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Rethinking Calls for Rational Approach to Prison Policy

Rethinking Calls for Rational Approach to Prison Policy

“With a declining crime rate, and prison numbers forecast to decrease down to 170 per 100,000 by 2021, government should take the opportunity to review penal policy” says Kim Workman, of Rethinking Crime and Punishment.

“It is truly positive news, and the first forecasted drop in living memory. But let’s keep it in perspective. Five years ago, the rate was 160 per 100,000, and in 1992 it was 119. The projected figure of 170 is still higher than Spain (164), England and Wales (154) and Canada (116).

“High levels of imprisonment are currently justified on the grounds of ‘incapacitation’ - that locking up offenders is a uniquely effective strategy for protecting public safety. The government needs to consider whether this view is based on scientific evidence, or uninformed arrogance.”

“The basis for the policy is that many offences are saved – but no one knows the extent to which that is true. It can depend on factors such as the offender’s risk level, and whether they are at the start or the end of their criminal career – given that the bulk of offending occurs between the ages of 15 and 22.”

“We are asking the wrong questions. A more rational approach would to consider whether more crime is saved through incapacitation versus placing offenders in community-based alternatives, and how the savings might be more effectively invested in crime prevention. Such an approach would ask questions based on what we already know about the effect of imprisonment.”

Recent research tells us that:

• Offenders with comparable offending histories who are imprisoned rather than placed on community based sentences, reoffend more quickly. One major study showed a 14% increase in reoffending by released prisoners, in comparison to those dealt with in the community;

• First-time imprisonment is followed by an increase in criminal activity;

• The criminogenic (crime-causing) effect of prison is especially high for drug offenders, who are 5 to 6 times more likely to reoffend than those placed on probation. Currently, we invest heavily in prison-based drug treatment, while the Ministry of Health shuts down community based drug treatment programmes.

• Low-risk offenders are negatively impacted by prison, and reoffend at a high rate, regardless of the type of treatment offered. Seventy percent of the current prison population will be released within the next seven months; and most of those are low risk.

• For high-risk offenders, the impact of imprisonment varies by whether inmates received appropriate rehabilitation (which reduces recidivism) or inappropriate treatment;

• There is no evidence that prison deters. Harsher conditions are associated with increased recidivism.

An evidence-based approach, based on the available research, would lower the imprisonment rate even further, save taxpayer money, at still maintain public safety.


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