In Britain, intellectuals intone the mantra “prison doesn’t work” the way Buddhist monks intone Om mani padme hum. I have even heard a former lord chief justice, Lord Woolf, say it. No Church of England clergyman utters the Nicene Creed with anything like the fervor (or hope) with which the liberal elite asserts the inefficacy of prison. And yet they don’t fully believe it, not in their heart of hearts—as events in the city of Leeds recently demonstrated.
Leeds, figures show, had twice the number of domestic burglaries as the national average. (In 2006, there were about 800,000 in England and Wales; the police found culprits in 66,000 of these. This resulted in 6,600 prison sentences: one for every 120 burglaries.) The residents of Leeds are supposedly particularly susceptible to burglary because so many are students, living in insecure accommodations. That, at any rate, is the official explanation. Be that as it may, various organizations—the police, the probation service, the social workers, and, for the first time, the judges—got together and came up with a startling new idea: stiffer prison sentences for the burglars. As a prophylactic against liberal criticism, they pointed out that judges were permitted to impose heavier sentences if the offense had serious social consequences for the community.
This is surely a strange, arbitrary, and unjust judicial principle. A murder is not a lesser or a greater crime according to whether it takes place in a violent or a peaceful neighborhood. If my house is burgled, I am consoled neither by the infrequency of burglaries in my vicinity nor by their frequency.
But my point is this: the judges in Leeds believe, as do presumably all the others associated with the resolution, that prison works—as a deterrent to or an incapacitator of burglars, or both. In other words, judges in Leeds have knowingly been handing down sentences that they believed were less effective than those they were permitted by law to impose.
There is nothing unique, presumably, about the psychology of burglars in Leeds that they should be more chastened by prison sentences, or deterred by the prospect of them, than burglars elsewhere. What is true, then, of judges in Leeds is likely to be true of judges in the rest of the country who, whether from moral cowardice, careerist opportunism, or some other reason, have acted and continue to act on what they don’t believe—namely, that prison does not work. In doing so, they have created many more victims of burglary (and no doubt other crimes) than there need be. By increasing prison sentences for burglary, the judges in Leeds have therefore have sent a clear message to the burglars: go to Manchester.
First published in City Journal.