Unsustainable prison building is not the answer, say MPs

14 January 2010

In a report published today, the Justice Committee calls for a change in the way we tackle criminal justice and seek to cut re-offending

The Committee says that the criminal justice system faces a "crisis of sustainability" if resources continue to be absorbed by an ever-expanding programme of prison building rather than on preventing crimes from being committed.

The Committee says that prison building is not an effective long-term answer to coping with the already record-breaking prison population which is predicted to rise further. The average prison place costs £41,000 a year (plus further capital costs and health and education expenditure on top), with the Government's new prisons costing—on current estimates—up to £4.2 billion over the next 35 years.

In 2007, England and Wales had around 153 prisoners per 100,000 population (compared to 96 in France, 89 in Germany and 64 in Finland) and the planned capacity for 2014 represents the highest incarceration rate in Western Europe. HM prisons are seriously over-crowded—reducing the good rehabilitation work that can take place inside—but reducing the need for places is the answer; not increasing the supply of cells.

The Committee says the national and international evidence it has gathered over the two years since Lord Carter’s review of the use of custody has convinced it that a more "prudent, rational, effective and humane" use of resources is needed to shift the focus of expenditure away from incarceration and towards rehabilitation and prevention.

This would involve investment in local education, health, drug, alcohol and community programmes in targeted areas based on analyses of where offences occur, where offenders live and "what works" in reducing offending. This is known as "justice reinvestment".

The Committee acknowledges that this will require complex funding transfers between the criminal justice system and services provided outside it, often at the local level, but says that this is a key part of the problem.

The system treats prison as a "free commodity" whose costs are borne centrally while potentially more effective interventions depend on the budgets of local authorities, health trusts or other local agencies and may not be available for courts to deploy. Many community-based programmes aimed at tackling problems like alcohol misuse and mental ill-health are chronically under-funded.

The Committee recognises the difficulties of finding any new resources in the current economic climate. However, evidence from other jurisdictions shows that there is potential for moving resources and realising returns within a reasonable period:

  • The Washington State Institute for Public Policy created a model for tackling crime (specifically to negate the need to build costly new prisons) which would break even within five years and yield considerable cost savings thereafter.
  • Justice reinvestment approaches implemented in Kansas since 2004 have produced savings over a similar timeframe. The state has closed three small prisons, and part of a fourth, generating annual savings of $4 million, and has avoided spending $500 million on a new prison planned on the basis of prison population forecasts prior to the new programme taking effect.
  • The Committee also refers to examples of joint working across institutional boundaries in the UK, such as (i) the use of anonymised data from a hospital accident and emergency unit in Cardiff to guide policing priorities leading to a 40 per cent reduction in violence-related A&E admissions; and (ii) outcomes from the Greater Manchester Against Crime partnership (which also uses shared data to decide priorities), including a 75 per cent reduction in arson in some areas.

The Committee's approach is in line with the Government’s new strategy for diverting women away from crime, which explicitly links the reduction of expenditure on women’s prison places with the funding of new initiatives to improve community provision.

It is also consistent with several recent reports, including by the Local Government Information Unit, the Commission on English Prisons Today, Policy Exchange and the Centre Forum, which draw similar conclusions about the need to re-think the mechanisms for funding the criminal justice system and other activities related to crime reduction. However, even after the abandonment of the "Titan" prison proposals, the Government remains committed to building a greater number of the largest ever prisons.

Sir Alan Beith MP, Liberal Democrat and Chairman of the Committee said:

"Whoever forms the next government, they face a choice between unsustainable 'business-as-usual' in the criminal justice system, and making some radical decisions. With pressure on all areas of public spending, the costs of the current 'predict and provide' approach to prison places simply cannot continue to be met. It is the responsibility of governments and Parliament to protect citizens from crime by using the taxes they pay as effectively as possible; and that is not what is happening.

"A demand-led policy of building ever more prison places is being fuelled by political and media pressure for more and longer custodial sentences, diverting resources away from measures which are more likely to prevent future crime. Prisons are needed, and some very dangerous people need to be locked up for a very long time, but prison is no answer, for example, to persistent crime driven by addiction.

"The public are entitled to be sure that crimes from which they suffer are being treated seriously; but seriousness should be measured not by the length of a prison sentence but by whether it is a sentence which stops further crime and enables restitution to be made to the victim and to society.

"Instead of sinking endless resources into prisons, it is time to make tough choices and reinvest in other parts of the criminal justice system, and, equally importantly, invest in a range of community and public services outside the system that can do most to cut crime. Evidence from other countries shows that this approach can actually cut the financial cost of crime and reduce the wider burden of crime for individuals and for society as a whole.

"In an election year it is vital that there is a responsible debate about how we can use limited resources to cut crime, not a competition as to who will promise the longest prison sentences.

Alun Michael MP, senior Labour member of the Committee, said:

"In my view this is the most important piece of work that the Justice Select Committee has ever undertaken because it goes to the heart of what is needed from our criminal justice system; the system as a whole and every agency or department within it must have a clear focus on reducing offending and re-offending in the interests of the public, victims and society as a whole."

Andrew Tyrie MP, senior Conservative member of the Committee, said:

"This report is fundamentally about using resources humanely and justly and getting the best value for the public’s money, essential in the worst economic crisis in living memory.

"Investing funding in preventing people getting enmeshed in the criminal justice system in the first place, re-examining the conveyor belt into expensive custodial provision, and looking at better ways to prevent the same people re-offending, are patently the right things to do; it is depressing to have to spend nearly 500 paragraphs saying so."

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