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Home Secretary Priti Patel MP says she’s tough on crime. If lower crime rates are her goal, she should turn her attention towards Britain’s prison system, currently churning out repeat offenders. With one of the highest imprisonment rates in Western Europe and at an occupancy level of 104% on average (and in some areas much higher), the pressure is building and something has to give. The UK must look to the example set by other nations and pursue prison reform.

At first glance, the Norwegian prison system may appear simply too expensive to be palatable, especially in an economy scarred by coronavirus. In Norway, a place at Halden Prison costs roughly £98,000 per year. But in England and Wales it costs £41,000, certainly a significant difference in cost.  However, these figures are not the end of the story.

In the UK, around 60% of released inmates go on to reoffend within a two-year period. But in Norway the reoffending rate is only 20% after two years. Partly as a result, Norway has almost three times fewer inmates than the UK, with prisons operating at a capacity of 73%, as opposed to 104% in England and Wales. 

The Norwegian comparison is highly illustrative of the benefits of long-term thinking when it comes to prison spending. As highlighted above, Norway spends a great deal more per prisoner than the UK. But significantly lower reoffending rates and the smaller prison population that means that in the long-term, it is Britain wasting money, not Norway. 

The reason that Norway is rewarded in the long-term for its higher spending is because the quality of prisons is directly correlated with the re-offending rate, well-established in academia. Prisons seclude criminals from the rest of society and so naturally ex-offenders find it difficult to readjust to normal life once they get out. If they find it difficult to reintegrate into society, for example, because of a lack of job opportunities, then they are more likely to “drift back to crime”. It is telling that in the UK, two-thirds of the adults who are reconvicted after one year of being released, “failed to find work”. 

In contrast, the Norwegian government funnels money into prisoners’ education and training. Prisoners emerge with employable qualifications and skills. As one ex-offender said, “I actually have no holes in my resumé”. 

However, a significant barrier to increased spending on prisoners’ rehabilitation in the UK may be a lack of public appetite for it. Forty-seven percent of Brits think punitive measures are important, with respondents suggesting that “prisons are too soft”.  It was also found that although British people recognised that Norway’s reoffending rates are significantly lower in comparison to the UK, and even more so compared to the USA, 64% of people viewed Norway’s system negatively in comparison to the USA’s tougher style. Such figures are demonstrative of the difficult road ahead for politicians who do want to seriously pursue prison reform in this country.

For politicians and campaigners, the best way forward is to highlight that Britain’s high reoffending rate costs taxpayers around £15bn a year and that a high initial investment to improve prison conditions will result in lower overall prison spending long-term. Furthermore, directing money towards Norwegian-style rehabilitative programmes does not just mean less money spent on prisoners, it also means saving on police time, legal aid and court costs, once the benefits of a lower reoffending rate is realised.

That is why the Government’s tough on crime rhetoric should also include reducing reoffending rates by improving our prison system. It is the logical way forward in terms of creating a safe society with less crime and in terms of using taxpayers’ hard-earned money effectively and sensibly. Reducing crime is a long game, and the Government should learn to play it.

Nina is currently undertaking work experience at Bright Blue. Views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue. [Image: Chmee2]