Prisoner’s Dilemma: Short Sentences Are Selling Short

It is no secret that the prison system, overstretched and understaffed, is failing its prisoners. In failing its prisoners, it is failing us all.

Regardless of whether you believe a prison’s main role is punishment or rehabilitation, the latter must generally occur for everyone’s safety. The prison system fails minor offenders, for whom it is not suitable at all. In doing so, it fails the more serious offenders; their chances of rehabilitation are severely limited by the overcrowding of prisons and all resultant chaos. If prisons fail their prisoners then they fail all of us, the public that the prison system is meant to protect.

Urgent changes are needed. In her book ‘Prisonomics’, economist Vicky Pryce states that “the impact of prisons in reducing the cost of crime to society is low”; there are “too many people in prison”. A recent BBC documentary ‘Inside Wandsworth Prison’ provided an insight into the shocking levels of overcrowding in British prisons today. Around 60% of prisons are overcrowded, with many prisoners doubling up in cells meant for one. In such environments it is impossible to give the prisoners the help they need to emerge from prison properly rehabilitated, ready to continue their lives as fully–functioning members of society.

There are two solutions to the overcrowding endemic. More prisons could be built or fewer prisoners could be taken in. The latter seems preferable given the excessive cost of imprisonment both financially (the annual average cost for each prisoner stands at an exorbitant £40 000) and socially. For example, just 5% of children “stay in their own homes when their mother goes to prison”. Many end up in care which is both hugely expensive and the seed of serious intergenerational problems. Those who have been in care are far more likely to end up in prison themselves. Replacing prison sentences for more minor crimes with alternatives, such as community sentences, would help to reduce the overpopulation of prisons, enabling those with more serious convictions to be better assisted on the road to leading “law–abiding and useful lives”.

Short prison sentences for minor offences are not working. Approximately two thirds of those sentenced at all courts to immediate custody receive sentences of twelve months or less, yet almost 60% of adults leaving prison following short sentences are reconvicted within twelve months. Court orders under probation supervision are considerably more effective (by around 7%) at reducing one-year proven reoffending rates than short custodial sentences for similar offenders. Pryce describes the dismal failings of the prison system for short sentence prisoners; many learn “nothing to help them survive life on the outside”, instead gaining “a distrust of authority and bleak prospects for future employment”. Those in positions of power in the criminal justice and prison system must be both presented with and educated about viable alternatives to custodial sentences.

One alternative to short prison sentences would be supervised intensive community programmes. Indeed, the National Association of Probation Officers found that around £300 million would be saved annually if the majority of those receiving custodial sentences of six months or less were instead sentenced to such programmes which have considerably lower reconviction rates. Whilst community punishments are seen as “soft” by the majority of the population, the former president of the Prison Governors’ Association, Eoin McLennan–Murray, stated that “community punishments are better at cutting reoffending”, making people “less dangerous” and therefore benefiting society.

Another way to reduce prison populations would be the decriminalisation of the possession of drugs for personal use. In 2013–14, 38 120 people were sentenced in court for drug possession, 1141 of which were sent to prison. This is a huge waste of time and resources. To the extent that it does not harm third parties, what a person chooses to put into their own body should be their decision alone. If the government has a role to play in preventing the consumption of harmful substances, it should act to discourage rather than to punish. Sending drug users to prison, where Pryce describes that “access to drugs [can be] easier than on the outside”, is not working and detracts from the resources available to other inmates.

19% of heroin users in prison first tried heroin on the inside. Prison is, in many cases, the wrong place for drug users to lose their dependency. Portugal decriminalised low–level possession and use of all drugs in 2001. They have since seen no increase in the rate of drug use and a rise in the number of people receiving drug treatment. If the British government followed a similar policy to that of Portugal, they could free up huge amounts of money to spend on drug education and rehabilitation programmes which would reduce drug use and dependency more than a prison sentence ever could.

Pryce believes that prison does not work for most people; it is poor value for money. Statistics suggest that she is right. Switching many custodial sentences for more trivial crimes to community sentences would reduce reoffending in these prisoners, both saving money and reducing overcrowding of prisons, enabling more resources to be channelled towards the rehabilitation of those remaining inside. It is time to end the obsession with custody to create a safer country for all.


  1. […] Things do not have to be this way. Portugal is a great example of how the decriminalisation of the use of drugs can do much good – without leading to a hike in use! Portugal now has an overdose rate more than five times lower than the EU average and a legal high usage rate lower than any other country with comparable data. Since implementing the policy in 2001, HIV infections have also fallen. Portugal’s treatment of drug use as a public health issue rather than a criminal one has led to resounding success, with a rise in the number of people receiving drug treatment. A drugs decriminalisation policy similar to that of Portugal could work equally well here, particularly given the well–documented evidence suggesting that prison is often the wrong place for drug users to lose their dependency. […]

  2. Statistical analysis by William Collins has shown that if men were treated the same as women throughout the judicial system, something like 85% of them would not (any longer) be in prison! That would certainly be one way to clear prison over-crowding: simply give men equality under the law.

    That would not make most of us happier, I suspect. People like Philip Davies MP would prefer to make prison harsher for the most serious crimes but his attempts to get equality under the law have been met with derision by fellow MPs and feminists alike. Indeed, so enteenched is political correctness on this issue that there is a petition raised to counter all the calls to silence the one MP who is willing to stand up for equality for everyone. We should all support a politician willing to be a whislte-blower on government lies, regardless of his other political viewpoints.

    I think there are some crimes, and some criminals, where prison should be the only option. However, the thought that if you get mugged (or murdered, or vandalised, etc.) by a man you can get justice but that if you get the same by a woman, you are treated as a second-class citizen, is abhorrent. There should be equality of justice for everyone regardless of the criminal’s religion, age, skin colour or sex.


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