I see the politics of prison are back in the news again.
As a fairly strict libertarian, I am faced with the apparent conundrum of having to support some agency, whether it be the state or some other agency depriving someone of their liberty. But the reality of it is that there is no conundrum at all: if Person A does Person B some harm, then they need to be punished. This could be harm to their person, their possessions , their reputation. The punishments for these should vary on the nature of the harm done, but for certain severe crimes it is quite reasonable to lock someone up for an extended period. For particularly severe crimes, taking someone out of society forever is an entirely reasonable sanction. I would draw the line at the death penalty, because it is possible for people to be wrongfully found guilty and freed — it’s very difficult to reverse a death sentence!
The real debate here is not about the need for prison, but the issue of recidivism: what happens with people who repeat criminal activity. Many “bleeding hearts” and wringers of hands will claim that sending anyone to prison merely encourages them to follow a life of crime. There is much talk of “rehabilitation”, but really, this is a nonsense. We live in a society full to the brim with opportunities to learn useful skills, there is little need for prisoners to be “rehabilitated” through any special program.
It is true that most people will have a reluctance to employ a former jailbird, but that is part of the natural ostracisation that comes about when you transgress. It is surely up to the former criminal to redouble their efforts to find a way to prove their worth and earn the right to come back into society. And many do.
These people are “good news” and as such, are not newsworthy and enjoy no headlines in the papers. It may well be that some “rehabilitation” programs have benefit, but for the most part, people are either inclined to criminality or they are not. It is extremely rare in the UK that a first offence will get you jail time, so the chances are that if you have been to jail, you are predisposed to criminal activity and have had lesser punishments applied to no avail, or your first offence was particularly severe.
The pure and principled Libertarian position is that each offence should really be treated separately, the idea being that if you have done your time, society should consider you punished and the slate should be wiped clean.
But I’m not sure that this principle takes cognisance of human nature. Studies have shown that crimes against property, such as theft and robbery have extraordinarily high rates of recidivism, in some cases as high as 80%. In other words, once someone has started on a path of property crime, they don’t stop. And it is at this point where my stance on jail time and that of pure libertarianism diverge: I fully support the idea of a “three strikes and you’re out” policy. I also firmly believe that a previous history of proven criminal behaviour should be considered when sentencing. Anybody can make a mistake once or even twice, but there comes a time when you have to accept that someone is not interested in going straight.
The Home Office estimates that half of our crime is caused by a hard core of 100,000 repeat offenders. By simply doubling the number of prison places:
- these people can be removed from society either permanently or for a very, very long time
- we will have ample place to punish people who commit serious crimes but aren’t recidivist and
- ensure that prisoners cannot justify any demands for early release on the grounds that “overcrowded prisons infringe their human rights, innit?”
The Tories may be winning plaudits from social libertarians for their soft touch policies, but the truth of it is that MPs will rarely, if ever, be on the receiving end of the tender ministrations of regular criminals and this is just an exercise in meeting budget targets with no likely consequences for Ken Clarke and his fellow members of the ruling class. The cost of building a mass of new prisons and running them is much lower than what crime costs us all.
If the government was serious about improving life for us and slashing the £40,000,000,000 that crime costs us all every year, they’d focus their efforts on doing the things they should do and not the things that make them look good in the Guardian.