Britain's Prisons: Budgeting Behind Bars

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Andy Aitchison / In Pictures / Corbis

Jailhouse cuts Governments can save money with early releases and lighter sentences

Not even justice is recession-proof. On June 29, U.K. Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke announced radical prison reforms meant to save the government money while shutting "the revolving door of crime and reoffending." Now, as the coalition government embarks on a review of sentencing policy, critics and supporters alike are speculating that the need to prune the budget will pave the way for alternative sanctions, more lenient sentencing and ultimately a reduced prison population. As Andrew Neilson, assistant director of the London-based Howard League for Penal Reform, says, "A fiscal crisis can create the space for a sensible strategy of decarceration."

Around the world that theory is being put into practice as officials find themselves forced to rethink tough-on-crime measures in search of cheaper, more cost-effective strategies. In the U.S., where prisons cost taxpayers $50 billion in 2008, a number of states have already tightened their penal purse strings. Last year, Michigan closed eight jails to help tackle the state's $1.4 billion deficit, and it plans to reinvest some of the $120 million of the savings into mental-health and drug-treatment programs for former inmates. In March, California enacted legislation that will release 6,500 low-risk inmates by the year's end — and save the state, which currently faces a $20 billion deficit, an estimated $100 million. And on June 30, New Hampshire lawmakers decided to free all prisoners nine months ahead of schedule, saving the state around $8 million over five years. Recession-minded reforms like those helped 27 U.S. states reduce their prison populations last year; nationally, state prisons housed 5,000 fewer inmates at the beginning of this year than they did in 2009, the first year-on-year drop in four decades.

Like the U.S. legislators before him, Britain's Clarke framed penal reform in economic terms — a move that no doubt stems from the government's attempt to eliminate the nation's $230 billion deficit within four years. Keeping a prisoner behind bars in Britain costs, on average, about $57,000 annually — more than it costs to send a child to Eton, the elite boarding school for boys. All told, the government spends about $3.3 billion annually locking up offenders. Despite that hefty investment, though, reoffending rates rose 8% from 2006 to 2008, and more than 60% of offenders wind up back in jail within two years of release. And the cost is set to climb further still. Britain's prison roster has nearly doubled since 1993 to 85,000 inmates. England and Wales together now have the largest prison population in Western Europe and one of its highest rates of incarceration, jailing 154 of every 100,000 residents, compared with 111 in Italy, 87 in Germany and 71 in Norway.

To make a dent in spending, Britain will need to do more than reduce the number of people it locks away. "Prisons that run half empty still cost almost as much as prisons that run full," says the Howard League's Neilson. "Is the government really prepared to be radical and ax 10% of our oldest, most run-down prisons and reduce the inmate population accordingly?" It might be, since it has the option of replacing some prisons with newer facilities. Under the previous Labour government, Britain embarked on a $6.3 billion prison-building program — the largest in Western Europe — with plans for five supersized jails that will boost the number of available prison slots from 87,000 to 96,000 by 2014. The Conservatives have pledged to complete them.

Britain's government hasn't fleshed out specific policies yet, but Clarke has hinted that to effect real change in an inmate's life, prisons must incorporate education, jobs and programs to combat drug addiction. The state may provide "intelligent sentencing" like community sentences for offenders serving less than one year, which would allow 60,000 people to avoid jail annually. At the moment, many of those who are sentenced to short jail terms lose their jobs, their homes and their families — and that's led to a staggering 70% reoffending rate among these prisoners. Clarke also plans to reward voluntary and private-sector programs that rehabilitate offenders inside and outside prison.

The proposed reforms have sparked unease among some Conservatives, who won re-election on a platform of locking up more criminals, lengthening sentences and, in some cases, converting derelict ships into floating jailhouses to boost capacity. Michael Howard, former Tory party leader, is skeptical about Clarke's plans. He pointed out that when he was Home Secretary "crime went down as the prison population started to go up." The Labour opposition has also jumped into the fray. Writing in the Daily Mail, Labour MP and former Justice Secretary Jack Straw claimed that society is safer because there were 75% more "serious and violent offenders" in prison in June 2009 than there were in 1997, when Labour came to power. "Does anyone seriously believe that crime would have come down and stayed down without these extra prison places?" he wrote.

International experience suggests that it could have done just that. In the mid-1990s, Canada faced a budget crisis that required the government to cut public spending by 20%. As part of those cuts, officials reduced the country's prison population by 11%. The state released low-risk inmates and introduced more community-based sentences, while courts started turning to prison only as a last resort. Crime didn't surge, nor did chaos reign: over the course of the decade, the number of assaults and robberies actually fell 23%, burglaries declined 35% and murders dropped an astonishing 43%.

Finland also offers a promising model. "Our experience shows that it's possible to reduce dramatically the use of imprisonment without having any visible or notable effect on crime rates," says Tapio Lappi-Seppala, director of Finland's National Research Institute of Legal Policy. In the late 1970s, he says, the country had one of the highest imprisonment rates in Europe, incarcerating three times as many people as its Nordic neighbors did. But after academics suggested that Finland rethink its penal philosophy to align it with values of the welfare state, officials reduced sentences, expanded alternative sanctions, made greater use of parole and reallocated money from prisons to social-welfare services — and watched imprisonment rates fall dramatically. Today the country incarcerates just 60 residents per 100,000, less than half the rate in Britain and a fraction of the rate in the U.S., which currently has 748 people per 100,000 in prison — the highest rate in the world. "If you look at overall empirical criminological research, you'll see that what works to reduce crime isn't the prison system but social prevention," Lappi-Seppala says.

Back in Britain, Clarke hasn't drawn heavily on the empirical research but is instead keeping to the theme of austerity. "What I want to use the taxpayers' money for is results," he told the BBC. "The real challenge — if you are faced with a difficult, inadequate, not very nice person — is to try to make sure that he does not commit another criminal offense." That's an approach that has currency in any economic climate.