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There’s a conservative case for reducing prison numbers – Conservatives ought to talk about it

By Peter Hoskin
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Wouldya just look at that graph above? It shows the vertiginous increase in our prison population since 1990. Back then, there were about 44,975 crims locked away in English and Welsh prisons. Last year, it was 86,634. And that means a lot of extra spending. As I pointed out in an article for the Times (£) on Wednesday, a year-long stay in prison costs, on average, almost as much as a year’s education at Eton.

One response to this fiscal expansion would be to make prisons more cost-effective – Policy Exchange has some decent ideas in this regard. But this also has its limits. So long as the prison population keeps on rising, there will always be new costs for taxpayers to bear. It could even come to that stupendously expensive point where we need to build new, additional prisons.

So what about cutting the prison population, instead? This is something that Texan legislators did when they faced yet another wallet-withering bill for new prison places. Their experience has since been instructive. If you’ll forgive me quoting myself, here’s how I put it elsewhere in my Times article:

Five years ago, Texan lawmakers were told that, to accommodate the state’s rising prison population, they would need another 17,000 places by 2012. Uncomfortable with the $2 billion price tag, they chose a different policy. Money was funnelled into treatment programmes for those convicted of non-violent crimes. More people were employed to help inmates once they left prison, so that they left it for good. And it worked. By most measures, including falling crime rates, the Lone Star State is becoming a lodestar state.

The funny thing is, this policy wasn’t introduced by soppy hippies. It was enacted by the sorts of conservatives who starch their cowboy hats. Jeb Bush, brother of George W, has signed up to the ‘Right on Crime’ campaign for criminal justice reform, as has Newt Gingrich.

The reason why they, and people such as the the low-tax evangelist Grover Norquist, have given their backing to Right on Crime isn’t just to do with cost and effectiveness. There are philosophical attractions, too, particularly for those who want a smaller state and a more functional, sweet-tempered society. If you want more detail on this Texan example, I’d recommend the Right on Crime website. Ian Birrell has also written wisely and engagingly on the subject.

But, anyway, it’s via Texas that we should come to Professor Andrew Ashworth’s recent report for the Howard League for Penal Reform. You may well have happened upon it already. I mentioned it in the Times, but Prof Ashworth himself has since written about it for The Sun (£) and discussed it on the Today Programme. His basic idea is that those guilty of committing non-violent property offences shouldn’t be imprisoned, but should be punished in other ways, such as compensating their victims. This, he reckons, would cut the prison population by about 5,700 people. It would save around 230 million of your taxpayer pounds each year.

By all means disagree with Professor Ashworth’s specific prescriptions – JP Floru did just that in a post for ConservativeHome on Wednesday – but the idea of putting fewer people in prison, Texas-style, oughtn’t be dismissed out of hand. It’s a question of where the line is drawn. If you’re one of the Tories who anger at the fact that 3,000 new offences were introduced under Tony Blair, then you may well agree that it could – even should – be drawn elsewhere.

There are some Conservative MPs who are receptive to the idea of reducing prison numbers – including Ben Gummer, who has written about Right on Crime for the Telegraph. But is Chris Grayling? He should certainly consider it, tabloid dangers notwithstanding. Like I said in my Times article, if the Justice Minister were to decrease the number of guests at the Iron Bar Hotel, he wouldn’t just save us a load of cash, he’d also be able to cooperate on it with the Lib Dems. That could come in very handy should the next election result in another hung parliament.


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