To Jail Or Not To Jail
The problem of overcrowding in our prisons having become acute, it was decided that the matter should be examined by a respected independent party. The authorities felt that they could hardly do better than call upon that outspoken arbiter, Sir Bertram Utterside, former professor of social studies at one of our leading universities. Fortunately, he made himself available and got to work at once. His findings are as follows:
Notwithstanding the fact that this matter clashed with my intensive course of bassoon lessons, I am obliged to the parties concerned for referring it to me. It is a bagatelle, but one takes what one can get. Incidentally, this gives me an opportunity to comment publicly on the hate mail I have received following some of my earlier exertions. I have been accused of casuistry, sophistry and speciousness. Rather than reply to the rabble in question on an individual basis, I hereby inform the authors of this scurrilous nonsense that their pratings are being treated with the contempt they deserve.
My answer to this prison question is two-pronged, being based upon consideration of the numbers incarcerated and the financial implications. The cost of keeping a person in jail has been put at figures ranging from £25,000 to £42,000 a year. I will accept the lower figure, which seems more than enough. If I lived alone, I could get by on far less than this, though of course I do not need a warder – a point that one of my above-mentioned castigators might care to note.
I understand that our prisons are full, having about 80,000 inmates. The first part of my solution is simple, as it involves only the crime of burglary. My information is that about 15% of prisoners are in this category. These people are confined in what I can perhaps best call colleges of criminality, where they are able to sharpen their existing skills and educate themselves in other nefarious practices. I recommend that we let these offenders go free and that we distribute to their victims most of the money saved by not jailing. The Home Office would be the appropriate conduit.
Some readers may consider this drastic, but I hope they will bear with me. I am reminded of a former colleague who lives in a suburb much affected by this type of crime. He recently caught a burglar in the act, though was unable to detain the culprit. That was the fifth time that my old friend had experienced this trauma, and I feel sure that he and his wife, both pragmatic, will accept my logic. As I shall demonstrate, they would have found it beneficial.
In this field, there could be a flourishing business, energising the wider economy, possibly to the extent that the ‘breaking-in’ element might wither away. There would have to be a firm tariff. Let us say that an initial offence would qualify for one year in jail, with persistent transgressors attracting longer sentences. The periods would be notional, as nobody would be imprisoned.
As it happened, the man almost apprehended by my ex-colleague was later arrested and proved to be a first-offender. Under my system, he would have been assessed as a candidate for one year in jail. If, for the sake of argument, we put the cost of proceedings against the wrongdoer at a quarter of that of a year’s imprisonment – and why should it be more? – the residue would have accrued to my friend and his wife, who would have been delighted to receive £18,750 in compensation. They could have replaced all losses – some with upgraded items – had their house redecorated, treated themselves to a new car and had an extravagant holiday.
Extended to a currently imprisoned number of about 12,000 burglars – even assuming them to be one-year types – the figures are impressive. The cost of incarcerating 12,000 people for one year at £25,000 a head would be £300million. By the method I suggest, about three-quarters of this sum would be injected into the economy almost immediately, instead of by the unreliable trickle-down effect with which we are faced at present.
One could imagine this idea becoming very popular, with commensurate social connotations. Retailers and tradespeople would experience a boom. The beauty is that the system would be self-perpetuating, miscreants always remaining free to conduct their normal business. In due course there would be a surfeit of desirable items, giving rise to an increased black market. Even this could be positive, as an export trade might develop, improving – albeit unofficially – the balance of payments position, in which the UK account is in the red. And let us not forget that what goes round, comes round. Having pocketed their ill-gotten gains, the thieves and spivs must be minded to spend them. How better than by indulging in the ‘shop till you drop’ mania? A boon to the economy. Here, I appeal to the criminal elements. Never mind the tax havens. If you get your loot in this country, plough it back into our economy.
There would be a downside, affecting mainly insurance companies and security organisations, since it would not be sensible for people to protect their house contents. I envisage a situation in which those who had not been burgled for a while might advertise the fact, perhaps with something like an estate agent’s sign, indicating that they had not been ‘done’ for several months, thus soliciting the attention of larcenists. The householders could go out for an evening, leaving doors and windows open, secure in the knowledge that they would return to a property stripped of valuables. I submit that if this proposal is accepted, it will result in significant economic gains.
The second part of my solution might be more controversial. I propose that all those not covered by my first recommendation be imprisoned according to the system currently prevailing, but that the sentences be nominal. Once jailed, the inmates would be released on an eeny, meeny, miny, moe basis, the prison governors periodically drawing lots to decide who would be freed. Laugh if you will, but consider that would-be petty felons might be discouraged by the thought that if they were to be caught, their original sentences, often light, could by pure chance be extended indefinitely. At the top end of the market, murderers and their like would perhaps take their chances, but they form a small minority of jail inmates. Anyone contemplating a little shoplifting or pocket-picking would, I suggest, think twice. I am inspired by the quasi-scriptural connotations of this idea. After all, it represents random punishment for what is to the victims random crime, thereby demonstrating that we are a single great entity and that what an evildoer does to one party affects all of us.
If my suggestions are adopted, our prison population will decrease rapidly. This could produce a situation in which we might see an advertising campaign, inviting people to spend a night or two as paying guests in one or other of our half-empty jails – full British breakfasts included – with a financial plus to the prison service and, by extension, to everyone.
Like the Chancellor with his budget, I commend these proposals to the House – in this case the forum of public opinion.
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