Reducing the numbers in custody: looking beyond criminal justice solutions

Helen Mills and Rebecca Roberts
Monday, 23 January 2012

At a time of spending cuts and continued increases to inequality, a new report argues the prison population is likely to rise further, despite the coalition's expressed aim to contain and manage prison numbers.

Reducing the numbers in custody argues that the key levers for reducing record high prison numbers are located in wider social and economic policy and not in changes to community sentences or reforms to criminal justice policy.

Drawing on respected research and the experiences of campaigners tackling high prison numbers from other parts of the world, the report argues prosperous countries which are more unequal and spend less on welfare generally have higher prison populations.

Its messages are particularly timely given the planned welfare cuts and limitations to welfare entitlement proposed in the Welfare Reform Bill currently under consideration.

This report:

  • Shows the striking correlations between income inequality, welfare spending and prison numbers.
  • Demonstrates how different countries' social welfare arrangements and approaches to marginalised groups correspond to reduced demands on the prison system compared with England and Wales.
  • Finds that while imprisonment increases have occurred across much of the western world, since the 1990s, countries such as England and Wales which spent less on welfare, experienced the greatest increases to imprisonment.
  • Suggests that to get to grips with a use of prison dramatically different from that of a generation ago we need to look outside an exhausted debate about community sentences and tinkering with criminal justice policy .

The report also contains four contributors from America and Australia who share their experiences of making new connections between prison numbers and wider social arrangements. In responding to the challenges of recognising social conditions in addressing prison numbers, Marsha Weissman outlines her position:

It is imperative to develop a coherent critique about the limits of achieving criminal justice reform within a socio-economic and political structure that privileges profits over human rights. Such a perspective understands that reform is not a "technocratic'" challenge to be solved by improved conditions of confinement or even expanded `alternative-to-incarceration' programs. It looks squarely at the social, economic and political agendas that drive our current criminal justice system.

Helen Mills, Research Associate at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies and co-author of the report said:

The size of the prison population is an indicator of certain political decisions about our social arrangements. If we want to address the record numbers in prison then we have to consider issues such as income inequality and wider social and welfare arrangements as an important part of a response to this.

Richard Garside, Director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies said:

Despite recent, short-term and minor falls in the prison population, the underlying pressure remains upwards. As the UK prison population reaches 100,000 we need to remind ourselves that there really isn't a criminal justice solution to this problem. The key decisions driving the upward growth of the prison population are being made by George Osborne's Treasury, not Ken Clarke's Ministry of Justice.