More and more people in Britain are being sentenced to jail time: this is a fact. In 2004, there are currently over eighty thousand inmates.  (Peter Reydt, 2004 / Scottish Executive, 2003) Crime is on the increase but our prisons are already overcrowded. Consequently, new prisons will be required to accommodate prisoners. Where will the money come from to pay for the construction of new prisons? Will they have a sufficient rehabilitation programmes in place? The prison system is obviously failing because it is not acting as a deterrent.
Clearly we should now be examining why the system is failing and possible alternatives to prison. What should these alternatives be? Would they work and would they be seen as a suitable punishment? First of all, I’d like to look at why the prison service is failing. Ten years ago, Britain’s prison population was actually on the decline (Casciani, 2002). This was due to the government at the time implementing more community based punishments over the use of prison sentencing.
However, not all of the Home Secretaries of the time – Kenneth Baker and Kenneth Clarke – agreed with this policy and soon changed their minds and began to follow up on the ‘rhetoric of being ‘tough’ on crime'(Cascianni, 2002) by asking the courts to sentence more people to prison. Due to these sterner policies being put in place, the government figures in 1999 actually showed that there were now more than twenty four thousand people being sent to prison than there were ten years previous. (Cascianni, 2002) This was despite no change in the amount of adults being convicted of offences.
The government’s 2001 Halliday Report, which was put in place to investigate prison sentencing, concluded that the toughening up of sentencing did not mean that there were more serious crimes being committed. Consequently, all this ‘toughening up’ on crime just seemed to be adding more and more numbers to the prison population. Jack Straw, the Home Secretary of the time, wanted to increase the use of electronic tagging to try and help ease the numbers entering prison but, on the other hand, he wanted to toughen up sentencing for offenders he described as “the worst anti-social crimes such as burglary”(Cascianni, 2002).
This appears that Jack Straw was trying to decrease the prison population but at the same time increase it – a rather contradictory message. Since David Blunkett’s hard line speeches in 2002, the Howard League for Penal Reform who have been monitoring the prison numbers since 2001, noticed that the actual number of people being sent to prison had been constant until he started making tough speeches about crime and punishment. Since then, up to 500 more people per week have been sentenced to prison – a huge number and a huge burden on the prison service.
Because of these increases being placed on the prison population, there is now more of a financial burden on the taxpayer. To keep an offender in prison for just one year, it will cost in excess of thirty seven thousand pounds whereas it would only cost around two thousand pounds to place an offender on a community punishment order (Peter Chapman, 2003), one of the possible alternatives to a prison sentence. There is a ten-year prison-building programme already in place which will cost up to two point seven billion pounds, all at the taxpayers’ expense.
What would society’s views be about these figures? It seems logical that society would rather be paying for these alternatives, should they work, than paying this astronomical amount for jails. Currently, prisons already have schemes in place which are beneficial to the offenders. All prisoners do have education and training available to them. These involve getting taught basic and key skills where needed. There is a system that has been installed for this very purpose. It is called ‘Key Performing Targets’ and is set up to reduce re-offending.
Some other prisons offer further education, for example, GCSE’s, ‘A’ Levels and other vocational qualifications such as NVQ’s, City and Guild’s and HNC’s. (HMP Service) By having this in place in the prison system, this can only be beneficial to the offenders for it gives them a chance of getting educated and rehabilitated, thus making it easier for them to be re-integrated into society. However, even though offenders have access to these programmes and training courses, there is a downside to being incarcerated: first of all, their living conditions.
The majority of jails are overcrowded so in most cases, there can be up to three people sharing a cell. (Reyd, 2004) Also, there is a problem of bullying which can have serious effects on the inmates’ state of mind and wellbeing, which in turn can lead to self harm. Offenders in custody for the first time can find it very difficult to cope and this could lead both to self-harm and to the extreme of attempting suicide. As a matter of fact, prison suicides have reached a record high. There were more prisoners committing suicide in August of 2004 than in any month since records began.
Seventy deaths have already been reported this year. (BBC, 2004) This is a horrific thought, this cannot be allowed to continue, so what alternatives can be offered to stop this happening now and in the future? Would it help if alternatives were put in place instead of prison sentencing, and if this were the case, what would these alternatives be? The first alternative that could be used more, is the Community Rehabilitation Order where offenders are placed under the supervision of a probation officer for between six months to three years, depending on how the offender is responding.
There would be regular weekly meetings and increasing participation in mandatory Offending Behaviour Programmes. They would also have to face up to the crimes they have committed; the damage they have caused and the changes they have to make to their lives. Courts can also specify additional requirements as part of the Community Rehabilitation Order, such as living in probation hostels. Secondly, Community Punishment Orders could be used as another alternative.
This would have the offender doing unpaid work that benefits the community, for example, dredging canals; clearing graveyards; renovating village halls; creating playgrounds and painting mosques. Court orders are a minimum of forty hours and a maximum of two hundred and forty hours of work. This must be done at a rate of between five and twenty-one hours per week. The work has to be of a physical, emotional or intellectually demanding kind. Another alternative could be the combination of the two alternatives already stated. Tagging of offenders is another potential alternative.
The offender would be placed under a form of house arrest, monitored via a tag worn on the ankle. This electronic tag sends a constant signal through the phone line to a control centre. If the offender breaks the curfew the control centre is immediately alerted and authorities would respond accordingly. The curfew order lasts up to six months and the court specifies the hours the offender has to be at home, between two and twelve hours per day. The satellite tracking system, which David Blunkett calls ‘a prison without bars’ (BBC, 2004) is a further development in this technique.
Offenders can still attend community service while being monitored. This restricts the offender from entering excluded areas and if they did, the police would be alerted, much in the same way as tagging. These alternatives do have many positives aspects. By being placed in an alternative form of punishment, offenders would not only be getting help and being fully rehabilitated, but because they are serving their punishment in the community they can see they are giving something back to the community and perhaps would feel less inclined to repeat offend.
By keeping offenders serving time in the community they are being seen to be serving their punishment in society’s eyes, having their freedom restricted and being put to work in a valuable way and in turn they would see themselves as part of society. It is also important to create an attitude change in offenders. By showing the offenders the error of their ways through counselling and facing their crimes, making them aware of their rights and responsibilities and the valuable contribution they can make to society, it is possible to change the way offenders think and to equip them for a return to society.
The negative side of these alternatives would lie mainly in public opinion. Would the public feel that the offender is being sufficiently punished for the crime they have committed or would they feel that the offender had somehow have escaped punishment nor not been punished with sufficient severity? Hopefully in the future, society’s views will change to look more favourably on alternatives to prison and see their benefits. Having now examined whether to use alternatives more than using prison sentencing the alternatives seem the best way forward.
If one life – even that of a prisoner – can be saved, then this must surely be a very good idea? If these alternatives were in place they would help the overcrowding in jails and the building of more jails – which cost on average sixty million pounds each to build. (Rethinking Crime and Punishment, 2002). This would be less of a burden on the taxpayer and this money could go into developing these alternatives and having them implemented instead of prison. If the offender is shown to be fully rehabilitated and to want to give something back to society, this can only be beneficial: not only to the offender to but to society as a whole.