United Kingdom: investing in yet more prison places is not the way to cut crime

The chancellor’s £4bn to imprison more criminals in England and Wales should be spent helping people live a life outside crime.

With the dismaying announcement that the government plans to fund 18,000 more prison places by 2026, we are forced to ask, once again, why crime prevention fails to get the same emphasis as punishment. Last Wednesday, the chancellor announced more than £4bn in capital funding – spread over four years – largely dedicated to funding these new prison places in England and Wales. This makes it clear that the government is clearly pressing ahead with a much more authoritarian stance on crime and punishment.

As per the government’s official projections, the expectation is that the prison population will rise from 79,235 (in September 2020) to 98,700 by September 2026. It costs approximately £37,000 a year for a prison place (excluding the initial building costs required to house such an influx), which equates to around £666m for an extra 18,000 places. Set against a backdrop of broadly stable crime rates, and for a government publicly committed to returning to what it calls fiscal sustainability, this makes very little economic sense.

Even if crime rates were to increase, as we know that crime often goes up in times of economic hardship, more prison places is not the answer – prison just does not work for so many.

Almost half of people released from prison reoffend within a year of coming out. Compare this with the lower rate of reoffending for people who are given community sentences rather than prison. In fact, the government’s own evidence showed that if all offenders who currently receive prison sentences of less than six months were given a community order instead, then there would be about 32,000 fewer proven reoffences a year. And the cost of reoffending? £18bn every year.

Instead, the government should be focusing on early intervention and tackling the factors we know have such an influence on crime – poverty, lack of opportunity, trauma. And helping young people most at risk of contact with the criminal justice system: getting them on a pathway to success starting with basic qualifications, arming them with employment skills and smoothing the pathway into work and success.

A relentless focus on rehabilitation and reducing reoffending must also be at the heart of government policy, starting with the basics we all know are so important – somewhere to live on release from prison; a job, support; and hope for the future.

Committing to the increased use of community sentences – proven to be effective – will not only drive down reoffending but also strengthen families and communities and importantly reduce overcrowding in prisons.

If we are to have any hope of making prisons places of learning, earning and true rehabilitation for those who do get incarcerated, then we have to put an end to overcrowding, poor conditions and a lack of purposeful activity and rehabilitative programmes.

The hard reality of what we at crime reduction charity, Nacro, see and hear on a daily basis is people who have been failed time after time after time. Prison leavers can’t make a claim for universal credit until after they have left prison, often leading to delays. Or they leave prison without that vital photo ID they need to open a bank account or to receive welfare payments, or without the education they need to get a job. And with the prison leavers’ discharge grants still at just £46 (unchanged since 1996), combined with around 1,000 people who are leaving prison homeless every month, too many are simply being set up to fail.

But none of this is inevitable.

If we really focus on tackling the causes of crime and intervening early; following the evidence on what works to reduce reoffending; and giving people the basic building blocks and support needed to move away from crime, we have a real opportunity to transform our justice system – reducing crime and giving people the best chance at a second chance.