It was early morning when I heard muffled whispers and scuffling shoes. Looking out the window, I saw my bike being lifted over a fence by two clearly wasted teenagers. Storming outside, I yelled at them and, after threatening me, they ran off empty-handed. Within minutes, the police had arrived and caught the hapless bicycle thieves.
Days later, the police called back. They said one of the youths, an 18-year-old, was a repeat offender so would be sent before magistrates. The other was 16, and had never been in trouble before. They were keen to ensure he did not offend again, and asked what I would like to see done with him.
After learning more about the teenager, who was being brought up by a single mother suffering from multiple sclerosis, I opted for the most lenient option: four hours work with disabled children. I also went to a meeting with him and his mother. He hung his head in shame, avoiding eye contact, while his mother was clearly still angry and upset.
Several supposedly liberal friends were shocked by my failure to request a tougher sanction. Crime and punishment turns soft-hearted people into hard-liners. Feelings run deep, especially in the poorest areas, since those with least to lose suffer most.
But after nearly two decades of simplistic slogans and cheap political stunts in place of criminal justice policies, we need to confront an inescapable truth: prison does not work. Or at least, not if we want to cut crime and rehabilitate prisoners.
In recent weeks, as part of the Government’s transparency agenda, a tidal wave of data has been released. This flood of information is among the most revolutionary aspects of the Coalition’s reforms. The facts emerging on prisons are so alarming that even Michael Howard and David Blunkett should question their tough-guy tactics, which led to a near doubling in the number of prisoners since Ken Clarke was last in charge in 1993.
Take the figures on reconviction rates of individual prisons. At the worst of them – including High Down in Surrey and Elmley in Kent – more than seven out of 10 inmates end up behind bars again. These are terrible levels of recidivism. There can no longer be the slightest doubt that our criminal justice system is failing to divert persistent offenders from lives of crime.
Clearly there is a need to lock up dangerous people and punish persistent offenders. But short-term sentences often do more harm than good. And with crime looking like it may be on the rise again due to the economic downturn, our policies need to start being driven by evidence rather than rhetoric.
The failure to break the cycle of crime is costing a fortune. Each of the 85,000 inmates in our prisons costs £38,000 a year, to say nothing of the time and money spent capturing them.
The new data also shows that prisoners who start a community punishment on probation have reoffending rates seven per cent lower than those discharged from prison sentences of less than one year. This could be because they are at an earlier stage in their criminal life and easier to derail from a life of crime – or it could be that prison is part of the problem, not the solution.
The notion that minor miscreants become hardened crooks in jail does not hold water, since by the time people reach prison they tend to be locked into committing crime. But they do pick up worse drug habits, and any stability in their lives, such as a job or family life, is disrupted.
Look at what happened in Canada in the early Nineties as part of the government’s austerity programme. Low-risk inmates were released early and there was a move towards community-based sentences. The result was huge falls in crime.
Even more telling is the example of Finland, which switched from one of the highest levels of incarceration in Europe to one of the lowest. Their conclusion, after endless studies? Levels of imprisonment made no difference whatsoever to crime rates – but the softer regime allowed more money to be spent on tackling the social problems that lie behind crime.
To his immense credit, Ken Clarke, driven by liberal instincts as much as by financial imperatives, has pledged to stem the unsustainable rise in the prison population. His views are not shared by all his Cabinet colleagues. A green paper on new sentencing guidelines, due out before the end of the year, will see the result of the internal discussions. One thing is sure: there will be an emphasis on payment by results to groups cutting recidivism and drug abuse.
But if fewer people go to jail, we must improve community punishments. They are distrusted by the public and treated as a joke by most offenders. Incredibly, in places such as Kent, many offenders end up working in charity shops, something done voluntarily by more public-spirited souls.
A paper coming out this week by Policy Exchange offers one solution, calling for the adoption of work orders, with more intensive labour on highly visible projects. It points to the success of schemes in Maryland and Minnesota, where offenders have built 300 houses for low-income families. Given the cutbacks in social housing budgets, this could solve two problems at once.
There is also growing interest in the “Diamond Initiative” being tested in six London boroughs. Based on a US idea called “justice reinvestment”, specialist teams led by police help offenders get jobs, homes and treatment for addiction after release. It has cut reoffending among lifestyle criminals by a third. It is estimated that by spending £8million, this policy could save the capital’s justice system £60million.
This is the sort of smart, holistic approach that can reduce crime, save money and improve life for everyone. For too long we have thrown the most damaged people behind bars, then expected overflowing prisons to solve some of the most intractable problems in society. Now we know prison just makes matters worse.