The revelation from Home Affairs Minister Edmund Hinkson last Friday that it costs taxpayers $32,000 to house a single prisoner at Her Majesty’s Prison Dodds per year is sobering
A quick calculation of the current prison population, which stands at 850, shows that Government is spending over 27 million dollars per year to maintain those incarcerated.
Factor in the recent spate of violent crime and the increasing numbers of our young men being carted off to jail daily and we know that this is only the tip of the true cost.
It’s no secret that Barbadians largely frown on the idea that millions of their hard-earned tax dollars are spent to feed and provide for those who break the law, especially when the country needs money to fix roads, provide housing, buy buses and fund other much-needed improvements.
Many have suggested that incarceration should be tough enough to force lawbreakers o change their ways and persuade would-be offenders to think twice.
But prison sentences are supposed to have four main purposes.
According to experts, these include retribution- punishment for crimes against society.
Protection – criminals are removed from society so they can no longer harm innocent people.
Deterrence: prevention of future crimes.
Rehabilitation: activities designed to help criminals develop skills to become meaningful contributors to society.
An examination of our current penal system may find that we are perhaps primarily meeting the first two outlined objectives, but we are falling short on the latter two and we have to do something about it.
It is in that vein that we believe that Home Affairs Minister Hinkson’s announcement that Government is considering alternatives to prison for minor sentences is worthy of action.
He argued that it is pointless to place petty offenders with hardened criminals.
Said Hinkson: “We as a Government have to look at alternative sentencing.
“Ankle monitors is one such option that must be considered.
“Do we continue to send young people to prison where they meet up with the hardened criminal and instead of rehabilitation, they are further entrenched in a life of crime?
“We must look to offer these persons opportunities in life to reform outside of the prison system.”
Indeed, there is more to correctional services than just locking up offenders.
We are aware that most people see alternatives to jail as soft options but with our recidivism rate said to be hovering around 68 per cent, we have to face the fact that the current system is failing in most respects.
We don’t dispute that the State must send a strong message that deviance, violence and lawlessness do not pay and will not be tolerated. But alternatives that could help inmates take control of the root issues that lead to a life of crime would be a bigger benefit rather than locking them away without access to effective consultation, evaluation and treatment for his or her issues.
Already, we have evidence that alternative interventions can work. Case in point: the Court Positive Intervention Programme at the District “F” Magistrates Court to stop young people from going down the wrong path in life introduced by Acting High Court Judge Laurie-Ann Smith–Bovell
According to Smith-Bovell, one aspect of the programme involves setting bail conditions to compel deviant young people to learn a skill or engage in other productive activities, instead of returning to the block and getting themselves involved in criminal activities again.
Initiatives like these and other alternative sentencing measure are worth a try.
Of course, criminals must know crime does not pay, but many deserve a second chance.
But a society that pays millions to trap people in a revolving door where two out of three go on to commit crimes and find themselves back in jail is a society that is simply throwing good money after bad. We can ill-afford that.