Charging prisoners for a night in the cells is a start. But let’s round up hoorays for a spell in five-star Hotel Dartmoor
Last week the newly elected police and crime commissioner for Hertfordshire, David Lloyd, suggested that people arrested by his local force should be charged a fee for spending a night in the cells, an idea that seems to have attracted wide support. The following day the justice secretary, Chris Grayling, expressed regret that, because of financial constraints, he could not change the policy that saw many prisoners being released after serving only half of their sentences.
Herein surely lies a magical solution to the nation’s economic problems: charge everyone who spends a night in custody for that privilege, regardless of whether they are innocent or guilty. Obviously there would have to be a sliding scale. A night in a local nick in an unfashionable part of Hertfordshire would attract only a standard bed-and-breakfast rate (with extra charged for a cooked breakfast.) A lengthy stay in the rural tranquillity of Dartmoor would obviously have to be charged at a five-star rate. This would also chime with many Conservative politicians who believe that prisons already too closely resemble hotels.
How could this idea of charging people for the privilege of being arrested gain overall public support, since there are bound to be whingers who might feel that punishment should be reserved for those actually convicted of crimes and that detention was a punishment in itself?
This problem could be fairly simply solved. For the first few weeks of the new policy, police would be instructed to arrest only those who clearly had the resources to pay. Thus the bars and restaurants of the City and Mayfair in London and the richer areas elsewhere would be targeted and tipsy hoorays in nice suits could be bundled off as speedily as possible to a night in the cells. Weekend nights and the festive season – all those office parties – would be charged at a premium rate and all major credit cards recognised. A choice of full English or continental breakfast would be offered – and, of course, porridge for the traditionalists. Officers would be encouraged to aim for members of the banking profession and employees of international companies that avoid paying normal taxes, as well as government ministers using insulting language, thus ensuring the instant popularity of the measure.
But what about making prisons pay in the same way? Amazing although this may seem, the template is already in place. When victims of miscarriages of justice were released from jail a few years ago after being cleared they were, understandably, entitled to compensation for all their lost years. To their amazement, they found that they were charged lodging costs for what the Home Office euphemistically described as “saved living expenses”. So if you had spent 10 years inside for a crime you did not commit, don’t feel too bad about it: think of all those breakfast cereals and tins of beans you have not had to buy. For a while this money was then deducted by the Home Office from their compensation settlement. Amazing but true.
So this model could be adapted so that every prisoner would have to pay for their accommodation costs as they left jail. Those who could not pay would just stay inside indefinitely, as the Graylings of the world clearly desire. Wealthier folk – jailed MPs included – would be able to settle their bills of “saved living expenses” at the end of their allotted sentence. Those picked up for being drunk and disorderly and spending just a night inside would pay the suggested overnight charge and could also be offered a “no publicity” service for an additional fee to ensure that their picture does not appear in the media.
The economy would boom. And the whole policy could be launched at the next Conservative party conference under the title of Making Crime Pay.