Sometimes I am surprised by polls. Today’s ICM poll in today’s Guardian concerned public views on punishing criminals. I would have expected that a sizeable majority of respondents would have favoured more prison places and tougher sentences, particularly in the wake of high profiles news stories such as the release of Learco Chindamo (who as a 15 year old in 1995 murdered Philip Lawrence, the headmaster of a secondary school in London) and the recent murder of 11 year old Rhys Jones.
In fact things do not seem to be so clear cut: just over half of respondents (51%) want the government to find other ways to punish criminals and deter crime. Among women only 40% think the government should aim to send more convicted criminals to prison, against 57% who want to see other, non-custodial forms of punishment. It is only among pensioners that there is a majority in favour of expanding the prison population.
There seems to be a general belief that prisons make crime worse. More people agreed with the statement "prison doesn't work, it turns people into professional criminals who then commit more crime" than think "prison punishes crime, keeps criminals off the streets and deters others". Only 42% of all voters, and 39% of women, think prisons are an effective punishment, against 49%, and 52% of women, who say they fail to work. Conservative voters are most likely to back prisons, Liberal Democrats most likely to oppose them. Among Labour voters, 52% do not want to see more prisons built and 46% do. On the other hand this does not mean people are against tough sentencing: 77% of all respondents agreed that that courts should pass tougher sentences.
What does this poll mean, if anything? Unless it is anomalous perhaps people are not quite as swayed by the demagoguery of our tabloid press as the cynics among us would believe. There’s no question that respondents would advocate alternative sanctions for serious offenders but there does seem to be a desire for the government to continue to seek other options. I presume that does not mean reintroducing the birch or stocks! If I was not so tired I would try and say more about crime prevention, diversion and punishment (not that I am an expert). Perhaps another time