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Friday, 1 March, 2002, 17:16 GMT
Head to head: Overcrowded prisons
New figures are expected to confirm that Britain's prison population has hit a new record of 70,000, prompting prison governors to call for drastic action to tackle overcrowding.

Criminal Justice Association director Peter Coad says society must be protected from persistent offenders. But the Howard League's Frances Cook says helping prisoners re-integrate with the community is the only long-term solution.

Peter Coad

It is nonsense to suggest that prison populations should be reduced because the crime rate is falling.

It is Because prison populations continue to rise that the crime rate continues to fall.

The facts are that from 1993 to 1998 the prison population rose by 51% and the crime rate fell by 21%, representing about a million fewer crimes.

To maintain the fall in the crime rate, ever increasing numbers of persistent and serious offenders must be given custodial sentences.

While they are serving prison sentences the public is protected. That is the prime responsibility of the criminal justice system.

Although it is claimed that there is very little difference between the reconviction rates of those given custodial sentences compared with those supervised in the community, research tells a different story.

For those serving sentences of up to 12 months the reconviction rates are about 58%. For those with sentences of four to 10 years, the rate falls to 26%.

The message could not be clearer. Sentences must be longer and in increasing lengths for persistent offenders.

There are no effective community supervision programmes that can substitute for prison sentences. It is therefore madness to suggest that magistrates should not be allowed to impose custodial sentences.

It is vitally important that those who are caught are dealt with in a manner that will deter others. Equally important, the police must feel that the courts are supporting them.

There is no need to build expensive prisons. There are many former MoD camps that could be used.

In 1939 we soon found secure premises for thousands of prisoners of war.

It can be done again.

Frances Crook

The Howard League has been warning of a crisis in our prisons for some time now.

The government must stop pretending that locking up ever increasing numbers of people protects the general public from crime.

Despite having the one of the highest prison populations in Europe, people's fear of crime is at an all-time high.

We know that over 50% of offenders released from prison will re-offend within two years and for males under 21 years this percentage is over 70%.

Locking up more and more people is not the answer.

Each new prisoner costs 500 per week, and each new prison costs the same as two new district general hospitals or 60 new primary schools.

It is time for David Blunkett to be honest.

He should admit that taxpayers' money would be better spent on schools and hospitals than yet more prisons and that crime would be more effectively tackled by focusing on some of the most effective restorative and community-based sentences.

Prisons should be used to house only the most serious and violent offenders.

The time prisoners spend behind bars should be used to get them off drugs, prepare them for work and clearly instil an understanding of their responsibility as members of a community, which is impossible when prisons are almost bursting at the seams.

If the state persists in locking up illiterate, addicted and socially excluded (often young) people in dank, decaying and overcrowded Victorian cells for up to 23 hours a day, we can hardly be surprised if the same people leave prison and fall back into their old criminal ways within a matter of months.

See also:

04 Feb 02 | UK Politics
'Reform or bust' on prisons - Blunkett
04 Feb 02 | UK
The prison population
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