Wednesday, April 18, 2007

No My Lord

Visitor from another planet

How on earth do people like Lord Woolf (above) ever get to sit in judgement over the rest of us? Who appointed him? Why did they think he was equipped to head up a key part of our criminal justice system?

Yesterday the retired Lord Chief Justice told us the Sentencing Guidelines Council, which he used to chair, should operate like the independent Bank of England. It should be given a five year prison budget to manage:

"These are the resources that the Government can provide for the prison population and you must see that your sentencing guidelines achieve a prison population within those resources where the commodity of a prison space is used in the most constructive way.

What we know is that the more money spent on building prisons, the less money will go on rehabilitating and reforming prisoners.

We've got to make a proper assessment as to how much of the economy of this country should go to imprisoning individuals.

We have many people in prisons now who don't need to be there. We need to ensure that a prison place is reserved for those who really deserve it and need it."

Now, given that the Major and I are unpersuaded by his Lordship's legal credentials, you will understand why his foray into economics caused a certain choking on Cornflakes.
We've blogged the issue many times (see here for summary), but at the risk of tedium, let's just repeat they key facts:

  • Crime costs Britain something like £100bn pa

  • 50% of our crime is committed by about 100,000 persistent offenders

  • Of that 100,000, only 20,000 are inside at any one time, which means 80,000 are out and about committing more crime

  • A prison place costs about £40,000 pa (although some places are much cheaper)

  • It would therefore cost around £3bn to bang up the other 80,000 long-term

  • Net saving to the economy, say, £40-50bn pa

You see, my Lord, what we have here is something we economists technically refer to as a no-brainer. The economic return on our £3bn pa investment in prisons is of the order of 1500%. Which, in case you don't realise it, compares favourably even with the projected return on those RipYourFaceOff private equity participation certificates recommended by your broker.

Yes, we know you'd rather see these people rehabilitated, and that you don't think prison does that. But sadly, down here on planet earth nobody has a clue how to do it. Economically speaking there's just no contest.

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