I attended a fascinating seminar in Oxford on Saturday evening about whether the prison population could be safely reduced. Let me share some of the thoughts and facts with you which emerged, on a topic where I claim no expertise.
We were told that between 1918 and 1939 the prison population averaged around 10,000. Only 1,000 prisoners were in for more than four years. Today the prison population in England and Wales is around 88,000. 37,000 are in for more than four years or for an indeterminate sentence. 11,367 prisoners were foreign nationals in March 2010, more than the typical inter war total of all prisoners.
72% of the male prisoners are said to be suffering from two or more mental disorders, 66% used drugs in the previous year and 67% were unemployed before prison. Half are scarcely literate and have no qualifications. More than 3% of the male prison population is said to be ex servicemen.
At the same time as witnessing a surge in prison sentences there has been a large reduction in the use of fines. These roughly halved from 1992 to 2009. At any given time around 7,500 are serving sentences of under one year. 61% of these will be reconvicted within one year of release.
No-one can be pleased with the social portrait these figures reveal. The country does not behave well towards ex servicemen, often leaving them without homes and jobs to go on discharge from the services, and with little support or back up to help them adjust to civilian life. We do not manage to treat enough drug users before their addiction becomes chronic and leads to other crimes to support their habit. Short sentences are too short to train, improve or reform criminals serving them, but often add to the difficulty for the criminal finding home and job by legal means on leaving prison.
Between 1992 and 2009 violent and sexual crimes, the most serious crimes, remained fairly constant in numbers. Burglary halved, whilst drug offences more than doubled. The anatomy of the prison population tells us that we need to be much tougher and more successful at getting people off drugs and getting people into lawful employment. Of course the electorate expects long custodial sentences for criminals who have committed serious crimes and repreesent a further threat to the public. For others, surely we want prevention or punishment that suits the crime and makes re-offending less likely, not a racing certainty.