Monday, March 01, 2010

The true cost of locking up our children

Today, as a Make Justic Work ambassador, I am off to watch the first screening of "The Fear Factory" in Leicester Square, followed by the launch off the latest NEF report "Punishing Costs". I havc no doubt I will emerge fired up and angry about a system that does nothing to reduce crime and everything to destroy young lives.

NEF Press Release below:

Locking up children and young people for non-violent offences is costing the
taxpayer millions, while doing little to reduce the amount of crime, says a new
report from leading independent think-tank nef (the new economics foundation).
The report, Punishing Costs, launched today Monday 1 March 2010, calls into question the
plans of both Labour and Conservative politicians to invest in new prisons. At a time when
almost all public services are facing drastic cuts, it is more vital than ever to scrutinise
spending on prisons. The report shows how the number of young people and children in
prison could be drastically reduced, and how a change in the pattern of public investment
can increase the safety of our streets.

The launch of the report is set to coincide with the first public screening of The Fear
Factory, a timely new documentary that exposes the history, mechanics and extent of fear
mongering that has led to the UK’s criminal justice crisis. The film has given rise to a
coalition of over 40 organisations, including nef, which calls for an end to the political arms
race on law and order.

The report found that:
! England and Wales imprison proportionally more under-aged children than
almost all other Western European countries. Relatively minor offences can result in
custodial sentences: research by Barnardo’s showed that 82% of 12-14 year-olds in
custody had never committed a violent offence.

! Serving a prison sentence makes it more likely for children to continue offending
after they have been released.

! Time spent in prison also makes it more likely for children to be unemployed in
the future, to have lower income, be disconnected from education and have unstable
living conditions

! Holding a child in prison costs about £100,000 a year. The report also shows that
the harmful consequences of imprisonment result in at least £40,000 of further indirect
costs to the state. These include continuing crime and higher unemployment after

The authors make recommendations about how to change the situation, to deliver better
value for taxpayers, safer streets and a better deal for excluded young people:

! Devolve budgets for prison places to local authorities. At the moment, prison
places are paid for by central government. Transferring the costs to local governments
– together with more power over how they can arrange youth justice services locally –
would remove the perverse incentive to put young people in prison. The councils would
be allowed to keep some of the savings created from reducing custody, which could be
reinvested in the reduction of crime.

! Local authorities can reduce the use of imprisonment by 13% without need for
controversial legislative change or a large increase in public spending. The
policies considered include better co-operation between local agencies and courts, and
using interventions of restorative justice that allow offenders to repair the damage they
have caused in the community. These changes can result in over £60 million of
savings in England, and over £2 million for some local authority areas.

“Prison costs the public purse about six times more than sending a child to Eton,” said
Aleksi Knuutila, researcher at nef and author of the report. “What really makes our
obsessive use of prisons even more of a tragedy is that those resources could have been
used to tackle crime much more effectively. The resources we now waste on locking
children up could be spent on measures that would really keep our streets safer. All the
research shows that prison is failing to rehabilitate offenders and isn’t steering them away
from crime. At a time when public services are being cut everywhere, we need to ask
whether our spending is really delivering on safety in our neighbourhoods.”

"These important findings support the case for diverting vulnerable young people away
from prison whenever possible," said Juliet Lyon, Director of the Prison Reform Trust.
"Currently many children who are not a threat to public safety are put behind bars. A policy
of budget devolvement would encourage local authorities to deal with minor offending
locally, instead of relying on a central prison system. Community measures have been
shown to reduce offending much more effectively than any length of prison sentence. We
urgently need to change the pattern of public investment. Currently we spend a lot dealing
with the consequences when social problems turn into crime. The suggestions in this report
would free up scarce resources which could then be directed towards the welfare of
children and their neighbourhoods - stopping crime before it starts and reducing the need
for prison.

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