I have had an idea which will solve the overcrowding in our jails AND help reduce the deficit at the same time.
It’s far too radical to ever get implemented, but if we even started to move towards it, the more we moved towards it, the more it would help to solve the overcrowding in our jails AND help reduce the deficit at the same time.
Here is the idea: abolish jail as a punishment for crimes against property – punish crimes against property with huge fines, and keep jail as a punishment for crimes against people.
'The system is mad'
Recently, former MP Jim Devine was jailed for 16 months for submitting false invoices totalling £8,385.
So that’s a prison place taken up, at a cost of [how much?] to the taxpayer.
Mr Devine is 58. He has been disgraced and expelled from the Labour Party. What possible purpose did his prison sentence serve for him or for society? The utter futility of that prison sentence was demonstrated when, after only 4 months, he was let out on a curfew scheme because he was such a ‘low risk’ prisoner.
Of course he was ‘low risk’! Until his conviction, Mr Devine had been a servant of the community. He was just a servant of the community who tried a minor fiddle, and was too stupid to get away with it.
Or again, yesterday I read in the newspapers that a learner driver who could not pass his test and had asked a friend to take it for him was jailed for 2 months. Hadi Mohammed was an Iraqi immigrant (a former Iraqi police officer) who wanted a driving licence because he needed one to get a job. Again, what possible purpose was it thought that this prison sentence would serve – apart from to introduce this man to a whole range of criminals?
Punishment as a deterrent
Above all, does anybody think that either of these sentences will deter anybody from doing anything in the future?
I’ll give you an example of a deterrent which works. My father was an accountant, and he told me that – if it finds that you have been fiddling your taxes – the Inland Revenue has the power to declare what it thinks your taxes should be, then charge you penalties of up to seven times the putative amount. And then, he said, it has the power to go back and review the last seven years and do the same thing.
I’m sure I’ve got that wrong, but I got the message, and it explains why I am terrified to make sure that I get my tax return right. Seven times eight times whatever sum they choose to guess is one hell of an incentive.
My Idea Part One: fines for crimes against property
Our prisons, we are told, are full. Ken Clarke even suggested that we offer to halve the sentences of rapists. And yet we keep sending people like Mr Devine and Mr Mohammed – who have harmed no one – to prison. We then PAY to keep them there, and we turn them into proper criminals. And when they come out, as jailbirds, they are unable to get jobs and we keep them on the Social Security.
The system is mad.
Why did we not fine Mr Devine? He fiddled £8,385. That, plus a sevenfold fine, postulated back seven years is £469,560.
Come to think of it, why did we not add to that all the costs of the police to catch him, the CPS to draw up the case against him, and the court to try him.? Why should I as a taxpayer pay to catch and punish him?
And if he can’t pay? Sell his house and send in the bailiffs.
And if he still can’t pay? Take half of every penny he earns (or gets in social security) until he has paid.
Now that WOULD be a deterrent to fiddling £8000 on your expenses.
But as it is, Mr Devine will come out of prison ‘with his debt to society paid’.
In fact, WE paid it!
And Mr Mohammad? Same thing, except that I would require him to attend driving lessons, so he can get the job, and then he can pay the fine and all the costs he has incurred from his wages over the next few years.
And instead of coming out of prison an unemployable jailbird and spending the rest of his days getting up to no good, Mr Mohammed will have to spent the rest of his days fully occupied working like billy-ho to repay his debt to society.
If you do this, for everyone for whom it is appropriate, you will reduce prison costs and swell the exchequer massively.
My Idea Part Two: prison for crimes against people
And what about Mr Clarke’s rapists, and other people who commit crimes against PEOPLE?
At the moment, crimes against people often seem – at least to ordinary people like me – to be punished less harshly than crimes against property.
I read on the Metropolitan Police website about a youth who, having returned home one night in 2010, smashed up the room and slashed a woman’s neck with a knife, causing a deep laceration. Although he showed no remorse for ‘his heinous act’, he received a youth rehabilitation order which required him to pay £500 compensation to the Victim, complete 240 hours of unpaid work, and observe a curfew between 10pm-7am for a six month period.
Can anybody explain to me why we sent Mr Mohammed to prison, and this unnamed youth walks free?
If we emptied our prisons of the people who we were instead fining for crimes against property, we would be able to give prison sentences for crimes against people which would give justice to those who had been harmed, and which would be a meaningful deterrent to others.
I know it sounds and simplistic, but if the youth had been sent to prison for 16 months for slashing the woman’s neck, why wouldn't it make his friends think twice before they attack their mother and her friends?