« An important prosecutorial perspective on modern federal sentencing | Main | Cracked history: How Hillary Clinton really "played the race card" and Sean Wilentz failed to notice »

February 27, 2008

The tough-on-crime turn toward imprisonment in the UK

Across the pond, the Prospect magazine has this long and interesting essay, titled Crime and punishment.  Here is the essay's sub-heading: "Britain is locking up more people than ever — a policy that some say accounts for falling crime. But there may be other reasons for the drop in the crime rate. Are we imprisoning so many people because we have to, or because we want to?".  This is how the essay starts:

There are around 82,000 people in prison in Britain.  Is that a lot or a little?  How can we tell?  Compared to the 2.2m people languishing in US jails it doesn't sound all that many.  Britain's prisoners could fit into the new Wembley stadium with room to spare, although on the government's own projections, all 90,000 Wembley seats will be taken sometime around 2010.  Over the last five years, the prison population has grown by 20 per cent.  Lord Carter, in a report for the government published last December, accepts that this trend will continue, and recommends a new prison-building programme so that supply can meet demand, which may reach 100,000 by 2014. (The government says it wants to stabilise the prison population at about 95,000. The Tories, by contrast, say they are happy to sail on through 100,000.)

Carter notes that the prison population in Britain has risen by 60 per cent since 1995. In Germany it has been more or less stable during this period, while in Canada it has fallen by 11 per cent. New Zealand just outstrips Britain, with 68 per cent growth since 1995, while even the US lags behind with 42 per cent. But it will be a long time before Britain catches up with the US in terms of the imprisonment rate: the US imprisons 750 people per 100,000, as against 149 in England and Wales and 136 in Scotland. Still, within Europe, our imprisonment rate is behind only former eastern bloc countries and, curiously, Luxembourg.  The only west European country that comes close is Spain, which imprisons 146 per 100,000.  By comparison, Germany imprisons 93 per 100,000, Turkey 91, France 85 and Italy 67.

Prison: what a strange thing it is. I can remember my shock as a child being told that some adults had done things so bad they had to be locked away, for years, until they knew better. I could hardly imagine anything worse. Prisons seem to belong to the age of the horse-drawn cart and the workhouse, not Eurostar and the internet. If anything, we should be phasing them out — converting old prisons into luxury flats as we do with unused warehouses and deconsecrated churches.  Instead, we are building more and more — although apparently not enough to cope with the doubling of the prison population over the last 30 years.

Speaking as a philosopher, rather than a criminologist, I find just about everything to do with the criminal justice system a puzzle. But the central question, it seems to me, is this: are we imprisoning more people because we have to, or because we choose to?  And in either case, why?

February 27, 2008 at 07:25 AM | Permalink


TrackBack URL for this entry:

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference The tough-on-crime turn toward imprisonment in the UK:


It is not enough. The more people in prison the safer the world is. In talking with the "tough on crime crowd" 35% appears to be the optimal incarceration rate (and nobody has suggested a different rate). The 35% will instill the necessary amount of fear.

Posted by: S.cotus | Feb 27, 2008 7:56:02 AM

Nothing sets off a full-blown panic attack in academia quite like data suggesting that tough sentencing might be a factor in reducing crime rates. I wonder, does freedom of speech include the right to shout "deterrence" in a crowded colloquium?

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Feb 27, 2008 8:16:05 AM

The report actually states this near the bottom:

These speculations can be partially confirmed and partially corrected by a study carried out for the home office by the University of Cambridge in 1999. The researchers surveyed a large range of international research on "marginal deterrence": whether changes in detection and sentencing have an effect on crime. In its summary, the report declares that there is convincing evidence that, in some circumstances, deterrence works. However, the more detailed picture is a complex one. Three findings stand out. First, it appears that if potential offenders believe that they are more likely to be detected on committing a crime, then they are less likely to do so. This result applies across the board, including, surprisingly enough, to crimes of passion. Perhaps those who know that they cannot control their passions can, at least, engage in a bit of personal cognitive behavioural therapy, and avoid situations where their passions might become inflamed. The second finding is more surprising: the researchers were not convinced that any of the studies they surveyed show that lengthening sentences had any significant marginal deterrent effects. Presumably, few would-be criminals mug up on the latest sentencing guidelines before picking up their swag bags and setting off. Finally, the survey indicates that the more extensive a person's social network—job, family, friends—the less likely he or she is to commit a crime.

These are important findings for policy. Increasing the possibility of detection seems much more important for deterrence than the length of sentence. More police on the streets and CCTV, therefore, could matter much more than anything handed down by the judges. This supports the view that one of the key causes of the falling crime rate is very obvious: with increasingly sophisticated security and surveillance technologies, crimes are not only getting harder to commit, but are becoming harder to get away with.

But just as importantly, the study reinforces the point that what matters to individuals most is the impact a criminal record will have on other aspects of their lives. Small changes to punishment will barely make a difference. Consequently, there is support for something the bishops have been saying for years: the best way to reduce crime is to "give everyone a stake in society." Those with a decent job, a supportive family and a flourishing social life are less likely to risk it all. And to add another banality: the justice gap is better closed by reducing the motivation to offend, rather than by putting more offenders in jail for longer. But if we can't do that, then second best, at least from the point of view of reducing crime, is to put our efforts and resources into surveillance and detection, rather than building the prisons to keep up with longer sentences.

