Peter Cuthbertson is Director of the Centre for Crime Prevention.
Vicky Pryce’s views on criminal justice, expressed in her book Prisonomics, are drearily predictable.
She thinks prison is overused and the prison population should be halved “and perhaps continue then to decline”. Yes, she prefers community sentences. Why don’t politicians listen? Populism. Only an easily-refuted splash of feminism distinguishes her views in any way from the elevator pitch of the usual well-funded prisoner groups. The number of women in prison should be cut by 97 per cent, she writes.
Nine weeks in prison for perverting the course of justice on Chris Huhne’s behalf hardly makes her an expert. Indeed, it’s doubtful it made any difference to her views. Who in the country is demographically more likely to favour a lower prison population than a Liberal Democrat-voting civil servant on her way to Holloway Prison?
But none of this makes her wrong. Does prison deter? Does it rehabilitate? And if it does neither, what is the point of it? All of these are fair questions. It’s Pryce’s answers that are wrong. She argues that prison fails either to deter or rehabilitate, so we should slash prisoner numbers and use community penalties far more. These premises are shaky, and the conclusion doesn’t remotely follow.
First, it isn’t true that the deterrent effect can be discounted entirely. Plainly, prison fails to deter all crime, but is there really no-one it does deter?
There’s also the point that given the number of serious, repeat offenders who receive a non-custodial sentence dwarfs the prison population, why should criminals be that worried about their chances of ending up there? Pryce admits that “possibly some 50 per cent of women, don’t expect to be sent to prison at all”.
Her  scepticism of deterrence seems to come down to a view that the average criminal is too dumb to be deterred, with 32 per cent having an IQ below 80. But this points even more to the limits to educating criminals into law-abiding work, and prolonged incarceration as the surest route to public safety.
Second, we know that tough sentencing cuts reoffending. The longer the sentence, the lower the reoffending rate.
Third and relatedly, she fails to apply her scorn for prison to any of its alternatives. If she had asked herself how many of those who reoffend after a prison sentence had already completed a community sentence – or a string of community sentences – she would know the answer fundamentally undermines the idea that more community sentences are the answer to reoffending. This also shows in her figures on the fiscal costs of prison, which comfortably undermine.
Fourth, the argument doesn’t even make sense in theory. Even if prison deterred no one and cut reoffending by no one, it doesn’t follow that it has no value. To say otherwise is like arguing that “Quarantining someone doesn’t make sense if they remain infectious”. It is their very infectiousness that makes the quarantine necessary for public protection.
This is the famed ‘incapacitation effect’ – people who would otherwise be committing offences are prevented from doing so by prison. Pryce refers to this argument only briefly, and confuses it with an argument about deterrence. But the argument requires no deterrent effect – only the common sense idea that if you’re in prison you’re no threat to those outside it.
Pryce rejects the value of retribution in itself out of hand, presumably as primitive thinking that helps no one.
But even the kind of purely utilitarian calculus Pryce favours – how to minimise the number of victims irrespective of whether punishment is per se merited – doesn’t actually favour her conclusions. She goes wrong by considering it entirely from the point of view the criminal – what is the point in locking someone up for, say, six years if the sentence failed to deter them and they reoffend at the end of it? But consider it from the point of view of the hundreds of people who aren’t victims of theft in that time and the calculus looks rather different. The shift of focus towards victims – past and potential – is therefore crucial to a proper understanding of crime.
One can reject this logic only with a convinced callousness about what the crimes thereby prevented actually mean for their victims. In this respect at least, Prisonomics does offer insight into how anyone can justify to themselves support for policies that do so much harm.
The book is full of naive praise for criminals. For Pryce there was “nothing more moving” than the cheer of a lifer (almost certainly a murderess) who did well in a verbal reasoning test. She doesn’t consider this criminal’s victim – only “the role learning can play in building self-esteem”.
She is callous in her description of a “lovely if troubled Welsh girl who was in for grievous bodily harm after one incident when out drinking”. Casually trivialising the experience of people brutalised by drunken thugs is just tawdry. Probably many women are beaten up only when their partner is drunk – it’s no excuse. Maybe the woman’s poor victim was “lovely”, too? How badly was she hurt? Did the perpetrator feel guilt? Pryce doesn’t tell us. But as we know, she has a word for thinking too much along these lines – “populism”.
Clearly Pryce is moved deeply by the suffering she can see when dangerous criminals are locked up, but oblivious to the suffering she cannot see that led to their incarceration – let alone the suffering thereby prevented. It’s all very human – but it’s a terrible way to decide policy.
Pryce also grumbles about how many women “were given custodial sentences for offences that a man may have been given a suspended sentence or a caution for instead”.
It’s true that only 10.2 per cent of male offenders went to prison in 2012 – but for female offenders the figure was 2.6 per cent. For more serious, indictable offences, it was 28 per cent of males and 16 per cent of females. Perhaps this simply reflects men committing more serious crimes. But what the figures don’t support is the notion that women criminals are being unusually harshly treated by sexist male judges. In any case, if women criminals prey more on those physically weaker than themselves, then a more lenient sentencing policy for women criminals is likely to be especially bad for women.
Pryce argues that many women criminals are themselves victims of abuse – that many “had done something wrong but usually for, with, or forced to by their husbands, boyfriends, brothers or fathers”.
It’s striking how Pryce only has time for victims of crime when those victims are criminals.
But above all, one is entitled on reading this to wonder why it is so many violent men are at large in the first place. If violent men are beating women and leading them into crime, how about we lock up more violent men? It’s rather obvious, when you think about it, that if there are lots of criminals at large then they are in a good position to recruit others into crime. There is an alternative.
This is the reality with which those with liberal views on crime must wrestle. Do they want a prison cell for each criminal who is a serious threat to others, or is their measure of a society’s worth a lower prison population? It is entirely possible that after a generation or more of tough sentencing our society could be so decent, so gentle, that we could have both a low prison population and a low crime rate. We have had it in the lifetimes of many people today. For now, we have to choose.
A longer version of this review appears on the web site of the Centre for Crime Prevention.