Monday, March 03, 2008

Prison overcrowding

I swore at the radio this morning. I normally try not to swear, but this guy on the radio pushed me too far. Ok, I shouldn’t blame him for my lapse. But he did wind me up.

The speaker was a Conservative MP who was trying to drum up some votes by saying that his policy is to build even more extra prison places than the government. The interviewer was asking if this was the right policy. He pointed out that of the 80,000 prisoners in jail now, around half are on sentences of 6 months or less; He pointed out that for all prisoners released from jail, re-offending rates are around two-thirds, and they are particularly bad for those serving shorter sentences. He also pointed out that re-offending rates were 22% lower for those given community orders instead of custodial sentences – something that could easily be considered instead of short sentences.

So, I did some maths. 80,000 prisoners, maybe 40,000 on short sentences. Of those, two-thirds – maybe 26,000 – will go on to commit another crime within a couple of years of release. If they were given community sentences, that figure could be 22% lower. Put another way, an additional 5,000 crimes happen because we insist on sending people to jail rather than giving non-custodial sentences.

Ok, I’m probably abusing the statistics, the numbers are not really meaningful. But the experience of being one of those people is.

The MP agreed that the reoffending rates following prison sentences were terrible, and pointed to his party’s policies which were intended to address this. Fair enough. But until those policies have been proven to work, why not use the more effective technique of community sentences instead of sending people to jail for short terms? The MP said that the problem was that with community sentences there wasn’t the perception of an appropriate punishment for the crime. Specifically, he used the word punishment.

This was the point where I swore.

I guess it all comes down to what the penal system is for. For me, it is to prevent crime, and ideally, to help people to live within the law. But that’s not the only view. The MP was expressing the more common view that part of the system is to punish – basically, it’s an expression of the basic human desire for vengeance and retribution.

It was unusual to hear it discussed so honestly. Normally people talk about “deterrence”. People want to kill murderers as a deterrent. Never mind the fact that deterrence only works for people who think about and care about the consequences before they act, and jails are filled with people who don’t. But get to the truth, and when people want tougher sentences, when they talk about wanting justice, what they really want is to make the perpetrator suffer as they have suffered.

It’s a natural human desire. But the thing is, as a Christian, it’s not acceptable. Jesus puts it very well in one of his parables (Matt 18:23:35). Christians only live by the grace of God, because our sin has been forgiven. How dare we then seek “justice” by punishing others for what they have done to us? “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence?” (Luke 23:40)

Now I’m no expert on criminology, and I don’t know much about reducing crime. But surely, if statistics show that throwing certain people in jail makes them more likely to reoffend, then we shouldn’t be doing it. Maybe this is an example of what Ghandi said: an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.