The British Home Office has been criticised over the rising prison population and overcrowding. Forced to deal with a steady increase in convictions for violent crime, it has launched an extensive prison-building programme. Providing more jails, however, merely tackles the symptoms, for the size of the prison population is affected by two factors: the number of offenders, and the sentencing policy of the courts. Thus the government has also had to consider ways to reduce the prison population through the use of non-custodial alternatives.
The most widely used device for reducing the number of prisoners in jail is the remission and parole system. This enables prisoners who have behaved themselves to “earn” their release before their original sentence has been completed. Some theorists believe that the over-use of this system has encouraged the British courts to impose sentences of up to a third longer than they might have previously, in order to compensate for potential early release.
The courts also have the power to impose a suspended sentence. Thus, if a suspended sentence of, for example, two years is imposed, the offender will not have to go to prison; but if he or she is convicted of another crime within these two years, then the new sentence will have the original sentence added to it. There is some evidence that the suspended sentence is used too frequently, with the result that the number of prisoners actually increases. Some reports indicate that as many as half of those given suspended sentences would not have been given a jail sentence for their first offence and are consequently sentenced twice over for their second offence.
Another option is the Community Service Order, whereby the judge can sentence a criminal to a maximum of 240 hours of community-based practical work.This serves both as a way of making amends to society and of avoiding the potentially harmful consequences of a period in prison.
The most common alternative to jail is a fine. Although appropriate for minor offences,fines are seen by the public as too lenient a punishment for those guilty of violent crime. Judges who impose fines are frequently the target of bitter criticism in the press, and are therefore reluctant to use this cost-effective and straightforward form of punishment.
One or two ideas have surfaced in the last few years, the mostrevolutionary being the use of electronic lagging.Ministers have decided to introduce a pilot scheme whereby British offenders will be forced to wear an electronic device while they are on probation,enabling their whereabouts to be monitored by police. There are also plans to extend the community service order to include help for the aged and sick.
However, all these initiatives illustrate an underlying dilemma: by building new prisons and by encouraging the courts to impose alternative punishments, the government is trying to pursue two contradictory policies at once. The problem with increasing the number of prisons is that more places tend to result in more prison sentences. Research recently published in the United States indicates that those states which embarked on prison building programmes ended up increasing their prison populations, while those which closed down a number of prisons actually reduced the number of people in jail to proportionally lower levels.