Cutting crime and the prison population?

I keep thinking about this seminar I went to at Civitas – an excellent think tank – a few weeks ago, as reported on here by Alasdair Palmer of the Sunday Telegraph. Hats off to Civitas for inviting someone along to speak who doesn’t really share their view and thinks beyond prison works or doesn’t work – full stop. In my humble view, prison never quite works because it is meant to punish criminals, deter others and protect everyone else from repeat offenders. At what crime level do you declare success?

At best, 2 out of 3  seems achievable under the current setup and that’s excluding rehabilitation.

So my interest was piqued by the imaginative solution proffered by Professor Lawrence Sherman. As Palmer described;

At a fascinating talk at the think tank Civitas last week, he argued that prison is essential to protect the rest of us from hardened and violent criminals. But most prisoners aren’t actually in that category: they’re guilty of lots of relatively minor offences. And keeping them locked up is not the only way of reducing their criminal behaviour, merely the most expensive.

Instead of being sent to jail, Prof Sherman suggests that criminals in this group should be monitored by the police. When the cops catch them, it will often be better to offer them a deal than to prosecute: the police should tell the low-level criminal that if they go on a drug rehabilitation course, say, or get a job, or go for training, and stay out of trouble, they will not initiate the process of prosecution. If the criminal agrees, but is subsequently caught violating the terms of the deal, then the hammer comes down. But if he keeps his side of the bargain, nothing will happen.

Prof Sherman says that there is evidence from the US that what reduces reoffending among low-level criminals is very often the threat of prosecution, rather than the actual trial itself. And the problem with going through the courts is that it takes a very long time. As Prof Sherman says, no sensible parents tell their errant teenaged child, after they have caught him smoking: “This is appalling! In 12 months’ time, I might decide to prevent you from going out for a week. Or I might not. But in the meantime, I won’t do anything.” But that’s essentially how the court system in Britain works. It would be much more effective, claims Prof Sherman, if the police had the power to threaten the low-level criminal the moment they caught him.

I was intrigued to learn as well that Professor Sherman believes it is computationally possible to calculate future behaviour from past offences. I’m in think tanks so I do the unthinkable and politically irresponsible.

This system ought to be worth a trial in a few areas.


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