Does prison work?

This morning we learn that the government has hit a target it set for itself, by sending back some prisoners to their home countries. One cheer for that. The Conservatives have shown that many were let out early, and a lot are still not returned to their homelands. We also need to remember that the government is only talking about visitors from outside the EU, ignoring all the crimes committed by contintentals who come here. It’s a pity they threw away proper contorl of our borders with the EU that previous governemnts had carefully preserved.

I think UK taxpayers have plenty to complain about when we learn how many of the people our Borders agency lets in abuse our hospitality by committing serious crimes. Do they do no checks on criminal records of people before letting them in? Surely they don’t suddenly become drug dealers, murderers or sex offenders when they arrive here, having led blameless lives before? Why can’t we have arrangements with overseas governemnts to send them back for punishment in their own country? Can we at least make sure that anyone committing a serious crime here is sent home and never allowed back again?

The government is being criticised for not having enough jail places. It could help itself by being a lot tougher on how many criminally inclined foreigners it lets in and then puts in prison, and by reaching agreement with overseas countries concerning their punishment.

It also raises the more general question of does prison work? Most people want two things from prisons. The first is to lock up criminals who represent a serious threat to the rest of us for long periods of time to protect us. The second is the try to ensure that prisoners let out of prison are less likely rather than more likely to reoffend.

I am not sure putting so many people inside for theft and other financial crimes makes a lot of sense. If people are too greedy, let the punishment fit the crime. Why not make them stay at work or make them get a job, so they pay full reparaitons to the victims of their crime and pay full charges for the police and court work involved in finding them and bringing them to justice? I have never understood why, if someone is burgled, they not only lose their possessions to the burglar but then have to help pay to keep him in idleness in what can be a seminary for crime called prison. That only makes sense if the burglar refuses to co-operate with any sensible programme of rehabilitation, and refuses to work and pay recompense.


  1. Obnoxio The Clown
    December 26, 2008

    “Why not make them stay at work or make them get a job, so they pay full reparaitons to the victims of their crime and pay full charges for the police and court work involved in finding them and bringing them to justice?”

    And are you personally going to keep an eye on all of them 24×7 to make sure they don’t commit any more crimes? Didn’t think so. Where is the punishment? Where is the sense of justice for the victim?

    I’m sorry John, but I can’t agree with you on this one.

    1. Blank Xavier
      December 26, 2008

      > Where is the punishment?

      Punishment. Is that what the penal system is about? what exactly *is* it for? is it just to hurt people for committing crime – institutionalised revenge? or is it there to make things so that criminals don’t commit any more crime when they leave? do we think that punishment will act to stop people committing crime when they leave? or do we think punishing people might in fact make them want to commit more crime? or do we think that the side-effects of punishment (loosing your flat/house, car and job) might well push people into crime? do we think punishment is in fact always even *just* – what about people who’s situation and circumstance is such their lives have led them to crime?

      > Where is the sense of justice for the victim?

      What is a “sense of justice”? is it the feeling of revenge? I do believe that punishment in return for crime is revenge, because I do not believe it has a significant effect upon recidivistism. If justice is actually about looking at what led a criminal to crime and trying to change things so they don’t do crime any more, a victim looking for revenge is going to find the justice system sorely lacking.

      1. Obnoxio The Clown
        December 27, 2008

        Some people will always be criminals. Sometimes, keeping these criminals off the streets is the only thing you can do to benefit their victims or prospective victims.

        And call it revenge or whatever you like, if I live my life under the strictures of society then I expect those who choose not to to be punished for the transgression. If there is no punishment for transgression, why should any of us adhere to the law? Because we’re all inherently good?

        Personally, I don’t subscribe to this lunacy about “what led someone to commit a crime”. People make decisions and they should accept the consequences of those decisions. I don’t blame “society” or “circumstances” for the consequences of MY decisions. If you make a decision to step outside the law, you make that decision, for whatever reason.

        End of.

        1. Blank Xavier
          December 27, 2008

          Today’s blog entry, funnily enough, is about just this issue. The blog in question is by a Magistrate of long standing.

          Basically; some people grow up in situations which are outside of their control and make it many times more likely they will turn to crime. For example, children who have to be taken into care.

          To be sure, they chose to commit a crime and most of their peers do not; but it equally sure that over the whole of all children who have to be taken into care, had they better parents and not been taken into care, they would have been many times less likely to commit that crime, or any crime.

