In these times of economic stagnation, few in politics question that government spending needs to be cut. And all of the major parties have seemingly set their sights on cutting back on social welfare in particular. After all, who would disagree that there is not money to be saved by the state refusing to sustain the lifestyles of the scroungers who would rather sit at home and watch Jeremy Kyle than get a job or provide rich pensioners the unnecessary gift of a winter fuel allowance?
The fact is, though, the amount being squandered in these ways make up a tiny fraction of the welfare budget, with the majority going instead to the most vulnerable in society, who would struggle to survive without it. Although reducing this safety net might indeed deliver short-term economic relief on claims made to one part of the treasury, in the longer term the support bill will still need to be paid. On this matter, politicians would do well to heed the lessons from Japan, where tough financial times have placed a growing burden of care on prisons.
The stagnation of Japan’s economy has protracted for the last two decades, during which time an increasing number of elderly, poor, homeless, disabled – both mentally and physically – and chronically depressed people became drawn into a criminal spiral. With only limited state support to help them and feeling socially isolated, many from these groups have turned to petty crime, such as shoplifting, pickpocketing and small-scale fraud, as a means to survive. Then, facing even lower prospects on exiting prison, a large proportion have committed repeat offences, sometimes for the express purpose of regaining the relative security of the prison, with its three guaranteed meals a day, heating during those cold winter months, medication and care.
The effect of this growth in recidivism among disadvantaged groups on the Japanese prison system has been astounding. As the courts began to send more of the repeat offenders to prison to serve lengthier sentences, their presence among the prison population swelled. Most notably, from 1991 to 2011, the proportion of elderly in Japanese prisons nearly doubled from 12.6% to 23.3% – a far greater rate of increase than could be explained by simple demographic changes. There was a corresponding growth in the proportion of the inmates requiring specialized treatment, which put great pressure on the prison administration. More money was needed not only for increasing the capacity and staff, but also for providing the requisite wheelchairs, handrails, elevators and medical care. Commentators in Japan even comment on how certain prisons there have begun to resemble care homes.
Japanese criminologists have described how the ruling government of the time’s response only exacerbated the situation. Indeed, the popular Koizumi Cabinet pinned down the rise in recidivism and the swelling prison population to a moral failing on the part of the individual that resulted from a low standard of education in school and at home, and so encouraged trends towards higher sentences, especially for re-offenders. By attempting to avoid blame in this way, the government completely neglected the core of the problem – unemployment and poverty. It has been argued that, had a strategy of providing targeted help to those in need been pursued instead, the same changes in the prison makeup would not have been observed, and there been somewhat smaller demands on the purse strings of the Japanese treasury.
Although the current Abenomics policies appear at first glance as a pathway to alleviate the problem, in reality they are hardly a recipe for success. This is because in order to compensate for his corporate tax cuts, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is hitting the weak in society, raising consumption tax, and reducing welfare payments, including those in the form of pensions, medical healthcare and care for the elderly. So, even if Abe manages to revive the economy with his radical monetary and fiscal policies and economic growth strategies, it is likely that the gap between the winners and the losers, and the strong and the vulnerable will become more pronounced.
To turn to the UK, parallels with the Japanese case are already beginning to show. As reported by the Prison Reform Trust in 2011, ‘people aged 60 and over are now the fastest growing age group in the prison estate’; the number of sentenced prisoners from this age group reportedly rose by 103% over the preceding decade. Similarly to Japan, the proportions of prisoners with mental disorders and learning disabilities are markedly greater than those among the wider population. Moreover, it is also the case in the UK that recidivism rates for individuals from vulnerable groups such as these are particularly high. Perhaps most worrying for those concerned about the continuation of these trends in the future, though, is the Prison Reform Trust’s finding that courts are now handing down tougher sentences, which they explain as a response to a hardened political rhetoric and media hype.
Turning the tide is never easy, but the lesson from Japan is clear: failing to tackle the social and economic issues that are behind the crimes of vulnerable groups will only lead to an increased strain on what is already an overburdened prison system. Although cuts on social welfare seem like the easy option, they must be handled carefully to avoid creating larger problems in the future. As was so vividly observed in the riots that took place across the UK in 2011, there is a growing underclass that does not see a brighter future for itself. Rather than thinking how can we spend less now, we might do better to ask: how can the welfare budget be used to change the circumstances of those standing disillusioned at the fringes of society?