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19 September 2012

Misallocated Resources?

In tough economic times, are we effectively using resources in our criminal justice systems?

The economic climate has resulted in necessary and widespread budget cuts. Criminal justice systems have not escaped, yet many of them are approaching the problem with a familiar solution. A tough on crime approach involving longer prison sentences. The result is prison overcrowding, but budgetary restrictions limit the ability to build more prisons or hire more staff. If we look to alternative resource use, we could fight crime and put limited resources to best use.

According to the Prison Reform Trust, community sentences are now outperforming short prison sentences and are almost 10% more effective in reducing reoffending rates. These sentences include intensive offender management and supervision, community payback, restorative justice, developing personal responsibility, and responding to support needs such as housing, employment, addictions, mental health and learning disabilities and difficulties. Yet between 2001 and 2011, the prison population in England and Wales grew by 30%. Prison expenditure between 2003-04 and 2008-09 increased nearly 40%. 26,386 new prison places were provided between 1997-98 and 2011-12. If community sentences are more effective, then why are we allocating limited resources to prisons?

Perhaps allocating some resources to inform the public would be valuable. Despite fairly persuasive evidence of an overall decline in crime rates in the last two decades (e.g. Tseloni et al. 2010), European citizens generally think that crime is steadily on the rise. It needs to be clear that being “tough on crime” in the form of increased incarceration is not working. This is important to establish, as public misconceptions will continue to erode trust and confidence in the criminal justice system and thereby reduce its legitimacy in the eyes of citizens.

We are all learning to do more with less. We are rethinking the way we do things to save money and increase efficiency. Why should our criminal justice systems be any different?