Bookmark and ShareAleksi Knuutila is a researcher in the Valuing What Matters programme at nef

In difficult times for state finances, prison is the only public service enjoying growing investment. The plans to expand prison capacity faced strong criticism from a major report by a cross-party committee, released yesterday. The Common’s Justice Committee latest report demands that the government should reallocate resources to more effective ways to reduce crime.

The Government in the future faces a tough choice: to continue with the expenditure trajectory the current administration is embarking upon with its prison-building plan, or to reinvest the public’s money in attempts to reduce the need for new prisons in the first place.

The Committee is right in recommending shifting resources spent on inefficient punishment towards rehabilitation and the prevention of crime. All the evidence suggests that this approach is not only more humane, but will be more effective for potential victims of crime as well as state finances. To be truly tough on crime is to stop it at its roots.

The Valuing What Matters team at nef will publish research in the end of February that will show how the policies advocated by the Justice Committee can be put into practice in the sphere of youth justice. It will demonstrate the full social consequences to society of imprisoning children, which go beyond the high bill to the state. The report will also outline policies that will empower local authorities to comprehensively prevent young people from getting into trouble with the law.

Such shifts in state activity sometimes seem so obvious that they beg the question: Why is it not happening? One of the reasons is the tabloid media that are constantly placing pressure on government for harsher, symbolical reactions on crime. The Daily Mail, for instance, responds to the Committee report in the following way:

The prison population should be slashed by a third – putting 28,000 offenders back on the streets, according to a group of MPs.

The justice select committee says Britain will have 96,000 prisoners by 2014 – the highest incarceration rate in western Europe – but spending £4.2billion on building the extra 12,000 prison places needed is a ‘mistake’.

The committee wants the prison population to be stabilised at its current level of 84,000 – then slashed by a third.

It would leave 56,000 inmates in jail and put 28,000 criminals on the streets.

An observant reader will immediately note that the Committee did not want to release inmates out of custody. They recommended creating conditions that will lead to fewer offences being committed, reducing the need for prison beds in the first place. The Mail’s text is hence slightly ambiguous: Did they misunderstand the report? Or are they claiming that that the 28,000 that averted prison should be considered criminals regardless of whether they break the law?