Peter Cuthbertson is a Conservative activist and Director of the Centre for Crime Prevention.

Last week, Peter Franklin acknowledged one of the great conservative success stories of our generation. The dramatic fall in crime after Michael Howard ramped up the prison population was the first time this had been achieved in decades. Yes, prison works.


In a brilliant turn of phrase, Peter warns that simply cutting prison numbers for cash savings risks “a very literal case of robbing Peter to pay Paul – of transferring the costs of crime from the state to the streets”. He is right to be concerned about the risk to the public. He’s wrong to think better policing is enough to mitigate these risks, or even that the state will save any money by cutting prisoner numbers.

For decades, those of us who support tough sentencing have faced denials of its effectiveness from within the political class (by contrast, the public is reliably robust in its views).

But increasingly we see a strange new kind of anti-pragmatism emerging which admits that locking up serious, repeat offenders is very effective, but is still determined to U-turn on the flimsiest of pretexts. “Tougher sentencing is clearly working, so let’s look for something else to do instead!” would be an odd battle cry, and an unwise policy.

In reality, even the cost argument falls apart after a moment’s scrutiny. You can’t make big savings from the prisons budget for the simple reason that the prisons budget is £3.8 billion – 0.5 per cent of a total Managed Expenditure of £732 billion.

We spend far more on the railways, twice as much on foreign economic aid, more than 8 times as much on defence, 10 times as much on education, 10 times as much in debt interest, 29 times as much on pensions, 34 times as much on health and so on.

pie chart

So Michael Howard did not massively increase the cost to the public purse – for the simple reason that the cost to the public purse of prisons remains tiny.

Then there’s the fact that new prisons are much cheaper per inmate – some as low as £13,000 per annum, rather than the old £38,000. Or there’s the fact that the cost of crime itself – including to the taxpayer through courts and NHS spending – is massively higher than the cost of preventing it.

Proposing cuts in prisoner numbers, a tiny item of expenditure, isn’t being “serious” about small government. It is ignoring one of the core duties of government – protecting life, liberty and property – while grossly inflating spending on crime by the NHS and the courts.

In exploring alternatives to the policies that we know work, Peter asks some of the right questions – above all, what is the alternative?

Usually, the proffered alternative is just wishful thinking about rehabilitation schemes that have failed for decades. In the old joke, an economist marooned on a desert island with plenty of tinned food, but no obvious way to open the cans, announced: “Assume a can opener!”. The professional anti-prisons lobby begins with just as shaky a premise: “Assuming that we have a way to rehabilitate large number of criminals, why should we lock so many of them up?”.

Peter’s alternative to prisons is more convincing: better policing to ensure swifter justice.

But good policing works in concert with tough sentencing, not as an alternative. You can’t sentence anyone until they are arrested, so effective policing is essential. But police are the first to say that crime rates in their area are massively dependent on whether certain prolific criminals in their area are in prison or not.

Peter thinks we can deter criminals more and incarcerate them less. I say the threat of incarceration is the main reason that being arrested deters anyone at all. More profoundly, deterrence has its limits – the bulk of criminals tend to be lacking in the necessary foresight and native intelligence.

It’s right to demand more crime prevention from the police. But in so doing, let’s take their experience on the ground seriously. Police are greatly demoralised and demotivated when they put so many hours into prosecuting a known thug, only to see that person walk free. If police are able to build the case, it’s up to the courts to show they take seriously the crimes committed.

In one of my favourite opinion polls, a mere 3 per cent of the general public agreed that “sentencing is too harsh”. The police were even more robust: 0 per cent of them agreed. Let’s demand more of the police by all means. But let’s also trust their judgement, which corresponds to all the available evidence, when it comes to sentencing. This is no time to cut prison sentences.