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The Social and Economic Costs and Benefits of Prison

Students at Marlwood School undertook some independent study of some economic issues of their own choice.  An impressive collection of work and here is my pick of them by Rebekah Ashford:

Do the social benefits of prison outweigh its economic costs?

Should tax payers be forking out for ‘TVs and GCSEs’ for lawbreakers?
The number of people in UK prisons stands at over 85,000. On average, it costs £38,000 per annum per inmate; leading to an expenditure by the government of over £3bn each year. Such huge public expenditure cannot proceed without questioning and economic analysis – especially during a time when budgets are being slashed due to a looming national deficit. *“An economic approach to assessing the value for money of prison would involve comparing the cost of prison against its benefits.” Such benefits could be measured by observing reduced offending rates; or the benefit to society of rehabilitating prisoners – leading to their employment ‘outside’ and therefore contributing to the economy and GDP.
We cannot escape the fact that the cost of prison has risen from 2% GDP to 2.5% GDP over the last 10 years. We also cannot escape the fact that the majority of offenders will not have a job in which to immediately engage after they are released – with 6 out of 10 employers automatically disregarding applicants who hold a criminal record. Is it a wonder why reoffending rates stand at 47%? It appears that an unemployed ex – prisoner is driven back to crime though feelings of lack of purpose, lack of drive and an influential environment, showing that the government is simply throwing money at the criminal justice system. If resources were correctly allocated then we should see a significantly lower rate of reoffending and therefore a lower long run cost.
Food and shelter are necessities. Denying a criminal of such resources would arguably be a crime in itself. But when prisoners are provided with luxury; TVs, music equipment, free education courses, we are left wondering if this is just. We see the existence of families who are scraping the poverty line, with parents working tirelessly day and night just to put food on the table, while a convicted murderer lounges in a roomy cell watching Eastenders after a hearty meal. If life would be better in prison, wouldn’t you be tempted? This point highlights a key economic failure of the justice system; high spending on prisoners will simply encourage criminality – leading to a higher economic cost in the future. The government should critically review prison life in order to drive down reoffending rates.
On the other hand, prisons have invaluable social benefits. Research suggests that cutting funds and “Mcdonald-ising” our cells would actually decrease value for money. Investing more in prisons per head delivers financial savings in the long run; educational and vocational programmes saving society an average of £50,000 per inmate. It is very easy from a position of financial and family stability to criticize prisoners. But we cannot chose where we are born, and to what circumstances we are born into. Of course a main social benefit of prison is the safety of the general public from dangerous criminals; can a value be placed upon this safety? After exploring facts and figures on the BBC website, I was surprised to discover that over half of all prisoners had run away from home as a child: with 70% suffering with 2 or more mental disorders, making me contemplate my previous naivety. From presuming that the majority of prisoners were ‘lazy unemployed yobs’, I have come to understand that people can be driven to crime for a number of reasons. This leads to the argument that a “rehabilitation revolution” is the only way forward (described by Ken Clarke – Justice Secretary in 2008) – the root of the problem must be addressed in order to overcome it. Through counselling, training schemes and education, prisoners are given the opportunity to turn their lives around and to gain skills which can increase their chances of becoming employed. Socially, this is very beneficial as it allows ex-prisoners to support themselves, their families and the economy as whole; statistics showing that the majority of those entering prison have no qualifications. Even celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay has cooked up controversy in his new show “Gordon Behind Bars”, claiming that his “learn to earn” regime aims to rehabilitate prisoners who are “sick of failing, of not getting somewhere, not being someone." Everyone deserves a second chance. Don’t they?
After analysing the argument, I am beginning to understand why we as a nation invest in prisons. Although some argue that prison is “too kind” and “financially draining”, I have developed the belief that rehabilitating people with troubled backgrounds and personal issues is incredibly valuable, both economically and socially. There is thought that alternatives to prison may deliver a better return on public money. For example, residential drug treatments have been praised for delivering low reoffending rates along with a saving of £200,000 over the lifetime of an inmate in comparison to prison. But can pill popping really solve the complex issues that prisoners are often wrapped in? No. The social benefits of giving people a second chance, a second life clearly outweigh this economic cost – which with effective prison regime would be expected to decrease. The government’s primary aim is to maximise social welfare; holding the duty to improve lives of people from all walks of life in all types of situations.
Should tax payers be forking out for ‘TVs and GCSEs’ for lawbreakers?
The answer could be yes.


Looking at past interviews on the subject (BBC website) from Ken Clarke – Justice Secretary

Google – to find out key figures and facts

The Guardian – a very helpful article entitled “the real cost of prison”

Asking the opinions of others on the subject before drawing my own conclusion



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