          > And call it revenge or whatever you like, if I live my life
          > under the strictures of society

          What strictures are these, exactly? why do they exist? are the strictures which now exist justified? in what way did you accept or have any choice or influence over the existence of those strictures? does this mean liberals living in say Iran, where homosexuals are judicially murdered by hanging, should expect to be punished for transgression? do we assume since we’re a democracy, the powers we grant by democratic process to the State will be *used* democratically? what about Damien Green? what about Mark Aspinall? what about the increasing use of summary penalties, where the policeman (who, in the heat of the moment, thinks you did it) is also your judge and jury?

          > then I expect those who
          > choose not to to be punished for the transgression. If there
          > is no punishment for transgression, why should any of us
          > adhere to the law? Because we’re all inherently good?

          There is something very wrong here. You imply – I don’t know if you mean to – that strictures (law, presumably) are only adhered to because of the threat of what will happen if you break the law.

          I do not believe for one second this is true. The vast majority of law naturally tends to define what the vast majority of people *never do* – commit crime. We do indeed behave as we choose to, because we choose to.

          If you take the view there is *only* personal responsibility, that an individual is purely and soley willfully responsible for their criminal actions and that they choose, knowingly, to harm others, then the idea of reform is obviously problematic.

          If however you take the view that if you put a person, *any* person, in the right situation, that they will commit crime, then you begin to look at solutions along the lines of reforming their situation.

          I’m not well informed about situations and crime, but I do know for sure that you can take pretty much 90% of people, put them in a certain situation (Milgram’s 37, Abu Gharib, the Stanford prison experiment) they *WILL* behave in appalling ways.

          When you know that’s true, it becomes very easy to imagine that people are primarily driven by circumstance, by poverty, by what their peers do, and can just as easily be upstanding citizens as criminals.

          Most of us really are sheep. Baaa!

  2. Brian Tomkinson
    December 26, 2008

    Did you have a little too much of that good wine yesterday? Your last paragraph sounds as though you have joined the LibDems! People don’t want to be burgled or defrauded and I think they would like to see stronger punishments not the softer ones you are advocating. Besides which the practicalities of working to pay full recompense particularly in large fraud cases is surely cloud cuckoo land. Politicians seem to be giving up on crime. Detection rates are pathetic as is police response to many crimes. The knowledge that they are unlikely to be caught is a great incentive to criminals. As for the prisons we are always told that they are the wrong kind of training schools for criminals. If true, whose fault is that? I am afraid you politicians are responsible. You have the power to improve things but you don’t. Why not? I am sorry but your approach on this seems wrong-headed to me.

    Reply: First find the criminal. That is crucial- the clear up rate is very low so too many thieves reckon they can get away it.

    1. Blank Xavier
      December 26, 2008

      > People don’t want to be burgled or defrauded and I think they
      > would like to see stronger punishments not the softer ones you are
      > advocating.

      People by and large grossly under-estimate the current range of penalities applied for crime. As a result, the Government has been continually hardening sentencing. As a result, many sentenace are now, in my opinion, unjust – disproptionate and summary.

      Furthermore, while the Government has been hardening sentencing, it has not invested in the necesary prison facilities to support the inevitable increase in prisoners. As a result, the sentencing guidelines have been something of a hollow shell – which is a further form of injustice, for those who truly do deserve their sentences are not in fact receiving them.

  3. mikestallard
    December 27, 2008

    Deterrence is as vital in punishment as is Reform of the criminal and the recognition of a crime (Retribution). You need all three for justice.
    By leaving out deterrence, you actually encourage crime.
    Points on your driving licence? Parking fines? Isn’t it a little bit of a cachet at parties to admit to these? Mr Biggs who did the Bank Robbery? Isn’t he a bit of a hero?
    Meanwhile the prison system creaks on, comfy, overloaded, full of good intentions. Criminals seemed to me, when I visited the jail recently, to be about as comfortable as the patients in the NHS, and a lot better off than the Armed Forces.
    So where is the deterrence in that?
    Australians have one answer to the question of deterrence (I wonder why?) You have a special island separated from the mainland by shark infested waters which are also full of poisonous jellyfish. Upon that island, you place all the native Australians (aka Aboriginees) who do naughty, anti social things. Then you let them get on with it.
    In the Second World War, POWs were put in the middle of the blazing Nullarbor Plain, where they were fed and watered and allowed to get on with it.
    Stalin, that master of deterrence, had Siberia, but he left out retribution (for what?).
    Hitler, that master of deterrence, had Poland (deterrence, yes: but the people had done nothing to merit prison).
    We need to remember deterrence: it is important. And you don;t have to go to the same lengths as Stalin or Hitler to improve it.
    Scotland has, I understand, some places which are cold, barren and windswept: perhaps an ideal spot to place serious criminals who are in there for life, to pay off a huge debt to society?, Where, perhaps, reform of the criminal is not so important?
    Personally, I am in favour of the death penalty in cases where terrorism is involved: I am prepared to sacrifice reform of the criminal, in other words, to deterrence and retribution. This unmentionable subject is often assumed to be universally abhorred, but I know that many, many people, are in favour of it in limited cases, to “encourage the others”. So when will it even be discussed?
    OK to have armed Police/out of control teenagers/ “al Qua’eda militia” all over the place shooting/bombing innocent people without a trial, but mention the death penalty! Oh dear me no!
    Meanwhile, this mealy mouthed government loads the Police with paperwork and political appointees, fiddles the amount of time the criminals stay in jail, overloads the Probation Service to ridiculous extent and makes the prisons (at least the Top Security Category A Prison here at March) really comfortable and nice.
    Look at the posts above: see the unjust confusion that has been allowed to develop when deterrence is neglected. Of course the prison population burgeons!
    You must have all three pillars in place: we haven’t got that at the moment.
    New Year’s resolution 2009: Deterrence; Retribution ;Reform!

