Research – The spirit level on imprisonment rates

The-Spirit-LevelIt is not the underlying rate of crime or the seriousness of crime that explain cross national variations in imprisonment rates – It is how punitive the state is, which in turn is related to the degree of inequality in a soceity. This is just one of the claims of Richard Wilkson and Kate Pickett, authors of the spirit level. Lets look at the evidence –

In the USA and UK prison populations have been increasing –

 USA    1978 –            Prison population –    450 000

USA    2005-              Prison population-   2 000 000 + (more than two million)

UK      1990               Prison population –  46 000

UK      2007               Prison population    80 000

UK      2009               Prison population    85 000 (note just two years + 5000 prisoners!)

This means that in the US the prison population quadrupled in 27 years and almost double in 20 years in the UK.

This contrasts remarkably with what has been going on in other countries – in Sweden the prison population was stable through the 1990s and rates have been falling in France and Germany.

Note however that critics point to the problems of making cross national comparisons where crime stats are concerned.

Wilkinson argues that the number of people locked up in prison is influence by three things –

  • The rate of crime
  • The length of sentence
  • The tendency to send convicted prisoners to jail which is in turn influenced by the likelihood of someone being caught and successfully prosecuted.

Criminologists Alfred Blumstein and Allen Beck examined the growth of the US prison populations between 1980 and 1996 and found that 88% of the increased imprisonment was due to tougher sentencing laws – namely the ‘three strikes law’ and the ‘truth in sentencing’ law which means less likelihood of getting out early. In California in 2004 there were 360 people serving life sentences for shoplifting – 0ut of a current population of  37 million, just over half the UK population!

Wilkinson also argues that tougher sentencing explains the increase in prison populations in the UK – Crime has been going down every year since 1995 according to the BCS.

So basically, claim 1 that Wilkinson makes is that it is not the underlying rate of crime or the seriousness of crime that explains imprisonment rates – its is how punitive the state is.

The second claim Wilkinson makes is that a high level of income inequality is correlated with a punitive state and a high prison population – click on the table below I couldn’t make it any larger!


The third point he makes is that those countries that are more equal are more likely to emphasise treatment and rehabilitation than punishment – with suspended rather than custodial sentencing more likely. This approach is found in the Netherlands and in Japan where some prisons have been called ‘islands of tranquillity. Guards are expected to be role models in the prisoners’ rehabilitation.

I just couldn’t resist this – the Dutch police clip from the Fast Show – I’m sure they’re not this relaxed…


And a link to a blog about a Swedish jail (careful with this I’m not sure how real it is!)

 Wilkinson contrasts this to the crowded conditions and violence of guards the ‘supermax’ prisons in the USA – which are prisons within prisons where prisoners are kept in extreme isolation for up to 23 hours a day – estimates say that up to 40 000 people have been kept in these conditions. Medical Anthropologist Lorna Rhodes describes prisoners’ lives here as characterised by lack of movement, stimulation and social contact.

 A link to a CBS report and video – Supermax – ‘A clean version of hell’ – in the words of one of its ex wardens  –



Wilkinson says ‘Not only do the higher crime rates of imprisonment in more unequal societies seem to reflect more punitive sentencing rather than crime rates, but both the harshness of the prison system and use of capital punishment point in the same direction’

The fourth point Wilkinson makes is that prison doesn’t work – he reports reoffending rates in the US and UK at about 60 -65% and in Sweden and Japan at 35 and 40% – one thing worth thinking about is that the higher the rate of reoffending, the higher the prison population – as you are more likely to go to jail for a second than a first offence!

He also suggests that there is a concern that ASBOs actually increase crime.

Finally, and in an interesting conclusion to the chapter, Wilkinson suggests that in unequal socieites, where the differences between ‘us’ and ‘them’ are greater, the result is a greater sense of fragmentation, which in turn leads to mistrust of others and a heightened fear of crime – this then leads to a public demand for politicians to get tough on crime, which they do in order to gain popularity. All of this of course is exaggerated by the media!

He contrasts this to more equal societies which are more likely to have a CJS that works with professionals – criminologists, lawyers and prison psychiatrists to think about how to actually reduce crime and rehabilitate offenders.

On the ineffectiveness of harsh punishment I also found this quote which appears at the end of the first link (the BBC one) at the top of this item

Frances Crook, the director of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said that having doubled since the mid-1990s, a new record had been reached with no end in sight to further record highs.

“This ceaseless growth in prison numbers is untenable and any new administration will have to bite the bullet and find a strategic way to reduce the prison population,” she said.

“Recent statistics show that 36.8% reoffended on community sentences in 2008, compared with more than 61% for those sentenced to a year or less in prison. Not only are community sentences more effective at reducing crime but they come at a fraction of the price, with a community order costing on average £2,000-£3,000 a year, compared with at least £41,000 a year to run a prison place.”

So – if you believe Wilkinson’s stats, and a whole load of other stats incidentally, inequality leads to fear which leads to a punitive CJS which leads to a higher prison population.

NB – We will discuss the obvious problems of data selection, objectivity  and attributing causality at some point in class.

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