Khan is right: prison doesn’t work, but welfare does

by David Talbot

In today’s Guardian, Sadiq Khan, the shadow justice secretary, signalled a shift in Labour’s approach to criminal justice. New Labour, Khan argues, made a mistake by “playing tough” on crime and allowing the prison population to soar to record levels during its time in government, instead of tackling sky-high reoffending rates. His central argument is that New Labour relied too heavily on hardline rhetoric and the supposition that rising rates of imprisonment were in itself a desirable policy. His welcome, and overdue, foray represents the first attempt by a senior Labour figure to detail the party’s new direction on penal policy.

No doubt part of the reason New Labour trumpeted this tough stance was the fear that rehabilitation and reoffending would be seen as “soft on crime”, which meant that New Labour did not do anywhere near enough to explore approaches which could have been more effective in reducing crime. First, it involves rejecting the idea of a simple equation between a rising prison population and lower crime; and second, looking beyond the criminal justice system is crucial to reducing crime.

It is well established in research literature that prisons are schools for crime, unless a very strong emphasis is put upon rehabilitation. Moreover, being locked up may exacerbate the problems of those with drug and mental health problems, of whom there are many among convicted reoffenders. The argument that prison doesn’t work is based on re-offending and rehabilitation. Britain is jailing more people than ever before and jailing them for longer, at a time when falling crime rates have continued on a fourteen year trend. As for the much-recited, usually right wing, rallying cry of “build more prisons” to ease the prison over crowding, it fails to hold up under scrutiny. Wherever prisons are built, the courts will make use of them. So, if more prisons are built, the courts will just use them – more prisons, more prisoners, overcrowding maintained. It is odd that it is usually the right that is desperate for more prisons. Where did their desire to minimise wasted public sector expenditure go?

A variety of studies have proven that there is an inverse relationship between rates of imprisonment and welfare spending. Countries with the most generous welfare systems have the lowest proportions of people in prison, and the lowest rates of crime generally. It is easy to see why this should be so. A well-functioning welfare system protects people against extreme poverty and loss of income, as well as cultivating a sense of solidarity with the wider community. Looking across 18 developed countries, Professor David Downes and Dr Kirstine Hansen of the London School of Economics found a striking negative link between the share of national income devoted to the welfare state on the one hand, and the number of citizens behind bars on the other. All seven of the nations most given to incarceration have below-average welfare spending; and all but one of the eight countries with the lowest prison population spend atypically heavily on welfare.

This isn’t particularly new research – Downes and Hansen first published these findings in 2006 – but the degree to which it has been ignored by the political class is surprising. If Khan is serious about moving beyond New Labour’s stance, then these proposals ought to form at least part of Labour’s new approach. Policy focusing exclusively on the criminal justice system ran up against its limits after 13 years. A focus on rehabilitation and reducing reoffending was too often readily seen as being soft on crime, when in fact it is effective in reducing crime. While in an age of austerity it will be political challenging to argue for a more generous welfare state, increasing evidence shows that it cuts poverty and exclusion. And with it the risk of crime and incarceration.

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2 Responses to “Khan is right: prison doesn’t work, but welfare does”

  1. Tacitus says:

    Excellent!!!! Oh that Labour would take a more humanitarian approach to crime and prisons.

    I first started taking an interest in crime back in 1976 – at that time Roy Jenkins was Home Secretary. He said at that time that if the prison population ever reached 42,000 our prisons would collapse. About 35 years later the prison population has nearly doubled yet this doesn’t reflect any significant increase in the overall population. Magistrates and judges have become more inclined to send people to prison.

    Now we send them in petty criminals and tehy are discharged as drug abusers with the tools to become a serious societal problem. It makes no sense and Labour should be at the heart of prison reform. Ove rthe years we have been far too retiscent to suggest alternatives to prison. It’s time for us to be brave and start telling people the facts – prison rarely works – it is not a place to rehabilate people, it is purely there to punish … and punishment rarely works.

  2. Robin Thorpe says:

    I am in agreement with this article and Khan’s proposals for two very important reasons;

    Firstly, as Tacitus commented, it is right that the Labour PArty should promote humanitarian and progressive resolutions to problems.

    Secondly, because it appears to be evidence-based. If only we had more emphasis on evidence and less on opinions then I am sure many issues could be handled more adroitly. The first example that comes to mind is the handling of the economy by Osborne. He is using Tory tactics that failed to work in the 80’s to solve a different set of economic problems. If that is not blind ideology I can’t think of a better example. My second example would be Blair’s handling of the road pricing issue at the beginning of the 21st Century. Despite evidence that extending road pricing beyond London and the M6 toll would help contain traffic volumes in cities and would provide revenue to invest in public transport he capitulated to an organised protest by fans of Top Gear to abandon the policy; even claiming that he had never seriously considered it.

    I applaud Khan for speaking out in favour of the most efficacious proposal, not the most populist. People can be persuaded by reason and logic.

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