    1. Blank Xavier
      December 27, 2008

      If we assume we respond to crime with punishment, then if a crime is committed, then, given the crime and the circumstances, there will be a just punishment.

      Any other punishment would itself be an injustice – a crime – just as much as the original act of crime which merited this punishment.

      As such, the correct and just punishment *is* the deterence; knowing that if you commit a crime, you will bear the punishment.

      If deterence requires us to strengthen the punishment in some way, to provide *extra* deterence, *then the punishment itself has become a crime for it is no longer appropriate to the crime*.

      In fact, deterence really comes from *the chance of being caught*, not from the punishment when caught. If you believe you won’t be caught, the punishment – unless extreme – will not deter you, and if we make most punishments extreme (to compensate for a lack of policing) then we are deeply unjust, because we massively penalise those few unlucky enough to be caught, relying on their deeply unjust suffering to deter the rest.

      Deterence is really about making sure you have an effective police force. It’s not about making punishments inappropriately – unjustly – harsh for the crime.

      1. mikestallard
        December 28, 2008

        I couldn’t agree more: I am in no way in favour of injustice!

        For years and years people have said – as you do – that if every crime were detected, then the punishments would need to be that much less harsh.
        When I trained to be a teacher all those years ago, we were told there were three ingredients to changing people’s behaviour: Recency: immediate punishment/reward. Intensity: the force of the punishment/reward. Frequency: what are the chances of getting away with it/not being rewarded?
        Well it works with my dog, anyway!
        I suggest that the Police and courts are still pretty good with Frequency. We are mediocre with Recency: trials take ages. But, I suggest, we are pretty hopeless at intensity.
        For a lot of people, the warmth, three meals a day, warm baths and showers and clean clothes regularly, as well as totally free medical provision and, yes, safety from crime and violence, are a lot more than they would get were they on the street/poor/in the armed services/old/back in the country which they left in the first place.
        In these circumstances, prison ceases to be a deterrent and becomes an unaccustomed luxury.

  4. Stuart Fairney
    December 27, 2008

    During an interview with John Reid (as Home Secretary) claimed there were about 100,000 persistent criminals and about 80,000 prison places. Assuming those figures to be true, the problem seems pretty obvious to me.

    Also, if someone persistently commits serious crimes, I am not prepared as a taxpayer, to fund his free life (i.e. dole, tax credits, housing benefit, endless bastard children etc). I am prepared to fund his indefinite incarceration however.

    So can prison “cure” all offenders and make good-little-boys of them? No. Can it make damn sure that after repeated chances they don’t get the chance to commit any more crimes? Yes, it really can. So two recommendations/requests.

    1. Increase the prison estate to 120,000 places, so all persistent offenders are permanently locked up.
    2. After your third serious crime conviction (probably your twentieth actual serious crime!), no release, ever.

    If you want vote winning policies you would be surprised how popular this would be.

    (And please bleeding hearts, don’t tell me how much it costs to jail people, what is the cost to an elderly person burgled, or mugged, or the shopkeeper forced out of business by thieves, or the person mugged by drunken violent unemployable buffoons)

    1. Blank Xavier
      December 28, 2008

      > During an interview with John Reid (as Home Secretary) claimed
      > there were about 100,000 persistent criminals and about 80,000
      > prison places.

      I wouldn’t believe a word that man, or any man in the current Government, says. There is a fundamental and profund absence of credibility. I do not believe he or anyone in power actually understands the situation on the ground, in this or in any other matter, for if they did, their actions would be very different.

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