Grayling’s tough justice is as expensive as it is useless

We know Chris Grayling's 'hang-em-and-flog-em' approach to crime doesn't work. Now we are starting to see how much it costs.

The prisons are stuffed full of more and more people, the conditions inside getting worse all the time – partly as a matter of policy. Grayling pays eye-watering fines for each new inmate he adds to overcrowded private prisons.

The need to cut costs could have been an opportunity to think differently about how to do rehabilitation. Instead Grayling has retreated into a Dickensian penal policy – the equivalent of an old general reading the Telegraph with his breakfast and spluttering about political correctness.

A justice committee report published today showed MPs are running out of patience with the Ministry of Justice's lack of interest in evidence-based policy or value for money. MPs on the committee went to Texas and found a political consensus. In this bastion of liberalism, they found agreement that there needed to be a plan to limit the growth of, and ultimately reduce, the prison population – primarily for financial reasons.

MPs, like so many before them who looked at the evidence, called for an increased use of community sentences.

"The committee concludes that a prison system which effectively rehabilitates a smaller number of offenders, while other offenders are rehabilitated through robust community sentences, has the potential to bring about a bigger reduction in crime," MPs found.

The finding is unlikely to trouble Grayling, because evidence plays little role in his view of the world. As MPs found, "ministers appear to have taken steps to increase their understanding of crime trends only at a relatively late stage in this parliament". They called on the government to "recognise more explicitly where reoffending has fallen and seek to understand why".

Saving public money is apparently the entire raison d'etre of this government, but while Grayling bleeds cash with his overstuffed prisons, there's no investigation of how to spend taxpayer money most effectively.

Committee chair Alan Beith said:

"Although crime has been falling, the extent to which this can, in practice, be attributed to national or local crime reduction policies is unclear. We do not have the right structures in place to provide a collective memory of research evidence, its relative weight, and its implications for policy making, including the best direction of resources, and we call on the government to create an independent and authoritative body to facilitate this."

MPs even bother to lay out some price tags. What if just some of the resources earmarked for new prison development could be used on early intervention techniques? The savings could be significant.

For example, each year:

  • Violent crime, 44% of which is alcohol related, costs almost £30 billion
  • Crime perpetrated by people who had conduct problems in childhood costs around £60 billion.
  • Drug related crime costs £13.3 billion.
  • Anti-social behaviour related to alcohol abuse costs £11 billion

On the other hand, the costs of preventative investment 'further upstream' are relatively small:

  • Evidence based parenting programmes cost about £1,200 per child.
  • It's estimated that drug treatment prevented 4.9 million offences in 2010-11, saving approximately £960 million.

But taking this sort of far-sighted attitude – for instance by embedding alcohol dependence and mental health services in the criminal justice system – requires a more ceberal secretary of state than the one currently occupying the Ministry of Justice. There's little chance of any change of course now – no matter how much it costs the taxpayer.

Grayling was put in post to placate the tabloids. And this is what you get if you do the tabloids' bidding on criminal justice: wasted public money and ineffective policy.