Prisons play in reducing crime

The legal definition of crime is an act defined as criminal by the law, irrespective of how current social values define the act. Laws are formal sanctions defined by government as principles that their citizens must follow. Laws are used against people who do not conform. In modern society all social norms are accompanied by sanctions that promote conformity and protect against non-conformity. The main types of formal sanctions in modern society are those represented by the courts and prisons. The prison service serves the public by keeping in custody those committed by the courts.

Their duty is to look after prisoners with humanity and help them lead law abiding and useful lives in custody and after release. (HMP mission statement 1999). In England and Wales there are 135 prison establishments holding 62,784 prisoners (as at 19th January 2001) all bar 23 of them are going to be released one day, (Narey,2001). This is a reduction in the number of prisoners from the peak in July 1998 when 66,156 people were in prison, but an increase of 50% from 1990. The number held in prison relative to the population is the second highest in Europe, Portugal being the highest.

This figure is the equivalent to 122 people for every 100,000 of the population. By comparison Greece is 50, Norway is 55 and Sweden is 60. Of this figure approximately twenty percent of those in prison are on remand. The fall in numbers from the 1998 high is accounted for by the introduction of Home Detention Curfew, tagging. In order to determine whether prison reduces crime we must examine how crime is measured. Official crime rates and statistics are amassed from the records of the forty three different police forces of England and Wales and published each year in Criminal Statistics.

Recorded crimes are those that the public report to the police and are adjudged by the police as recognised offences and are written down as such. Prior to the 1998 these were mainly indictable offences but in that year the Home Office expanded notifiable offences to include those such as common assault, possession of drugs, cruelty or neglect of children and further offences concerned with motor vehicles. As a result the number of offences recorded by the police rose. From the mid 1950s until 1992 there was an eleven fold increase in recorded crime.

From 1992 there has been a slight decrease. From 1982 the Home Office have collected data other than the official statistics supplied by the police. The British Crime Survey was developed. The BSC measures both unreported and reported crime. Thus it provides a measure of trends in crime not affected by changes in police method of recording crime or those crimes which the police do not record. The survey is based on estimates from a sample of the population. Therefore, the surveys results are subject to sampling errors and other methodological limitations.

The survey does not include crimes against those under sixteen years, those in institutions or commercial or public sector establishments. The survey also does not include victimless crime, crimes were the victim is unable to be interviewed, e. g. murder or manslaughter, or fraud. The BSC uncovers more crime than the official statistics, three or four times more, but comparing with the police statistics, the trends are very similar. The latest British Crime Survey shows a drop in crime between 1997 and the end of 1999, some types of offence, in particular those involving violence had risen.

By comparison in January 2001 the Home office recorded fewer crimes in more than half of the forty three police forces. The total number of recorded offences was 5. 2 million. Those caught and convicted of a criminal offence are dealt with by the criminal justice system. Imprisonment is a mode of punishing law-breakers. Depending on which view point one takes of imprisonment it can be seen as; a deterrent; public denunciation of the offender by society expressing their disapproval of his behaviour; retribution of the offender for his actions; society offering the offender the opportunity for rehabilitation.

Of those convicted approximately 17% will have a custodial sentence compared to 24% in the early 1950s. Charles Murray (1997) suggests that the risk of being sent to prison in the 1990s is eighty percent less than in the 1950s. The average length of sentence passed for adult male offenders in 1999 was 2 years an increase from 1 year 9 months in 1992, the figures for females is slightly less. The number of prisoners serving longer sentences, over four years, has increased as a proportion of all sentenced prisoners, changing from 32% in 1989 to 40% in 1999.

From this one might come to the conclusion that prisoners spend more time in prison now than in the early 1950s, this is not so. Changes in the methods of parole and release after serving half of the sentence mean that prisoners serve less of their sentence compared to the 1950s. Who goes to prison? The vast majority of prisoners are adult males, 51,949 and 7,589 young offenders. Females account for only 3,200 inmates. Of the male prison population the majority are young men under 25 years.

The poor, members of the ethnic minorities, those with no occupational skills or academic qualifications, those with learning difficulties, those who have been in local authority care, the homeless and those who have received a psychiatric diagnosis of some kind, are all represented disproportionately in prison compared to the general population. In the 1960s the approach used for dealing with offenders was far different from the policy of the later Conservative governments.

The fashion was a more humanistic approach reflecting the rehabilitation of offenders using probation officers, social workers, therapists and counsellors whose role it was to provide diagnostic and curative services for the offenders. The offender's welfare needs were paramount. This "soft approach" did not see a reduction in the amount of crime and by the 1980s the Conservative right wing insisted that "It was time to bring back punitive punishment and law and order", with the management of crime rather than its causes being the priority.

