Peter Cuthbertson runs the Centre for Crime Prevention. He was the Conservative Candidate for Darlington in 2015 and for Darlington and Durham Police and Crime Commissioner in 2016.
Labour’s latest wheeze is to halve the prison population. Shami Chakrabati said a week ago today that “in the 1980s, we had about half the prison population that we have now”. She attributed this doubling of the prison population not to a desire to combat crime, but to an “arms race” between the main political parties. Diane Abbott quickly came out in support, saying how “great” these comments were.
Chakrabati defends her new approach by saying that she doubts “that the sum of human wickedness has doubled” since Michael Howard was Home Secretary. I don’t believe that it has doubled, either. But I do think that a lot more wicked people are in prison, rather than free to commit crimes outside prison. Keeping more serious and repeat offenders in prison has been vital to falling crime.
The data is overwhelming. When the prison population was last below 50,000, crime was at triple its current levels. 40 per cent of households would tell the Crime Survey of England and Wales they had been victims of crime in the previous year (compared to 15 per cent of households in the twelve months to June 2016). This is the era from which Labour now wants to derive its crime policies.
What kind of criminals would avoid prison under Labour’s proposals? As David Cameron noted earlier this year, “Prisons are not full of offenders sentenced for drug possession, licence fee evasion or petty, victimless crime. It’s actually pretty hard to get into prison in the first place.” Fewer than eight per cent of prisoners are there for a first offence, and this figure includes thousands whose violent, sexual and other offences were serious enough to deserve a prison sentence. More than 70 per cent of prisoners have at least eight convictions or cautions.
To call for any real cut in prisoner numbers is therefore to fish in some very murky waters. Let’s say that Labour want the most prolific prisoners to continue to go to prison- everyone with 15 or more previous convictions, for example. That’s already 47,000 people – half of the 95,000 who went to prison in the year ending June 2016.
So to achieve their goal of halving the prison population, everyone sent to prison with 0-14 previous offences would have to be given a fine, community sentence or some other non-custodial punishment. The table below sets out who these people are.
Almost 8,000 of them are there for violent offences, and almost 4,000 for for sex offences. Robbery and theft account for another 10,000. 33,000 were there for at least their fourth offence, and 20,000 had committed 7-14 previous offences. If Labour doesn’t want to keep every one of the above criminals out of prison, then it can only meet its target by releasing criminals with even longer rap sheets – with 15, with 25, with 50 previous convictions.
Already, two thirds of the criminals who appear before the courts with 15 or more previous convictions consistently avoid prison. Labour has to choose between massively increasing this percentage – or making sure every criminal listed in the table above walks free. Whose prison places will Labour cut?
Any passing familiarity with this country’s prison population makes clear how dangerous Labour’s plans are. Already Labour moderates like John Spellar and Sally Keeble have condemned Chakrabati’s plans – with Keeble noting that it could take years for Labour’s reputation to recover. But the Far Left who now control the Labour Party just can’t help itself. All the evidence in the world of despicable crimes won’t shift their views of Castro, Sinn Fein, Mao and so many others. Why would it change their minds about releasing tens of thousands of the UK’s most hardened criminals?