A Guardian/ICM poll published today overturns the assumption that the public think tough prison sentences are the best way to tackle crime. It shows that a majority of voters think the government should scrap its prison building programme and find other ways to punish criminals.
Politicians in all parties routinely assume that voters think prison works. But 51% of those questioned want the government to find other ways to punish criminals and deter crime.
The poll was carried out after a week that has seen crime dominate the news, including the shooting of 11-year-old Rhys Jones in Liverpool and a row over the possible deportation of the killer of London headmaster Philip Lawrence - issues which might have been expected to increase support for imprisonment.
Concern about the prison system is particularly strong among women. Only 40% think the government should aim to send more convicted criminals to prison, against 57% who want to see other, non-custodial forms of punishment. But the issue divides voters of all ages and opinions. Only among pensioners is there a majority in favour of expanding the prison population.
Opposition to more imprisonment is driven by a widespread belief that prisons make crime worse. More people agree with the statement "prison doesn't work, it turns people into professional criminals who then commit more crime" than think "prison punishes crime, keeps criminals off the streets and deters others".
Only 42% of all voters, and 39% of women, think prisons are an effective punishment, against 49%, and 52% of women, who say they fail to work. Conservative voters are most likely to back prisons, Liberal Democrats most likely to oppose them. Among Labour voters, 52% do not want to see more prisons built and 46% do.
The findings follow a sharp rise in prison numbers, and overcrowding forced the justice department to order some prisoners to be released early. Last week the total prison population stood at 80,693, just 654 below the prison service's total capacity. In 1997 there were on average 61,114 prisoners in England and Wales.
That rise and the pressure it has put on the service has forced the government on to the defensive, and this week led Conservative leader David Cameron to talk of "anarchy in the UK". In a speech on Friday he said crime-fighting measures would fail "if we don't build the prisons and train the necessary staff to run them".
This month the government sought bids to build two new prisons, the first in Britain since 2005, as part of a programme to create 9,500 additional prison spaces by 2012.
The poll shows public unease about the effectiveness of this programme is not part of a wider hostility to a tough law and order policy. Asked whether they think courts should pass tougher sentences, 77% of all voters agree. Only 2% of those questioned say sentences are already too harsh, and only 18% believe the courts have got the balance about right.
· ICM interviewed a random sample of 1,016 adults aged 18+ by telephone between 22nd and 23rd August 2007. Interviews were conducted across the country and the results have been weighted to the profile of all adults. ICM is a member of the British Polling Council and abides by its rules.