Is our penal system too tough and too expensive?

Having recently visited the Tower of London and the cells in Lincoln Castle I was struck by what now seems to be the brutality of how prisoners were treated in centuries past.  Amid the understandable and current cries for tougher sentencing as a deterrent against reoffending, I wonder how our current penal system will be viewed by our forebears in the years to come.

Will they react with shock as they tour the grounds of Lincoln Prison and take in the exhibits of how minor misdemeanour crimes used to be punished by the removal of liberty?  What will they think of confinement to cells for long periods, or the limited amount of human interaction that was afforded them – fraught and often-emotionally charged socialisation opportunities that were wrought with the risk of violence from other inmates?

To be clear – I’m only suggesting a rethink of the strategy for what one might refer to as ‘minor misdemeanours’ (some of the offences of Class E and lower); and not ‘emotive’ crimes such as rape or murder; or offences against children (despite some of the assertions made in Craig Harper’s recent column).  On the matter of such ‘grave’ criminals I am reminded of a saying from a long-gone family member – “Most dogs’ behaviour and temperament are determined by the actions of their owner; but some dogs are just ‘wrong’ – and there’s nothing can be done for them.”  I guess there’s similarity with people, too.

The cost of keeping a prisoner (2013 figures) ranges from between £18,165 per annum for a male Open Prison to a staggering £84,158 per annum for a male Young Offenders’ Institution.

Proven reoffending rates for the same period were 26.4% (how many didn’t get caught or convicted I wonder) – that’s a waste of taxpayers’ money of between £4,795.56 and £22,217.71 per annum per person; or a mind-boggling figure of between £13.14 and £60.87 per person per day.

The total expenditure on incarceration that year (with an average prison population of 80,398) was over £2.9bn, and – using this admittedly crude comparison – this represents over £781m of spending that was ineffective in the pursuit of rehabilitation.

As Kate Taylor’s article challenges – is prison worthwhile?  The financial expenditure doesn’t seem to warrant the results.  Could a portion of that £781m per year be spent more expeditiously?

I wonder how long we will continue to send non-violent offenders to our creaking prison system before we stop to wonder whether intervention and support may be the key?  There is undoubtedly a need to manage the rights of victims; and justice must be seen to have been served in all cases.  But isn’t there a case for a blend of restorative justice combined with education, rehabilitation and support?

For all of us out there who consider ourselves to be model citizens – whose contribution to society is positive – what are the differences in our upbringings, development and sense of morality?

That might be a good place to start.  Let’s stop addressing the symptoms and start to think about the root cause – for the benefit of society as a whole.

Where do you stand on this issue – are you ‘hang ‘em high’ or ‘deal with the root cause’?  Let everyone know in the comments section below.

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