Prison link to increase in crime

April 26, 1996

Expanding our prison population may increase the level of violent crime on our streets. Research by Monika Platek, assistant professor of law at Warsaw University, suggests that the Government's expansionist policy is not the best way of tackling violent crime.

The academic's conclusions form part of Prisons 2000, a series of ten articles by an international group of authors on imprisonment. The book aims to explore the possibilities of a more constructive prison system.

Professor Platek uses examples from the United States and Norway. With more than 1.4 million inmates, the US has one of the world's largest prison populations. Despite the number of inmates increasing by more than 160 per cent in the 1980s, violent crime continues to rise.

By contrast, Norway's level of violent crime is substantially lower, yet it imprisons, proportionately, about an eighth of the US figure.

These anomalies, Professor Platek maintains, are determined not so much by cultural and historical differences as the way in which society approaches the question of incarceration.

"Imprisonment is not designed to solve social problems, at best it can contain them, at worst it makes them worse."

She believes that the US, in looking for a "quick fix" solution to its crime problem, actually aggravated the situation.

She says: "The attempt to control crime through the use of imprisonment is a deeply flawed strategy. Imprisonment has a limited effect on the level of crimes."

The correlation between violent crime and imprisonment exists, Platek suggests, because of the prisons themselves. Overcrowding, a perennial problem in the US but rare in Norway, encourages violence and disorder. Coupled with the early release of "dangerous" criminals in an attempt to control numbers, the brutality often spreads back to the streets.

The only positive argument Professor Platek can find for a growth in prisons is in the growth of the local community's economy. She comments: "Something must be wrong in society if building a new prison is seen as the only way to develop the local economy."

The Home Office estimates that, if recent trends continue, English and Welsh prison populations will exceed 60,000 by the end of the decade. If Professor Platek is right we can expect a violent start to the next millennium.

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