Wednesday, 30 June 2010

Do prisons work?

Daniel Hannan writes:
Prison, any Lower Sixth debater will tell you, serves three functions: retribution, deterrence and reformation. In truth, it fails at all three: 40 per cent of offenders are reconvicted.
It is surely worth exploring more effective alternatives. A police superintendent in my constituency, for whom I have enormous respect, thinks that the key is to stop pretending that punishment and rehabilitation can be combined. He wants to give criminals a short stretch of hard labour, complete with bawling drill sergeants, the sole purpose of which would be to make the convict think: “I never want to come back here again”. Once the explicitly penal part of the sentence had been completed, the emphasis would be on imparting skills and equipping the prisoner for gainful employment, a process that would not require 24-hour incarceration except where justified on grounds of crime-prevention.
I have to say this makes a lot of sense to me, although solitary confinement also appeals. Do we really want criminals mingling with other criminals, in whose company they will enjoy an alternative and debased normality? Far better to have them feel that they have been cut off from human society, and then conditionally welcomed back (there are some who should be cut off forever, either on account of the seriousness of their initial offence, or persistent reoffending).

There are many possible systems; what is clear is that the current one isn't working.

Characteristically, Hannan recommends localism:
Let sheriffs set local sentencing guidelines, and let convicts serve their time as “guests” of the local sheriff. Once you forge a direct link between local tax rates and sentencing policy, you create downward pressure on costs.

There might be asymmetries in consequence: an intrinsic quality of localism. The Sheriff of Kent might decide that shoplifters should serve custodial sentences, while the Sheriff of Surrey favoured alternative penalties. One of two things would then happen. Either Kentish crooks (and crooks of Kent) would flood across the county border in such numbers that the people of Surrey elected a tougher sheriff. Or the people of Kent would get sick of funding the requisite number of prison places. At which point, their sheriff might decide on more imaginative solutions. He might, for example, decree that shoplifters should stand outside Bluewater with a placard saying “Shoplifter”. I don’t know what people would choose: that’s the essence of localism. But I do know one thing: best practice would quickly spread, as people found cheapest and most effective ways to cut crime.

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