Hard evidence: does prison really work?

Give me a hand, the key’s stuck. PA

In front of British courts last year were 148,000 people who had 15 or more previous convictions, according to government figures. These reports deserve closer scrutiny.

The justice minister, Chris Grayling, has used these figures to suggest a need to rush through plans to privatise most of the probation service in order to reduce re-offending rates. “The public are fed up with crooks doing their time and going straight back to crime, and so is the government,” Grayling said.

Yet all the signs are that Britain’s probation services are doing their jobs pretty well - and there is a large and long-standing body of evidence that prison itself makes criminals more likely to re-offend.

In 1990, a Conservative white paper concluded: “We know that prison ‘is an expensive way of making bad people worse’.” That report also argued that there should be a range of community-based sentences, which would be cheaper and more effective alternatives to prison.

But just as this report was being published, Douglas Hurd was replaced as home secretary by the more hardline Michael Howard - whose first major move was to throw the white paper away, and to announce to rapturous applause at the Conservative Party conference that “prison works”.

Howard was not an outlier; as crime and punishment has become a key political and social issue over the past 30 years, the old consensus – that prison should be used as a last resort and only for the most serious offences – has disappeared in favour of a harsher approach. Most tellingly, one of the key features of the New Labour political project was a determination never to be outflanked by the Conservatives on law and order.

Blair’s mantra of “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” summed up this shift in thinking, and a series of Labour home secretaries ushered in a range of measures such as Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) and changes to sentencing. The result has been a huge increase in the prison population at a time when crime rates have generally been in decline: while ONS figures show that crime rates are at their lowest since 2002-3, statistics from the International Centre for Prison Studies demonstrate the mounting number of inmates:

How the UK’s prison population has grown.

The UK’s prison population has thus increased by an average rate of 3.6% per year since 1993. As the situation currently stands, England and Wales’s incarceration rate is 148 people per 100,000 - compared to 98 in France, 82 in the Netherlands and 79 in Germany.

England & Wales’s prison population (from the International Centre for Prison Studies)

Yet while the UK has long pursued a prisons policy that is tough by European standards, questions about the effects of imprisonment have not gone away. Recent comments by Chris Grayling about the rates of re-offending and Vicky Price’s high profile account of her time in prison show how even in the face of serious evidence-based doubts, the idea that more imprisonment is the answer still persists.

Prison doesn’t work: Vicky Pryce. Lewis Whyld/PA

While Pryce draws on both personal experience and economic analysis to argue that the prison system creates serious social problems, including re-offending, Grayling (very much a politician in the Howard mould) still cites re-offending rates to instead castigate the Probation Service, which is on the verge of being privatised. But the recidivism rates Grayling has used to argue for privatisation also need to be examined more closely.

The Ministry of Justice statistic bulletin for Probation Trusts for the year to March 2013 shows a re-offending rate of 9.18%, based on a cohort size of 616,252. This is the lowest figure since 2008; the rate of re-offending in 2008-13 has remained fairly constant at around 9.8%.

Even then, the data is not so simple. Recidivism varies sharply with prisoner age and the length of prison terms: while 47% of adults are re-convicted within a year, this applies to 58% of those on shorter sentences, while for those under 18 the figure is an astonishing 73%.

The National Audit Office study Managing Offenders on Short Custodial Sentences calculated in 2010 that the re-offending by ex-offenders in 2007-08 cost the economy between £9.5 and £13 billion – the vast majority due to offenders who have served short sentences. Meanwhile, the Ministry of Justice’s 2013 re-offending statistics show that those on community sentences offended significantly less than those given custodial terms.

While re-offending is obviously a major problem, Grayling is clearly involved in a political move to demonstrate the alleged ineffectiveness of the current probation service – a service that still has some links to the Probation Act of 1907, which established it was probation officers’ role to “advise, assist and befriend” their clients.

As the Ministry of Justice calculates that the average prison place costs £37,648 per year, around 12 times the price of the average probation or community service order, it is strange to see the apparently effective probation service blamed for problems which many would attribute to prisons themselves.

Perhaps the 1990 white paper, discarded by Michael Howard, should be dusted off again.

Hard Evidence is a series of articles in which academics use research evidence to tackle the trickiest public policy questions.