As of 2006, it was estimated that at least 9.25 million people are currently imprisoned worldwide.It is probable that this number is likely to be much higher, in view of general under-reporting and a lack of data from various countries, especially authoritarian regimes. In absolute terms, the United States currently has the largest inmate population in the world, with more than 2½ million or more than one in a hundred adults in prison and jails.
World map showing number of prisoners per 100,000 citizens
Prison numbers in England and Wales have risen sharply in the last decade, and are set to rise further. A study out in the Probation Journal published by SAGE Publications UK suggests that economists have a unique opportunity to help solve the prison crisis by bringing sophisticated economic modeling techniques to bear on the problem.
Chris Fox and Kevin Albertson from Manchester Metropolitan University contend that during the last decade, penal policy allowed many opportunities to harness the latest analytical research to optimize public spending slip away. In their paper "Could economics solve the prison crisis?" they argue that a new approach is possible, driven not only by moral or social concerns about actual and perceived crime rates and a high prison population, but also informed by economic analysis and argument. The current economic climate makes their position hard to ignore.
According to Fox and Albertson, there is scant evidence society will benefit from locking up ever more criminals. Crime rates have fallen, but the link between rising numbers in prison and lower crime rates is debatable; hikes in prison numbers are likely only responsible for a small drop in crime.
Since 1997, economic analyses of the options for England and Wales when developing criminal justice policy and penal policy grown in reach and volume, partly led by government actions or policy. "But for every step forward in developing penal policy based on socio/economic analysis, at times it seems government takes at least one and sometimes more steps back," says Fox.
The authors argue that the last decade's important developments cover a broad range of factors including aspects of the policy debate on sentencing; the government's commitment to evidence-based policy; investment in the economics profession across government; and the rise of the Justice Reinvestment movement, particularly in the USA.
However, these promising developments, underpinned by clearly articulated economic principles, were superseded by more recent government policy. Prison numbers have remained extremely high. As of January 2010 the prison population was 83,378, according to HM Prison Service.
One stumbling block to the greater use of economic analysis of criminal justice challenges is that, to date, the government has made only limited investment in commissioning robust impact studies of criminal justice policies and programs. UK studies examining the effect of prison are in short supply. "The government has not, to the knowledge of the authors, commissioned and certainly hasn't published any robust impact studies of the relative impact of privately and publicly managed prisons," says Fox.
The authors urge the government to invest in more impact studies of key criminal justice interventions, particularly prison. They also want to see more cost-benefit analyses to inform policy, and continued capacity building, both within government and the wider research community, to undertake robust economic analyses of criminal justice policies and programs.
Following the lead of the USA, they also suggest that Justice Reinvestment is an approach likely to lead to more effective criminal justice policies compared to incarceration for reducing re-offending, and at a lower cost. However, more work is required to transfer successfully the Justice Reinvestment model to a UK setting.
In the USA, Justice Reinvestment has been implemented at State and County levels by a single body or elected official with responsibility for all the key services required to effect sustained reductions in offending and re-offending over a criminal career: from early preventative measures that target at risk individuals, families and communities through to interventions for persistent and prolific offenders.
In the UK, relevant budgets for crime reduction and criminal justice are held by a number of different organisations and at different levels of government. Fox and Albertson contend that a radical suggestion worthy of investigation is to devolve budgets for custodial sentences to groups of local authorities. "A set of financial incentives would be hard for regional policy-makers to ignore," Fox says, adding that, "a policy pursuing 'more of the same' is not reasonable."
The building of ‘Titan’ prisons in Britain suggested by Carter (2007) has now been scrapped, but has been replaced with a plan to build five new 266 57(3) prisons, each with a capacity of 1500 inmates (Ministry of Justice, 2009b).
The Prison Reform Trust (2009) estimate that the current program of prison building in England and Wales will take the rate of imprisonment to 178 per 100,000 of the population. England and Wales already have the highest incarceration rate in Western Europe; this increase will take the UK beyond current rates in Bulgaria (144 per 1000), Slovakia (151 per 1000), Romania (126 per 1000) and Hungary (149 per 1000) (Prison Reform Trust, 2009), according to Fox and Albertson,
The Justice Committee (2009) forecasts a potential prison population of 96,000 by 2014, which represents an incarceration rate of 169.1 per 100,000 people in England and Wales. Ministry of Justice (2008) predict the demand for prison spaces is likely to increase to between 83,400 and 95,800 by June 2015
Three decades of growth in America’s prison population has quietly nudged the nation across a sobering threshold: for the first time, more than one in every 100 adults is now confined in an American jail or prison.
Alongside this increase in numbers, prison costs were reported to have ‘exploded’ from $10.6 billion in 1987 to $44 billion in 2007; a 315 per cent jump (PEW Center on the States, 2008).
per 100,000 inhabitants
Contacts and sources:
Chris Fox is Professor of Evaluation at Manchester Metropolitan University.
Dr Kevin Albertson is Principal Lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University
"Could economics solve the prison crisis?" by Professor Chris Fox and Dr Kevin Albertson is published today, September 24, in the Probation Journal. The article will be available free for a limited time
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Further information: Incarceration in the United States
See also: U.S. Bureau of Prisons