Using solutions that work to tackle the prison crisis

More imprisonment does not equal less crime, argues Irvin Waller. It's time to invest in solutions that work

By: 
Irvin Waller
Date: 
Thursday, 22 February, 2018

Once the envy of the world, UK crime and punishment policies have lost all semblance of what is smart or humane to do about crime. As always, the bureaucracy and its chorus line want to hire more staff and build more prisons. But those who want less violence and better spending of taxes want investment in proven prevention.   

The Guardian reports shock figures that reveal the state of the UK’s brutal prisons. The commentators want the release of some prisoners but mostly more funding for prisons. Alleviating the hopeless levels of overcrowding and the Dickensian conditions in our own prisons by adding to the prison capacity is doomed to failure. Judges will just fill the new capacity.

Seductive, but false

One seductive but false solution is to follow the example of Norway and Belgium who have alleviated overcrowding by renting empty prison capacity in The Netherlands.  The Netherlands has reduced its incarceration from 125 per 100,000 of its population in 2006 to 76 in 2016, mostly by reducing its crime rate but also through diversion. The Dutch are now closing prisons and making money out of the spare capacity.

Another solution for the UK is to learn from how The Netherlands was able to reduce the crime and punishment rates to achieve all these empty prisons. This is not a bad solution but in 2018, governments can do better.

Or the UK could learn from New York City which had 22,000 prisoners in its horrible city jail in the 1990s. In 2018, the Mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, plans to shut down that hell hole and build a modern jail for 5,000. New York did it by reducing the crime rate and getting police to charge misdemeanors or summary offences, instead of felonies or indictable offences, thus stopping judges from over-filling the jails.

But this misses the point. In the 1960s, Lord Butler said that for the harm done by the offender he is accountable. For the harm done because we are not using what prevents crime when it is known to us; for that we are all accountable. Well, in 2018, the knowledge of what prevents crime has never been greater and stronger and more supported by organisations such as the World Health Organization.

More incarceration does not equal less crime

The UK is well known as an excessive user of prisons – maybe not as bad as the USA, but that is cold comfort. The current population of around 85,000 in England and Wales is a per capita rate of 150 per 100,000.  Canada has a rate of 110 per 100,000 and Germany 78 per 100,000.   

The evidence is clear: that more incarceration does not equal less crime. In fact, late last year, The Telegraph was feeding the view that England and Wales are more dangerous than New York City. How come the horrific conditions and overuse of incarceration did not make England and Wales safer than New York City?

Invest in what works

The solution is reduce crime and victimisation by investing in the programmes that work rather than those that do not.

For a few brief moments in the early days of the Blair government, the UK started a policy to invest in what is effective to reduce crime. It followed the Audit Commission´s evidence-based report on Misspent Youth and a joint report produced by the Home Office and Treasury Board on the best evidence at the time.

But the money allocated was never used and so it was never delivered and was abandoned a few years later.

Today, the UK has access to significant knowledge about what is effective in stopping violent crime. I have even written a book for politicians on what is proven to be Smarter Crime Control, using knowledge from the World Health Organization, the US Department of Justice (yes they have a site on crime solutions), and the Washington State Institute on Public Policy.

This scientific knowledge shows that it is not police or prison numbers that will make UK homes and streets safer, reduce crime and so reduce the need for prisons. It is programmes that outreach to youth like the Youth Inclusion Projects; school curricular that promote peaceful conflict resolution and life skills; mentoring and jobs for youth at risk; support to recover from trauma in hospital emergency rooms. It is also early childhood care and support for parents. Many of these achieve reductions in crime by 50 per cent or more and a return on investment of five fold or better.

It is how police are used to tackle weapons and get youth to reconsider. It is police and city-wide partnerships such as the Glasgow Violence Reduction Unit. John Carnochan, the senior police officer who was one of the pioneers of the Glasgow strategy, tweeted recently that the science of violence prevention is solid. If governments do not apply it, they should be challenged.

It's public money! It's public safety! It's science!

Why not use science to solve the prison crisis and make the UK a model for the world again.


Irvin Waller is a university professor in Canada, specialising in comparing crime policies between major countries.  He is author of Smarter Crime Control, a guide to safer futures for citizens, communities and politicians. His website is irvinwaller.org and twitter @irvinwaller