With the growing prison population, disillusionment with the justice system and arguments against the use of imprisonment, many activists and experts have been pondering the idea of ending imprisonment for non-violent offenders completely. In this article I shall briefly examine these arguments.
Firstly, it must be remembered that this idea is mostly aimed at those being sentenced for shorter times, for instance 6 months or less. It also must be mentioned exactly what imprisonment, and the justice system in general is in place to do. There are five main reasons for custodial sentences; incapacitation (protecting the public), punishment (retribution), deterrence (prevent other crimes), atonement (for victims) and rehabilitation (changing their ways). But many have been questioning whether the system of custody actually does this, or if other options may be more viable.
The first argument against custodial sentences for non-violent criminals is the extreme overcrowding of UK prisons. In the last 30 years, the prison population in the UK has grown 82%. With 145 prisoners per 100,000 people, Britain has the highest imprisonment rate of any Western European nation. The amount of prisoners is far too much for our prison system, which often leads to more crime within prisons, and a lack of control within – the number of assaults in prisons has more than doubled in the last 4 years. In fact, prisons such as Shrewsbury and Swansea are nearly holding twice as many people as they were designed to. The fact that 71% of these offenders are in for non-violent crimes, and 47% for sentences under 6 months suggest that the overcrowding of prisons could be avoided by changes in the system itself.
Furthermore, the cost of putting these offenders into custody is an unnecessary burden on the British taxpayer, according to those claiming the reforms should be implemented. To keep a prisoner in custody for 1 year, it can cost anywhere between £22,000 and £36,000. This is more than many people earn in a year, yet taxpayers in Britain are paying to keep small-time criminals at this rate. And with the increasing prison population mentioned just above, the accumulated cost is overwhelming.
Also, there have been criticisms on the grounds of whether prison sentences actually carry out their rehabilitative function. Many psychologists have claimed that prisons are a ‘training ground’ for crime, especially in the types of offenders that we are discussing. Research in 2006 by Latessa and Lowenkamp found that when those categorised as ‘low risk to reoffend’ spent time in prison with those categorised as ‘high risk to reoffend’, the likeliness of the low risk prisoners reoffending increased considerably. Therefore, custodial sentences do the opposite of what they were intended to do, and the system works like a revolving door.
So, with all these issues in mind, what other options are there to punish and rehabilitate? Many of those who critique the prison system are advocates of community service orders. Through menial tasks involved, offenders are able to give back to the local society that was the victim to their offending, costing the taxpayer nothing and in conjunction with suspended sentencing often reduces the likeliness of reoffending heavily.
Another suggestion made by many is restorative justice programmes. This is where the victim of a crime will meet the perpetrator and explain the effect it has had on them, and invoke a sense of responsibility for a criminal who may otherwise not understand the broader effect of their actions. Studies have shown that these programmes have reduced reoffending by over 20%, and can again be used in conjunction with other non-custodial punishments.
It is beyond doubt that the current Justice System in the United Kingdom is out of date and in need of change. Whether the concoction of community service, restorative justice and suspended sentencing for all short-term non-violent offenders is the way forward is a the answer is to be decided. But the research evidence points towards that being the cheapest, most effective answer.
By Kieran Kelly