What is the purpose of sending offenders to prison? Murray (1997) suggests that sending offenders to prison removes offenders from society thus protecting society by preventing the offender from re-offending. Therefore, he claims, the amount of crime will be reduced. Murray further suggests that longer prison sentences and imprisonment for minor crimes will act as a deterrent for crime, therefore reducing the amount of offences. Wilson (1975) agrees with Murray's theories saying "Wicked people exist.

Nothing avails except to set them apart from innocent people", (by incarcerating them in prison). The conservative governments of the 1980s and early 1990s were pro sending offenders to prison, Howard (1993) stated at the Conservative party conference "Prison works" meaning that crime is reduced by sending offenders to prison. John Major stated "We should condemn more and understand less", meaning that society should not concern itself with reducing crime by tackling the causes but by tougher sentencing of offenders.

Murray suggests that crime rates have risen because of a deterioration in society's morals and behaviour. He suggests that restoring lawfulness means discarding most of the systems sympathy for the offender. A lawful system has only a minor interest why someone commits a crime. The criminal justice system is there to punish the guilty and exonerate the innocent, and serve the interest of the law abiding. Sympathy for the offender comes last. (Murray, 1997). One can see some logic in Murray's principle that sending people to prison for long periods reduces crime.

Eventually most of the habitual criminals would be "inside"; unfortunately accompanied by those who have committed relatively minor offences. But this would be at a huge fiscal and social cost and would be morally wrong. The current cost of keeping one offender in prison for one year is approximately i?? 24,000. If society and the justice system were to follow the theories of Murray then society would have to pay higher taxes and there would be more lone parents, more people dependent on social benefits etc. If the purpose of prison is to reduce crime, what happens when the offenders are released?

Narey (2001), said "Eventually all bar 23 prisons will at some time be released. " Every year almost 100,000 people are released from prison of those the majority will re-offend. The figures for 1995 are: 58% of those released from prison re-offended within two years, 52% of young males were back in prison within two years and 77% of young offenders were re-convicted within two years. For sex offenders it is a longer period, this may be as a result of cognitive-behavioural programmes like "The sex offenders treatment programme" or the "Enhanced thinking skills programme".

The first programme tries to place the offender in the victims role and to make the offender think of how his actions felt to the victim and the consequences the victim suffered. The second programme tries to get the offender to think ahead and of the consequences of his behaviour and to stop his desire for immediate gratification. Both of these programmes are hailed as a success by the prison service and they claim results in a reduction in recidivism. Therefore in these cases prison does reduce crime. But for the vast majority prison does not stop them re-offending.

Whilst in prison many offender's relationships "outside" breakdown, especially if they are incarcerated a long way from home, the result being that on their release they are homeless. A Home Office study has shown that released prisoners who are homeless are three times more likely to re-offend than others. Imprisoned offenders will lose any employment they had prior to their conviction, statistics show that many ex-prisoners find it difficult to find work and may be destined for a life dependent on social benefits or drift back into crime.

The Howard League for Penal Reform suggests that the prison regime does not help offenders leave crime behind them. Work in prison is repetitive and monotonous and pays around six pounds a week, they suggest this is hardly conducive to showing prisoners that work pays more than crime. The Howard League suggest that if prison is to reduce re-offending then the prison service need to introduce a more structured regime directed at the offenders skills and education. If the success of a prison is judged on its reducing the recidivism , then the policy should be to build more prisons like HMP Grendon.

Grendon deals with serious and violent criminals and through psychological programmes rehabilitates offenders. The recidivism of offenders released from Grendon is 20-25 % lower than other prisons. Seventy percent of those in prison are serving sentences for a non-violent offence. Violent offences include drug trafficking, those involving sex, offences involving physical assault and robbery. This seventy percent are serving short sentences, they are of no threat to other members of society and by and large they are nothing other than a nuisance.

Governments have conceded that "a spell in custody" is not the most effective punishment for less serious offenders and that the self discipline and self reliance which will prevent re-offending in the future is unlikely to be acquired in prison. Prison may cause resentment and provide the "apprentice thief" with further criminal education from his more experienced peers. Drugs are a major problem in prison, especially local prisons, with heroin being the inmates favourite as it less detectable. It is suggested that the taking of drugs has the tacit approval of the prison staff as it keeps the inmates quiet.

A number of offenders who were not drug addicts on their arrival at the prison gates are addicts by the time of their release. Prisons should not be used as a dumping ground for the mentally ill or socially inadequate petty offenders, nor for the undisciplined and immature adolescents and young men who given a little help will in most cases grow out of their criminal behaviour and become law-abiding citizens. The current government's policy of getting tough on the causes of crime may reduce crime far more than prison ever will. Other than by removing the offenders from society, prison does not generally play a part in reducing crime. (2,044 words)


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