CHARLES GRAHAM - Pause for thought

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WHAT sort of criminal justice system do we have; indeed, what sort of country is this when we have more people in prison than almost anywhere else in Europe, and yet there are crooks in Wigan and elsewhere who still haven’t been locked up after committing more than 100 offences?

It certainly gives pause for thought one way or another.

It either suggests large numbers of the wrong sorts of folk are being incarcerated, or we just have more felons than our neighbours in the first place and still aren’t jailing enough.

Context counts for something though. While our prisons are largely full, the number of people behind bars still constitutes a very small percentage of the nation’s population.

And, if the local and national figures are to be believed, crime has been steadily declining for many years now, despite a terrible recession which one might have expected to have brought about the opposite effect.

I would love to see a statistical breakdown of the reasons why all out current prison population are where they are. For sure there will be plenty who deserve to be cooling their heels for serious sexual, violent or acquisitive crimes.

But there will doubtless be others who might be better carrying out community orders.

For instance, I always thought that justice could have been better satisfied in the case of disgraced minister Chris Huhne and his wife if they had been publicly forced to paint park railings or obliterate graffiti rather than sit idle in cells for a few weeks.

However, one does have to wonder why the people cited in Monday’s Wigan Evening Post whose crimes now number in three figures have yet to see the inside of a cell.

Figures obtained by the Centre for Crime Prevention also show that more than half of Wigan criminals who had committed between 80 and 99 offences have not received custodial sentences, while 70 per cent of those with 10 offences avoided the slammer too.

Greater Manchester also has the second highest number of repeat offenders’ being sentenced but avoiding prison. Some 65,299 of them were handed non-custodial punishments in 2012 and only around nine per cent of all offenders in the county ended up in jail.

These could be potent arguments for custody.

We are frequently told by prison reformers that too many people are being locked up and that prison does not work, especially when brief sentences are imposed (because there is no time for the rehabilitative process to take effect).

That is as may be in some circumstances. But the local folk producing these one-person crime waves are clearly not learning lessons from whatever non-custodial sentences are being served them either: whether they be fines, suspended jail terms, discharges or community orders.

In other words jail may not work for everyone, but neither might anything else.

And if these people who are racking up a rap sheet as long as your arm without tasting incarceration, maybe it’s time they did. At least they would be out of harm’s way for a while and there’s just a chance it might be the shock to the system they need to turn their lives around.

That would increase the prison population further in the short term. But it could well be worth it for all of us.