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"Hidden costs of locking people up" by Jamie Doward and Denis Campbell, The Observer

8th April 2007

The government's prisons policy is under attack this weekend as two influential reports warn that taxpayers are paying a high price for a penal system that isn't working.

Research by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, which will be published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation next month, suggests that the true cost of Britain's burgeoning prison population is much higher than official figures suggest.

The study says that once additional public costs - such as foster care for prisoners' children and income support - are factored in, the cost of imprisoning for a year soars by nearly a third, to almost £50,000.

Meanwhile, the Institute for Public Policy Research claims that 12,000 people have been imprisoned who would be better dealt with outside prison. The IPPR argues that prison is an 'expensive and ineffective way of warehousing social problems', and that it is no coincidence Britain tops the incarceration league in western Europe, with 67 per cent of prisoners caught reoffending within two years of release.

'Prison should be used far less in Britain, but to greater effect,' said Nick Pearce, IPPR director. 'If more drug and mental health treatment was provided outside prisons and women sentenced to less than six months were given community sentences, we could stabilise our prison population to 10 per cent lower than it is today.'

When Labour came to power, the prison population stood at some 60,000. It is now more than 80,000 and the government has pledged to create a further 8,000 places.

But Roger Grimshaw, director of research at the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies at King's College, said the government was failing to acknowledge the hidden costs of imprisonment on the taxpayer.

'Imprisonment does more than punish the prisoner: our research found that it also has disruptive and impoverishing effects on families,' Grimshaw said. 'Benefit claims are interrupted, partners lose work and find it hard to get back into employment when looking after the children, who often miss the prisoner acutely. Families end up paying for prisoners' clothing, and prison visiting costs exceed the compensation available.'

Overall, the Joseph Rowntree study found the taxpayer was 'subsidising' the average family of a prisoner to the tune of £10,000 a year. Of this, 51 per cent was borne by social services, with most of the remainder coming from other public agencies.

The study also calculated that the average personal cost to the family of a jailed offender came to £175 per month. The study suggests that, if these hidden costs were included, the total cost to the taxpayer of imprisoning an offender would be £49,220 - 31 per cent more than official figures.

'We found that imprisonment imposes hidden costs on families and services,' Grimshaw said. 'Families who can least afford it pay part of the cost of imprisonment, and social services, along with the health service, absorb other costs to the public purse.'

(c) The Observer 

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