Andrew Coyle pointed out that, had this debate been convened eight years ago, the title could have been ‘Is prison value for money’, yet now, we find ourselves asking a more acute question. Imprisonment is the most severe penalty courts can impose and it should be a sentence of last resort – in theory.
In 1975 the Home Secretary, Roy Jenkins, said that it would be intolerable if the UK prison population rose above 42,000; last year it was 85,000; we are on the way towards 90,000: what has happened?
Crime has been falling yet rates of imprisonment are a matter of social and political choice; society has become more punitive and less tolerant. What the criminal justice system cannot do is replace society’s values. In the last 150 years we have abolished capital punishment, corporal punishment and transportation. Ethically, can we afford not to abolish prison?