Two recent shocking reports into jails in Nottingham and Liverpool show that conditions remain Dickensian – inmates crammed into filthy, freezing cells; cockroaches; rats; extensive violence. Whether you measure it by the high levels of re-offending or the number of suicides, it’s clear the system is failing; yet we keep locking more and more people up – England and Wales have the highest rate of imprisonment in western Europe.
Something has to change, and if ministers are wise, they should seek inspiration from Scotland. There, the SNP government rightly concluded that short jail terms disrupt family and work ties, and thus usually do more harm than good. So eight years ago it ruled that whenever judges imposed a sentence of less than 12 weeks, they’d have to justify in court why they hadn’t imposed community service or another penalty. Since then, both prison numbers and reconviction rates have fallen: there are now plans to extend the anti-jail presumption to sentences of up to 12 months. Westminster should follow suit. (Ian Birrell, published in i newspaper and The Week, 3 February 2018)
When you come to think of it jails are the universities of crime. If you are an amateur criminal when you go in, given your fellow inmates you will be a professional when you come out. Jail is where people uninterested in a normal respectable life hone their skills: the best areas to sell drugs and the best suppliers of them; how to break into modern cars and disable alarms prior to burglary; how to run a ponzi scheme, rob a cash machine and other activities the reader will be able to think of. Why is it that small countries like Finland, Sweden, Scotland etc have reduced both crime and incarceration while countries like the US and Britain are still mentally back in the 19th Century on this subject? One reason is inertia; another is that politicians stoke up fear of crime, even when, as in the US, it is actually going down. I am sure a dose of jail probably persuades an un-hardened few to change their lifestyle, but how many?