'No chance of success' for government prison policy

Thursday, 5 May 2016

The Ministry of Justice’s plan to reduce the prison population through a reduction in reoffending 'has almost no chance of success', the former New York City corrections and probation director Michael Jacobson writes in today's Guardian.

He also cautions against plans to build new prisons, arguing that 'you simply cannot build your way out' of the problem of prison overcrowding.

Michael Jacobson was in charge of the New York prison system during a period in which the daily jail population fell from 20,000 in the early 1990s to some 8,000 by 2005. The fall coincided with New York's well-publicised 'crime drop', which saw homicide fall by 69 percent and recorded violent crime by 64 percent.

As Jacobson notes in his book, Downsizing Prisons, 'the largest and most well publicized crime decrease in the country was accomplished with not an increase but a decrease in the use of prison'.

He urges the government to avoid making the same mistakes as the US, where failed 'tough on crime' policies caused the US prison population to rocket. Instead, it should aim to downsize prisons across England and Wales.

Our Director, Richard Garside, who hosted a visit to London by Mr Jacobson some years ago, welcomed his intervention:

There are few people better placed to speak about the folly of US-style 'tough on crime' policies than Michael Jacobson. He led one of the most remarkable prison downsizing experiments in recent memory and has much to teach the UK about how to do it.

Britain's bloated prison estate will only be effectively downsized as part of a broader programme to downsize the criminal justice system across the board. This means fewer police, fewer courts, magistrates and judges, fewer prison and probation officers, fewer public servants of various descriptions processing fewer arrestees, suspects and convictees.

Through our Justice Matters initiative we have developed a toolkit to aid in the development of effective policy and practice approaches, so that many current criminal justice responses are not required at all.