When Bobby Cummines came out of jail after serving 13 years for armed robbery, he was fortunate to have a good probation officer who helped him rebuild his life.
"There were many times I could have gone back to robbing banks," he says. "Society didn't want me but another society did."
Now Mr. Cummines is devoted to helping other released prisoners, two-thirds of whom reoffend within two years – costing Britain an estimated £11 billion ($20.2 billion) a year. He has drawn up plans and won financial backing for a multimillion-pound program that would put minor offenders in secure university-style campuses, and teach them trade skills rather than punish them.
"We should be looking at alternatives to prison for the pests in society," he says. "We are using prison like a human filing cabinet."
But Cummines's idea comes at a time when the public is pushing for tougher sentencing – and the requisite extra prison space. Already, Britain locks up more people per capita than Saudi Arabia, China, or Burma (Myanmar). (It's still well below the US, however, with 145 prisoners per 100,000 people [141 in Scotland], compared to 738 prisoners in the US.) And it has more "lifers" than the rest of Western Europe put together.
Prisoner numbers have almost doubled in 15 years to around 78,000– an expensive development, with every prisoner costing the taxpayer on average £37,500 ($47,100) a year, according to charity group estimates. As a result, the country's 139 jails are full, with as many as 17,000 inmates already sharing small cells. If the current trend holds, the number of prisoners will exceed the total capacity later this year.
Tony Blair's new home secretary John Reid is set to spell out Thursday his plans for Britain's overcrowded prison system. He is known to want financing for as many as 8,000 new prison places.
The increase in Britain's prison population has paralleled a decrease in crime, but many experts reject a direct correlation between those trends. Instead, they say, the growing number of prisoners is the result of a feverish public debate stoked by a handful of notorious cases in which released convicts have gone on to reoffend.
In fact, official figures show that crime has fallen by more than one-third over the past decade.
But the high-profile reoffenders' cases have generated media and public outrage, such that 77 percent of people in Britain believe offenders should be sent to jail for longer, according to one recent survey. Politicians have responded by calling for harsher sentences, and by introducing an overwhelming volume of anticrime legislation – 700 new acts have been defined as criminal since Labour took power in 1997.
"There is no doubt that there is an endless cycle of politicians winding up the media and the media winding up the public, so you get a mass hysteria," says Lord David Ramsbotham, who was chief inspector of prisons from 1995-2001.
According to Andrew Coyle, former governor of Brixton prison in south London, the outcry has resulted in thousands of first-time offenders landing in prison for misdemeanors. "Judges are sending to prison people who would not previously have been sent to prison," he says, adding that a large proportion of the prisoners he dealt with at Brixton were "the mentally ill, the homeless, and the marginalized."
"What would previously have been regarded as social problems the government is now dealing with through the criminal justice system," says Prof. Coyle, now director of the London-based International Centre for Prison Studies.
The result has been a precipitate rise in the number of minor offenders going to jail – from around 18,000 in 1992 to almost 50,000 a decade later, according to the Prison Reform Trust charity. More than half of those sent to prison are sentenced to less than 12 months. But with reoffending rates so high, the outcome is a "revolving door," says Lord Ramsbotham.
This is where Cummines and his charity Unlock want to make a difference. He has already helped thousands of ex-convicts gain access to bank accounts, a vital starting point for someone wanting to get off the streets, settle in a permanent home, and look for work. Opening a bank account, Cummines says, is extremely difficult for someone with a criminal record.
Now he wants to build "centers of excellence" where petty criminals and ex-offenders would be able to pursue vocational training. "They will go in and train for a trade," he enthuses. "We are going to 'trade' them out of crime." Then, he says, they'll be able to find construction jobs, and use their income to pay back for their training. "So the taxpayer won't have to pay for any of it."
But despite drumming up almost £300 million ($551 million) in investment pledges, he has yet to receive the green light from the government, which he wants to provide land for the centers. "It makes me angry because we live in a democratic and Christian society, and yet these values of redemption and forgiveness don't seem to figure."
Prisoners per 100,000 people
England and Wales: 145
Saudi Arabia: 132
Source: International Center for Prison Studies, King's College London