Abolishing prison won't stop crime

Last week saw an International Conference on Penal Abolition. With such a heady ambition, what can be next? A global conference to abolish crime? The ambition of an eccentric minority to abolish prison isn't just dotty. It's a distraction from a real and pressing agenda, which is to reform prisons which simply aren't working.

A century ago, prisons had hard labour and treadmills. Today, they have colour TVs in cells. Jails may have changed, but the enduring truth that they are necessary has not. We will always have a small minority of offenders who, by their behaviour, pose so great a threat to the lives and property of the law-abiding majority that they must be kept apart from us. Ignoring this reality and arguing for the total abolition of prison is a hopelessly utopian goal that does the credibility of penal reformers no service.

The case for penal abolition rests on a series of tenuous assertions. Let's set aside the obvious, if uncomfortable, fact that part of the purpose of prison is to punish. It's said that short-term prison sentences don't work, because recidivism rates are shockingly high and there is little time for any restorative programmes to work. But since the evidence is that longer sentences have lower recidivism rates, and provide the opportunity to rehabilitate offenders, this might be an argument to lengthen sentences, not abolish them altogether. After all, another purpose of prison is to incapacitate offenders.

Of course, overcrowded prisons that are awash with drugs, and a system which gives short-term prisoners no supervision or support on release, is almost calculated to fail. But this could equally be an argument - the one which the modern Conservative party is making - for a complete transformation of prison regimes and a system of support for offenders when they are released from jail. It's a logical non sequitur on a grand scale to argue that because short-term prison sentences currently aren't working, we should therefore stop using them at all.

Abolitionists say that short-term prison sentences have a poorer recidivism rate than community sentences. In fact, both have a lamentable record - and one that has deteriorated in the last ten years. But the difference is hardly surprising, since the worst recidivists are bound to end up in jail. According to Home Office figures, only 12 per cent of those sentenced to prison have no previous convictions. Over half have five or more previous convictions, and over a third have ten or more. Those who say that prison should be reserved for serious or serial offenders tend to ignore the fact that it already is.

Serial offenders who end up with custodial sentences have usually run through the gamut of weak community sentences already. If we want to avoid magistrates having little choice but to send them down, the logical thing to do is to make community sentences far more effective. Yet the perverse reaction of the abolitionists is to recommend that the very community disposals that have, by definition, already failed are used again.

Over a third of unpaid work requirements are not completed. Drug rehabilitation requirements have an even worse record - fewer than half are completed. If a fraction of the energy and resources that are being devoted to the cause of penal abolition were directed to thinking seriously about how better to design non-custodial punishments, short-term prison sentences would be less necessary.

What do the abolitionists really want? If it's the end of all custody, including for the most serious and dangerous offenders, then we can dismiss their demands as truly silly. If it's the abolition of short-term custodial sentences, then the effect on the overall prison population will be minimal. Justice ministry tables show that over 87 per cent of the current prison population are serving sentences of over 12 months. Abolishing prison for those serving, say, six months or less would mean watering down 60,000 sentences - but it would reduce the prison population by less than 7,000. The more effective and sustainable way to reduce the prison population in the long term is to reduce re-offending, as the Conservative party's radical "rehabilitation revolution" proposes.

It would be nice to live in a society where there were no prisons, just as it would be nice if there were no hospitals because there was no illness. But until someone steps forward with a ten-year plan to Make Crime History, jails are here to stay. The challenge is to create prisons with a purpose - not to hold lazy conferences making futile calls for their abolition.

Michelle Taylor