mind turned it into anything approaching a coherent plan of action. Indeed the latest government consultation continues to push community sentences as central to addressing prison growth, and this despite the clear evidence that this is unlikely to work.
So what might a coherent plan of action to control, and then reduce, the prison population look like? How can we downsize prison?
Here are my suggestions, in the form of five propositions.
Proposition one: a clear, unambiguous and unqualified assertion that high rates of imprisonment are undesirable and a commitment to doing something about it. As one of my colleagues at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies said the other day, we must be clear that societies with high prison populations are unhealthy.
For those taught to believe that prison is a natural answer to the problem of crime, that imprisoning people keeps the rest of us safe, this is perhaps the hardest step to make.
In truth, there is no relationship between imprisonment and crime rates. If there was, the United States, with the highest imprisonment rate in the world would be the safest country in the world. Yet its homicide rate is much higher than the UK’s.
Proposition two: address the structural causes of high imprisonment in poverty and patriarchy. Societies marked by high levels of poverty and inequality tend to have high prison populations. Prisons predominantly hold poor young men who have engaged in characteristically male forms of violence and disorder.
A coherent plan to tackle high prison populations must take both these facts much more seriously than is generally the case.
Proposition three: a sustained investment in institutional alternatives to prison and criminal justice. Far too many people with drug, alcohol and mental health problems, for instance, end up in prison because of the dearth of good quality drug, alcohol and mental health services in the community.
What is needed is sustained investment in a range of high quality social services and a move away from a reliance on the criminal justice process to somehow pick up the pieces.
Proposition four: downsize the criminal justice system across the board. This means fewer police, fewer courts, magistrates and judges, fewer prison and probation officers, fewer public servants of various descriptions processing fewer arrestees, suspects and convictees.
This isn’t an argument in favour of turning a blind eye to crime and disorder. We will only be able to downsize criminal justice if we get the institutional alternatives to prison and criminal justice right. The two go together.
Proposition five: address the problem at the level of the UK, Europe and internationally. All too often discussion of high imprisonment rates replicates the boundaries of our different justice systems. We talk about the prison population of England and Wales, of Scotland, of Northern Ireland. We then assume it is the job of the respective ministers of justice in those jurisdictions to sort out the problem.
In truth, high imprisonment and the bloated criminal justice process behind it are symptoms of a wider social and political malaise. This requires a UK, European and, ultimately, international agenda to resolve.
Reforms internal to the criminal justice process have surprisingly little impact on the underlying prison population. This is why conventional reformist demands – more community sentences for example, or changes to sentencing practice – are missing from my list.
In a short article it’s also only possible to scratch the surface of a much more complex set of challenges. In the coming months I’ll be working with colleagues and partners to develop these ideas and rekindle the vision of a downsized prison system.