Britain is locking up more people than ever—a policy that some say accounts for falling crime. But there may be other reasons for the drop in the crime rate. Are we imprisoning so many people because we have to, or because we want to?
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There are around 82,000 people in prison in Britain. Is that a lot or a little? How can we tell? Compared to the 2.2m people languishing in US jails it doesn’t sound all that many. Britain’s prisoners could fit into the new Wembley stadium with room to spare, although on the government’s own projections, all 90,000 Wembley seats will be taken sometime around 2010. Over the last five years, the prison population has grown by 20 per cent. Lord Carter, in a report for the government published last December, accepts that this trend will continue, and recommends a new prison-building programme so that supply can meet demand, which may reach 100,000 by 2014. (The government says it wants to stabilise the prison population at about 95,000. The Tories, by contrast, say they are happy to sail on through 100,000.)