On Friday, Peter Hoskin lamented "the vertiginous increase in our prison population since 1990". He's right about the figures – we have indeed gone from 44,795 then to 86,634 now. He's wrong to think this is a bad thing.
Below is Hoskin's graph – with recorded crime in England and Wales superimposed on top of it. You don't have to be a statistician to see a potential connection.
Yes, it's simple and yes it's tediously intuitive and commonsensical … but having more criminals in prison rather than outside prison really does cut crime. That is the overriding lesson from this country's recent history and others', such as the once high-crime United States.
It's fine to be sceptical of how governments and police alike can massage crime figures. But it's absurd to believe that, all of a sudden, this was ramped up massively in the mid-1990s as if no one has thought of it before. Just as greed is a constant, and therefore can't explain the financial crisis hitting in 2007, police and government have always presented crime figures in the best light, and this therefore can't explain their dramatic downward trend as soon as the prison population started to rocket.
Hoskin complains about the cost of prison, saying "a year-long stay in prison costs, on average, almost as much as a year’s education at Eton".
There are a number of problems with this.
First of all, it's increasingly untrue. The new super-prisons have a cost per inmate around two thirds cheaper than the average. As he acknowledges, groups like Policy Exchange and Reform have proposed excellent means of cutting these costs.
Second, it simply ignores overwhelming evidence that the cost of crime to taxpayers, never mind victims – from the costs to courts to the costs for the NHS – is in the tens of billions. It simply dwarfs the cost of locking up criminals.
Third, even in this fiscal climate, such arguments are out of all proportion to the cost of prison – well under £4 billion per annum. Even if we released every prisoner in the country and sacked all prison guards and so on, it would save less than a 2 per cent reduction in the budget of the Department of Work and Pensions.
Most of all, it simply assumes that the conservative objective of a low crime society should be subordinate to the conservative objective of cutting spending (by however little). As JP Floru points out, the government's duty to guard people's property and personal safety is at the core of liberty as well as social order.
Hoskin mentions in passing the former Labour policy adviser Andrew Ashworth, who in a flourish of dangerous nonsense has called for a ban on imprisoning those who commit a whole host of serious crimes: theft, handling stolen goods, fraud, forgery, criminal damage.
Hoskin doesn't endorse Ashworth, but nor does he give his recommendations the scorn they deserve. We're only just emerging from a banking crisis: telling a corrupt banker in the City that he won't go to prison no matter how many millions he steals from customers is, to put it mildly, a bad idea. Telling thieves that no matter how many people they steal from they won't go to prison is a bad idea.
As well as flying in the face of reality, there's a real callousness about such thinking that a lot of people would be right to find troubling. It shows no sympathy for victims at all. Whether it's the shopkeeper plagued by thieves or the pensioner whose entire life savings are stolen, arguments for scaling back the prison population are unavoidably about trivialising the pain and loss that victims feel in order to justify soft justice.
Courts already bend over backwards to avoid sending these criminals to prison. The table below shows the number of prison and non-prison sentences for the above offences in 2012.
If 88,000 cases of thieves avoiding prison in a single year isn't too high, what is? We know already that soft alternatives to prison such as community sentences fail to protect the public and have the same or a higher reoffending rate than all but the very shortest prison sentences. The vast bulk of prisoners previously served a community sentence, sometimes dozens of times, before going on to reoffend. Soft punishments aren't only unjust – they don't work either.
The Howard League, who published Ashworth's report, is living on another planet from most people. Politicians would be crazy to join them in their determination to cut prison numbers.
Poll after poll, year after year, confirms the same story about people seeing crime as one of the top issues, and supporting much tougher sentencing. Policy Exchange's recent Northern Lights report found 69 per cent of the public agreed that "criminals should be given longer sentences, even if that means we have to build more prisons". Only 20 per cent disagreed, and they felt much less strongly. Although the public is robustly sound on this issue across the UK, those northern voters the Conservatives need to win back most are the strongest backers of tougher sentencing.
Hoskin says Chris Grayling "should certainly consider" cutting prison numbers. I hope Mr Grayling will give such ideas short shrift.