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

In times of debates on budgets, dizzying large figures are passed around. What does it really mean to curb back government by £6.25 billion? The numbers can be made a bit more concrete by thinking what you get for the money. Some estimates say the first round of cuts equals losing about 100,000 jobs in the public sector. It also seems that the cuts are just about enough to finance a potential coming round of expanding prisons.

In the run-up to the elections, only the Liberal Democrats were rejecting expanding the UK’s prison capacity. The Conservatives were committed to matching Labour’s plans of expanding prisons by 14,500 beds. In the outlined coalition agreement, any mention of policy on prisons is strikingly missing. This may mean that commitment is being scaled down. Given the Conservatives’ tough stance on law and order, an era of penal moderation seems unrealistic.

The Ministry of Justice recently estimated that the building and running costs of five Mini-Titan prisons could be up to £4.5 billion pounds. These would deliver about half of the planned increase. England and Wales already have the proportionally highest prison population of all Western European countries. After the planned expansions, it would offer Zimbabwe and Tajikistan tough competition in the statistics.

In the current state of public finances, decisions around public spending warrants stronger scrutiny than ever. Are the billions we are disbursing for locking people up really creating a safer society?

A new report by nef studies in depth the consequences of imprisonment of young people and children. The evidence reviewed for Punishing Costs shows that going through prison makes it more likely for released young people to face unemployed, to have unstable accommodation, and to live on a lower income.

The evidence also suggests that incarceration makes it more likely for young people to continue offending after they have been discharged. Prison does reduce the amount of crime for the period people are behind bars. Because of the entrenchment of criminal behaviour, its overall contributions to safety are ultimately small.

Punishing Costs shows that running prisons is even more costly than the estimates by the Ministry of Justice suggest. Holding an underage person in a Young Offender Institution costs about £100,000 per year. The New Economics Foundation report shows that the indirect costs to the state are at least a further £40,000. These are created by the continuing crime, unemployment and need for support in accommodation after release.

The former chairman of the Youth Justice Board Rod Morgan recently compared building prisons to opening new coal fired power plants. Both create mounting costs for the future. Carbon emissions damage coming generations, and prisons force us to deal with the consequences of resulting social exclusion.

What happens to young people and children that are locked up is distressing enough. The tragedy is even greater when you consider what could have been done if the same massive public resources would have been used in a more humane and productive way.

A large part of those that end up in our prisons do not pose a serious threat to public safety. According to research by Barnardo’s, 82 percent of the 12-14 year-olds that are put behind bars have never committed a violent offence.

For these children, rigorous supervision in the community combined with strong support for rehabilitation would make a real difference. This would not only be lighter on the public purse, but has also been shown to reduce re-offending more effectively.

The massive public resources dedicated to jails leave less scope for investment into the prevention of crime or more productive ways of dealing with offenders. Within the youth justice field, about ten times more is spent on locking up children than on projects to prevent them from becoming criminals.

The public support for children that need it is often not available. Community sentences that work as alternatives to custody are frequently underfunded and poor quality. This means that many young people slide through the system to the option that is most costly to society and the state – a placement in prison.

The failure of the current system can be tackled by changing the priorities of criminal justice and mainstream agencies. A reinvestment of the resources now spent on custody can be used to fill gaps of provision. The report Punishing Costs presents a policy that would make this a reality.

At present local authorities don’t pay for prison placements for children from their areas. Investing into the support that would keep children out of custody comes at an extra cost to councils. Devolving the budgets for prison places to the local level would encourage local government to give alternatives to prison and the prevention of crime the high priority they deserve.

Where local agencies are successful in reducing the need for prison, budget devolvement would allow them to keep and reinvest the funds they have saved. The policy would encourage a reallocation of resources spent on prisons to improve the welfare of children or develop disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

The same case was made for the adult justice system by a cross-party group of MPs in January. The Justice Committee’s report presented extensive evidence of how stringent community sentences and local programmes to help with substance misuse and education would deliver more in cutting crime.

The public decision about what type of punishment is appropriate should naturally go beyond mere arguments of economic efficiency. Moderation in the use of prisons rests also on the democratic ideals of public policy promoting inclusion and maintaining a humane and proportional criminal justice system.

All the same, in a historical moment when the success of a party will depend on whether or not they are trusted in the management of public finances, it has to be brought home how fiscally irresponsible and wasteful the commitment to high levels of custodial populations are.

Given the climate of fear about crime and its political salience, it may seem like a tall order for political parties to abstain from the law and order arms race. To appear tougher on crime than opponents is a tried and tested political strategy.

Research however shows that the members of the public do not favour the use of custody for crimes that are not serious, especially if they are aware of alternatives such as community sentences. This suggests that the majority, if properly informed about its ramifications, would not choose to vote for the continuation of the current dependence on imprisonment.

Making this a reality will require political parties to take leadership on the issue, and to communicate openly about the costs and effectiveness of current penal policy. They should make it clear that the amount of crime has fallen, and the increased spending on criminal justice, at the expense of other public services, can be put to question.

Rising up to this challenge would do a great deal to improve the security on our streets. At a time when no additional spending is available, policy-makers can ignore the evidence about what works only at the expense of public safety.

The Stanford economist Paul Romer remarked that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste. Nowhere is this more true than in criminal justice.

Originally written for Public Sector Executive magazine.