01:03, April 06 183 0 theguardian.com

2019-04-06 01:03:05
Prisons do damage. Is the British government finally waking up to this?

At least some MPs are doing their day job. This week the Commons justice committee demanded that all prison sentences of less than a year be scrapped, in a drastic measure apparently to slash the prison population in England and Wales, and because short sentences do not work. Assuming it does not just mean longer sentences, this is good news.

Jailing people is dumb because it treats effects not causes. I once asked a probation expert how many convicts really needed to be locked up to protect the public. She said about 20%. Winston Churchill once declared the issue to be “the most unfailing test of the civilisation of any country”. He was right. Britain, with the highest incarceration rate in western Europe, fails that test.

The justice committee chairman, Bob Neill, pointed to the absurdity of throwing ever more money at overcrowded prisons and “diverting funds from essential rehabilitative initiatives that could stem or reverse” the overcrowding. To his credit, the justice secretary, David Gauke, says he is determined to take up this cause, facing a prison population that has doubled in 25 years to 82,417. The trouble is that almost every justice secretary has said the same. Michael Gove said it and got moved. Kenneth Clarke said it and got sacked by David Cameron.

It is the fact of imprisonment, not the length of the sentence, that is society’s retribution against the wrongdoer. It is a lingering echo of medieval torture. Prison exposes the prisoner to drugs, violence, psychological brutality and suicide. It ruins families, makes rehabilitation harder and increases reoffending. I cannot hang you, says the judge (and his puppet master the minister), but I can make your life hell and the rest of it not worth living.

Prison excites the public imagination and the desire for revenge. It puts iron in the soul of the magistracy and makes judges feel like warriors for justice. A juicy trial is also good media copy. I have sat on three juries and felt the pressure. For conviction not to end in the clang of a jail door would somehow spoil the theatre.

I keep an archive of the casual way courts now resort to prisons. In the past year, I have a man who was jailed for making a girlfriend lose weight on a treadmill and another for stealing goods from a shipwreck. A former helicopter policeman was jailed for photographing a couple copulating in a back garden. Three anti-fracking protesters were jailed for “causing a nuisance”. One man was jailed for microwaving his rabbit, another for kicking a hedgehog.

A Labour MP was jailed for swapping a speeding ticket and a 94-year-old man for paedophilic acts dating back 40 years. Dangerous driving or cycling can lead to prison, not for the degree of danger but for the unintentional harm done to an accident victim. A teacher can be jailed for not reporting signs of child abuse.

None of these crimes are excusable, but nor is the senselessness of the punishment. I’ve asked European friends if any of these offences would be imprisonable back home. Almost invariably the answer is no. As Neill said this week, we can spend money either on prisons, or on keeping people out of prison through rehabilitation. Successive governments have preferred prisons. The Dutch, who have gone over almost entirely to community penalties, have closed about 20 prisons, with no surge in crime. It is a choice. “Tough on crime” has become a political addiction. The Cameron government created 1,073 new crimes, the Tony Blair government about 4,000.

Unless a convict is a clear and present danger to society, prison is a mindless reaction, led by emotion rather than reason. It is a sign of the immaturity of British politics. There is now a yawning gulf between the generally accepted answer to prison overcrowding, which is fewer prisoners, and what is happening on the ground, which is more prisoners. Legislators are liberals in general but reactionaries in particular. All the criminology research in the world is valueless if it fails to address the cause of this gulf. Why, when it knows it is stupid, does the judicial system cram the jails?

Ask this question in Whitehall and the answer rarely refers to evidence. It refers to the Pavlovian response of ministers to public opinion, as expressed in parliament and the press. They are scared. Whenever something goes wrong, the cry is simple: “Tougher sentences.” Change never happens. The issue for Gauke is not fewer sentences, but when to take the Daily Mail out to lunch.

Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist

Topics