Over nine million people are now held in penal institutions worldwide, a report by the British Home Office revealed, but levels of imprisonment rarely have anything to do with levels of crime. In the United States, the prison population has increased from half a million to over two million in the last twenty years. Yet this is against a background of falling crime rates in that period. Imprisonment is often used, even for petty offenses, as a punishment of first instance, rather than of last resort.
The total number of prisoners has been dramatically inflated by the use of imprisonment in an attempt to deal with the problem of the use of drugs in society. In some cases, more than 50% of all prisoners are detained for non-violent, drug-related offenses. Ironically, similar percentages of prisoners continue to use illegal drugs while in prison.
The Solicitor General of Canada has concluded that "harsher criminal justice sanctions had no deterrent effect on recidivism. On the contrary, punishment produced a slight (3%) increase in recidivism." He added: "Criminal justice policies that are based on the belief that 'getting tough' on crime will reduce recidivism are without empirical support."
The so-called war on drugs has been a disaster for prisons throughout the world. It fills prisons with people who are addicts, sick people; it opens up many opportunities for corruption; it intensifies the subordination of the addicted prisoners to the prisoners who control the supplies; and it increases the violence endemic in prison life. It also increases the spread of disease through the sharing of needles.
The notion that prisoners should be incarcerated and left to vegetate for an untold number of years is counter-productive and leads to thousands of people leaving prisons each year who feel alienated from society and who are not able to adequately cope with the expectations that society has of them.
In the 1950's, the Finnish rate of imprisonment was one of the highest in Western Europe. Yet in the last forty-plus years, this rate has fallen dramatically as a result of deliberate, long-term and systemic policy choices involving politicians, government officials and academics. In Finland, there is a single Criminal Sanctions Agency, which administers all custodial and community disposals. The agency has two goals: to contribute to security in society by maintaining a lawful and safe system of enforcement of sanctions and to assist in reducing recidivism by endeavoring to break the cycle of social exclusion that reproduces crime. The agency also has two central values: respect for human dignity and justice, and a belief in the potential for individual change and growth.