Why Don’t We Just...
stop locking people up?

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Titch was on licence when he was recalled for telling his probation officer he’d relapsed. “I didn’t even fail a drug test,” he said. “I told her because I needed help.” He hadn’t committed a violent offence, but he would have to wait a year before he could beg for his release in front of the parole board.

Jamal was back inside because he’d breached his licence conditions and gone back to his old neighbourhood. As a 21-year-old man with a criminal record, no work opportunities and no connections to anywhere else in the country, he’d returned to his old stomping ground. He hadn’t broken the law, but prison was deemed the best place to put him.

Scotland, England and Wales have the highest per-capita incarceration rate in Western Europe. Scotland locks up 150 people per 100,000, England and Wales have a rate of 139 per 100,000.This is compared to 63 in Norway and 77 in Germany. Despite this, multimillion pound contracts have been awarded to build, then run and maintain prisons with an additional 20,000 spaces. The expansion programme will be completed by late 2026.

We have been told for decades that “prison works”. We need more of them, not less. So it’s strange that the thinktank Civitas reports we are also a “high crime society”.

Surely locking people up at such a high rate should be reducing crime and making our communities safer? The truth is, data shows that there is no link between increased incarceration and a safer society. This is the problem at the core of our approach to punishment.

So why don’t we just stop locking people up?

Now bear with me. I’m not advocating an anarchic free for all, where criminals roam the streets with wild abandon, where there is no consequence for breaking society’s agreed-upon codes. That’s hardly the way to make our communities safer and rid our streets of crime.

I’m also not suggesting that we should fling open the gates tomorrow and release the tens of thousands of men, women and children currently housed at Her Majesty’s Pleasure.

What I am asking you to consider is the possibility that a criminal justice system that centres around incarceration is a flawed and failed model.

And if we are ever to make our society safer, fairer and more equitable for all, a radical rethink of our approach to punishment is needed.

In the first year after release in England and Wales, 48 per cent of people will be reconvicted of a crime. The number is closer to 75 per cent five years on from release. A success rate in the range of 25-52 per cent demonstrates the system is not fit for purpose.

If a pilot told you he had a 52 per cent chance of landing the plane, you wouldn’t get on board. If a surgeon told you that you had a 52 per cent chance of survival, you’d think twice before going under the knife. In both these cases, such dodgy odds would lead to funding and research that would, in turn, lead to design and systems change and a radical rethinking of practice and protocol.

What if I told you that we could make society safer, reduce crime and all while showing compassion and humanity? What if I told you that although an initial increased cost would be incurred, the long-term payoff would be a net gain for the economy?

This is not some impossible panacea. Uruguay legalised marijuana and saw a 20 per cent reduction in drug-related crime.

Norway has created a prison system where the people who are locked up work intensively in education, training and therapeutic interventions that can all continue post-release. This joined-up system brings community organisations and practitioners behind the walls and they remain involved upon release. This allows for a smoother transition during those first few difficult months back on The Out.

Portugal diverts people with addiction problems away from prisons and provides rehabilitative support.

In England and Wales, community sentences are proven to be more effective at reducing reoffending than short custodial sentences and early intervention reduces future offending.

Incarceration, and especially our model that focuses on incarcerating in establishments that are crumbling, infested with vermin and vastly overcrowded, should not be our only option in the fight to make society safer.

There are other options available. We need to bravely and boldly ignore the rhetoric and soundbites, and start a conversation focusing on the data and evidence, because, as every criminal I’ve ever worked with knows, the first step towards making things better, is admitting there’s a problem in the first place.

Angela Kirwin is the author of Criminal: How Our Prisons Are Failing Us All, published by Trapeze on 26 May (hardback £18.99,eBook £9.99, audio £19.99)

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