Even so, British lockups have maxxed out their capacity. In fact, overcrowded prisons in Britain make confinement so much harsher than envisioned by statute, says a high-ranking British judge, that some prisoners' sentences should be shortened to "reflect" the more "punitive" conditions, as well as for their own safety. According to the London Daily Mail (Nov. 5):
Thousands of criminals should have their jail terms cut because they are being locked up in 'dreadful conditions', one of the country's top judges has said.
Sir Igor Judge, Head of Criminal Justice, said that judges should reduce the 'punitive' element of a sentence if prisoners faced overcrowded jails.
Any prisoner forced to share a one-man cell with another prisoner, or who does not have access to exercise facilities should have their sentence cut to reflect that, he said.
The news comes as the Government announced emergency plans to cut overcrowding with offenders sentenced to six months or less in prison only serving time behind bars if a cell space was available.
The prison population is hovering close to capacity and hundreds of convicted criminals are having to be housed in overflow police station or court cells at huge cost.
Sir Igor said at a meeting of the Prisoners' Education Trust: "I have believed for some time that you have to take into account, in the punitive element of the sentence, that in conditions that are wildly overcrowded, you may be serving your sentence in dreadful conditions, locked up with one or two other people, or forced into a situation where there is no exercise."
Prisoners considered to still be a danger would remain incarcerated under the plan, but Britain is considering whether to "scrap custodial sentences altogether if an offender is handed a term of six months or under. The plan would mean thousands of offenders being let off with community sentences instead of custody." And this after then-Prime Minister Tony Blair shortened sentences for thousands of offenders as one of his last acts before departing office.
Well guess what? That's exactly what just happened this year at Texas youth prisons. Youth offenders held in overcrowded, dangerously understaffed facilities were released by the hundreds rather than keep them confined in conditions that decision makers deemed would not assist their rehabilitation.
What's more, our Legislature told county jurists they could no longer sentence hundreds of misdemeanor offenders to state facilities. The result: The Texas Youth Commission housed about 4,500 kids when 2007 began, compared with about 3,100 today. And thanks to new rule changes, youth sent to TYC will now get out much quicker than in the past.
So how was the response from Governor Rick Perry and the Texas Legislature to the Youth Commission crisis any different than what's happening in the UK? I don't think it is. What's more, I can envision the day coming when Texas' adult prisons will reach the same crossroads and require some version of a similar strategy. Indeed, Great Britain's problems seem quaint by comparison to Texas' incarceration quagmire. From 1978 to 2004, Texas' population increased 67% while our prison population increased 573%. That kind of expansion rate cannot (and should not) be sustained. In the end, either you can't find enough people willing to guard so many prisoners, or taxpayers become unwilling to endlessly foot the bill.
The United States in general and Texas in particular should by now have taught the rest of the world that responding to social problems (e.g., substance abuse, lack of mental health care, poverty) by building ever-more prisons and jails won't curtail crime in the long run. By reducing its prison population in chunks, Britain is pursuing what's really their only short-term management option, just as was the case when TYC reduced inmate numbers because of understaffing. At a certain point, it's all there is to do. That's why it makes a lot of sense to focus more resources as early as possible on strengthening probation and expanding community-based corrections options. It's what will have to be done in the end, anyway. Why not get started?