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Keep’ em Off the Streets: Tough Prison Sentences Mean a Safer Society

Is the purpose of prison to keep criminals out of circulation and deter others from crime? Or is a more humane incarceration system a better way of protecting society?

Lock them up. That’s the way we’ve always dealt with offenders. Criminals deserve to be put away for their crimes. Prison works because it keeps those criminals out of circulation, and acts as society’s most effective deterrent. Our prisons may be more crowded than ever – the prison population of England and Wales, for example, has more than doubled in 20 years – but our crime rate has steadily fallen: proof, proponents of prison would argue, that incarceration works. Rehabilitation is all well and good – but the fundamental purpose of prison is to protect the public, and to punish those who have done wrong.

That’s the argument of the bang ’em up brigade; but others say that there’s a better way. New prison models have emerged in several European countries that suggest it’s not incarceration alone that prisoners need – it’s treatment for drug, alcohol, social and mental health issues. Norway, for example, has a ratio of almost one prison worker per inmate to help them overcome these problems. This system isn’t simply humane, say its advocates, it’s good for society. Just look at the statistics. In England and Wales, more than half the inmates suffer from personality disorders that our prison system doesn’t have the resources to address. Not surprisingly, 47% of inmates reoffend within a year of leaving prison. In Norway, by contrast, only 20% do. Its prison system works because it treats inmates as human beings, not criminals. Isn’t it time that we did the same?


For the motion

Dominic Lawson

Columnist and radio presenter

Principal opinion columnist for The Sunday Times. He also writes a weekly leader page column for the Daily Mail and a monthly column for Standpoint magazine. He is the presenter of the BBC Radio 4 interview series Across the Board and was elected President of the English Chess Federation in 2014. He was previously editor of The Sunday Telegraph and of The Spectator.

Theodore Dalrymple

Columnist and former prison doctor

Former prison doctor and regular columnist for The Spectator. He is the author of many books, including Life at the Bottom: The Worldview That Makes the Underclass and Our Culture, What’s Left of It.
Against the motion

Marianne Vollan


Director General of the Norwegian Correctional Service since 2009. She was formerly head of the Penal Law Section in Norway’s Department of Legislation in the Ministry of Justice, and is currently Vice President of The European Organisation of Prison and Correctional Services (EuroPris). She is a lawyer by profession.

Erwin James

Author and columnist

Author and Guardian columnist. He served 20 years of a life sentence for murder. While in prison, he gained an Arts degree and began a career as a journalist. He is a trustee of the Prison Reform Trust, a Fellow of the RSA and an Honorary Master of the Open University.

Jeremy Paxman

Award-winning journalist, author and broadcaster

Award-winning journalist, author and television presenter, best known for presenting Newsnight and University Challenge. He has authored numerous documentaries – on the history of the British Empire, the poet Wilfred Owen, Victorian art, Churchill’s funeral and the effect of the First World War on Great Britain. His 2014 one-man show ‘PAXO’ at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe was a critically acclaimed sell-out. He is also a prolific author, and his many books include Great Britain’s Great War, Empire: What Ruling the World Did to the British, The English: A Portrait of a People, and The Political Animal: An Anatomy. His forthcoming memoir, A Life in Questions, will be published in October.