Posted by: Michael Connelly | Feb 27, 2008 8:51:27 AM

This part is almost comically bad:

Prison: what a strange thing it is. I can remember my shock as a child being told that some adults had done things so bad they had to be locked away, for years, until they knew better. I could hardly imagine anything worse. Prisons seem to belong to the age of the horse-drawn cart and the workhouse, not Eurostar and the internet.

Yes, the idea of prison is probably shocking to a child. Another thing likely to shock a child is a description of what many of those people did to deserve prison time.

Posted by: | Feb 27, 2008 10:37:07 AM

It was shocking to me as a child that some people didn't go to college following high school and some miscreants didn't go to law school afterwards.

It is shocking to me that nobody will suggest an alternative ideal incarceration rate. Indeed, I am surprised that the "liberals" don't suggest something around 20% and the "conservatives" don't suggest 55%. Therefore, I can only conclude that 35% is ideal.

It is shocking to me now that one can make a living in the Victims Rights Industry essentially trolling a strange class of non-lawyers.

It is shocking to me the executions are not televised and shown in schools, yet some of you still claim that states are making a democratic choice to execute people when the same states absolutely refuse to let the public see what it looks like when government employees kill a man. Yet these same people will complain when their roads are not adequately sanded.

Posted by: S.cotus | Feb 27, 2008 10:46:35 AM

"The report actually states this near the bottom..."

Actually? Is that meant to refute my comment? It is fully consistent. Given any indication that tougher sentencing works, do everything possible to try to explain it away.

Posted by: Kent Scheidegger | Feb 27, 2008 11:02:17 AM

Oh, fine.

I suggest 10%. It's a nice "round" number, and fits with most people's intuitions about the number of miscreants in the world. It's also good for satisfying the "tough on crime" crowd, as it's substantially greater than the current incarceration rate (the quoted article estimates that only 0.6% of the US population is in jail (2.2m, compared to a total population of 300m)).

It's shocking to me that you insist on 35, with your only justifications being: (1) that it's between 50 and 20, and (2) that it's larger than zero and hence more likely to promote safety. Neither reason rebuts the criticism that 35% is arbitrary.

Further, I'd add that 35% is inefficient. If we're going to jail 105 million people, that leaves only 200 million people to build the jails. Of the 200 million good/harmless people, not all of them are likely to be able-bodied or competent to do construction work. I'd suggest that only half of them are. Thus, on average, each able bodied good/harmless/law-abiding person would be required to build a jail cell by himself, which is too much to ask.

As for your other criticisms, I happen to know several people who are both anti-death-penalty and pro-adequate-road-sanding.

Posted by: | Feb 27, 2008 11:07:11 AM

Effects of 'harsher' sentencing standards are really only appropriate in discussions regarding deterring recidivism. Tough sentencing implies a relation to an earlier point in time - usually that point in time immediately preceding an increase in punishment by the legislature. (How can you call something 'tough' without anything to compare it to? It could be tepid for all we know.)

For 'tough' sentences to have any effect on a prisoner's decision making process (assuming they engage in a risk/utility analysis prior to deciding whether or not to engage in criminal behavior), they would have to have experienced both the earlier 'less-tough' sentence and be notified that the next time, the sentence would be worse. 'Harsher' or 'tough' sentencing laws, therefore say nothing to the individual not convicted and sentenced for the same crime at an earlier time. The resulting tough sentence is simply a sentence.

Once then on the topic of deterring recidivism (or why so many people in prison), you can then confront the panoply of other factors affecting a prisoner that could lead to recidivistic behavior including, but not limited to, the effects of harsher sentences.

Posted by: Christopher Thompson | Feb 27, 2008 11:36:55 AM

Well, now we are getting somewhere. Up until now, nobody would provide an alternative to mt 35% “Optimum Incarceration Rate” (OIR). Now, you, do.

My reasons for 35% are a little more developed than you give me credit for. Such a number will ensure that not just the poor families have relatives in jail, but middle class people will have personal experience with the criminal justice system and will therefore have a healthy respect for authority. Obviously it makes good sense to put as many of the poor people in jail as possible, since their behavior does not conform to the norms of more sophisticated people. Just look at the crimes they commit.

You do raise the objection that such a high number will be difficult to maintain given the fact that we have limited resources. To that I respond that because many believe that Americans are inherently badly behaved there is nothing wrong with simply exporting our criminal justice industry to other countries. Convicts could either be sent abroad (much in the same way Alaska sends its convicts to Arizona), or we could import prison guards from other countries. Whatever the case, we could take advantage of lower-paid labor in other places.

My point about road-sanding and public executions is thus. Many PRO-state-killing people think that roads should be adequately sanded. They invoke all sorts of constitutional justifications for to support them, such as: 1) they are entitled to take pictures of poorly-sanded roads; 2) they are entitled to petition for redress of poor road-sanding. Yet, these same people are resistant to even showing kids and grownup what it looks like when a bunch of state employees ritualistically kill someone despite the fact that kids and grownups have a constitutional interest in seeing that just as roads are efficiently maintained the state kills people efficiently.

However, I thank you for giving me the 10% figure. Does anyone want to suggest another number?

Posted by: S.cotus | Feb 27, 2008 12:17:00 PM

Why not base it on the price to earnings growth ratio?

Clearly, Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia are not what we thought they were. Indeed, they are not foreign countries at all.

Posted by: George | Feb 27, 2008 2:30:34 PM

4 ∏ would be nice.

Posted by: John Neff | Feb 27, 2008 8:33:09 PM

Post a comment

In the body of your email, please indicate if you are a professor, student, prosecutor, defense attorney, etc. so I can gain a sense of who is reading my blog. Thank you, DAB