UK Prisons Have Reached Critical Point – Here’s How the Dutch Halved Their Prison Population

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Among the many historic appointments to his cabinet, new Prime Minister Keir Starmer has announced one particularly noteworthy one: James Timpson will become Minister for Prisons, Parole and Probation. Timpson is not a politician, but the boss of a key-cutting and shoe-repair company of the same name. He was also the chief executive of the Prison Reform Trust and a well-known figure in prison reform circles.

The terms rehabilitation and resettlement have been used by previous governments but little work has been done to implement them. As a result, prisons in the UK are now on the brink of overcrowding.

Timpson’s appointment has been met with unbridled enthusiasm by prison reform advocates. We look forward to seeing what it takes for someone who truly understands the value of rehabilitation to step into this role.

He is known to regularly visit prisons to interview inmates who are about to be released about working for his company. It is a business strategy, not a gimmick – Timpson says that one in nine of his employees is an ex-offender and that “it is brilliant. They are talented, loyal and hard-working”.

But how does he plan to implement prison reform across the country?

Speaking to Channel 4 News earlier this year, Timpson said he believed only a third of people in prison actually needed to be there. Others, he said, would do better with mental health support, while the women’s prison was essentially a disaster.

He added that the prison population in the Netherlands had been halved, emphasising that a radical reduction in the prison population was not impossible.

I recently studied this phenomenon with colleagues in the Netherlands. The prison population in the Netherlands actually fell by 44% between 2005 and 2015. Much of this was due to a decline in serious crime, which led to fewer people ending up in court and in prison. But shorter sentences are also part of the picture, as are alternatives to prison and more tailored mental health support for offenders who need it.

Closing prisons is possible

In the Netherlands, it is widely accepted that in most cases, a prison sentence does more harm than good. A 2014 study found widespread acceptance of suspended sentences in the country. This seems to be in contrast to the discourse in England and Wales, where harsh sentences are widely seen as a solution to crime and disorder.

This process of decarceration led to the closure or repurposing of many prisons. And it caused very little public unrest. The government did the modelling and then cautiously continued the programme of prison closures. The most vocal opposition to prison closures was the unions, understandably concerned about the loss of prison guards’ jobs and sometimes threatening legal action.

There’s nothing particularly unique about the decline in prison populations. As I discuss in my upcoming book, prison populations have fallen dramatically even in Russia, which has cut its incarceration rate by almost half in a decade. The United States, famously high incarceration rates, has also seen a noticeable decline in its incarceration rate (about 14% since 2018).

While prison rates are falling in many countries, some stubbornly refuse to follow the trend, and the UK is one of them. Experts call this punitive populism: politicians implementing harsh policies they think will appeal to the public, rather than following the evidence that harsh sentences solve little and perpetuate social problems.

Prison populations may fall: the sky is not falling, and governments are not necessarily collapsing. As in the Netherlands, crime has fallen in the UK. Yet the intention to impose harsher sentences and build more prisons to accommodate them remains the standard response, such as that of then-Justice Secretary Dominic Raab in 2022.

A promising prospect

After 14 years of Conservative rule, Timpson’s comments are more than refreshing. They signal a very different intention, like Raab’s, whose response has always been to build more prisons.

They come as prison overcrowding in Scotland is becoming a serious problem (with the possibility of hundreds of prisoners being released early) and prisons in England are days away from literally being full.

Prisons are in crisis and have been for a very long time. A commitment to radically reduce the prison population would be a real breakthrough in the UK, where the prison population is predicted to rise by 25% to more than 100,000.

Now we have an unorthodox prison minister who can change the way prisons are used. In an interview in February, Timpson made it clear that prison policy does not change easily. “I think we need a bold government,” he said. Now he is in a position to show that boldness in practice. To be fair, he has already shown it by making tangible improvements to the lives of some 1,500 prisoners through work.

Can he now revamp a system that houses more than 87,000 people? The battered and overburdened prison system will want to find out.

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