The debate about alternatives has substantially failed to ascertain whether their implementation has reduced the overall amount of punishment inflicted on offenders. One of the reasons for this failure may be found in the difficulty with which attempts to define alternatives themselves are met. Alternatives to custody include a barrage of measures, and, contrary to popular myth, they include all interventions whose explicit or implicit aim is to prevent or reduce the likelihood and indeed the length of a custodial sentence. In sum, they include just about anything which is not imprisonment (see, Vass, 1990: 1-17)
Alternatives have been characterised, and by and large are still being seen, as a «monster in disguise», a «Trojan horse». They are often defined as alternatives to freedom, as punishment which restricts leisure and free choice in the community rather than a set of devices which challenge the hegemony of the prison. Unnecessary and harmful additions to the process of administering punishment, they are said to widen the net, and to target individuals who previously would not have entered the criminal justice system in the first place. Statistics on the prison population in England and Wales indicate a 9% and a 6% increase in the periods 1988-89 and 1989-90 respectively. Although a decrease was recorded between 1990 and 1992 (from 53,182 to 45,817), the prison population is projected to rise to 51,500 in 2001, an increase of 13% on 1992 (Home Office, 1993a). Moreover, now that 19 out of the 21 new prisons are open, and with two other establishments (Blakenhurst and Doncaster) due to open in 1994, the number of extra prison places since 1985 will be brought to over 11,000 (Home Office, 1993b). Indeed, rather than reducing the capacity of the prison for adult offenders, the British Government is reportedly contemplating to expand the provision for prison places by «re-enacting» the old concept of the «hulks» (disused boats to be used as floating prisons). It is also considering new criminal justice powers to underpin plans for new secure detention centres for persistent offenders aged 12-15, doubling the maximum prison sentence for most teenage offenders from one year to two years, and setting up a separate national secure detention centre to hold young teenage girls, aged 12-15, who commit three or more imprisonable offences (Guardian, 1993; Home Affairs Committee, 1993). In short, we are back to the repeated cycle of administering a sharp shock to «young thugs», with the difference that whilst in the 1930s, 1940s and early 1980s Governments spoke of «short sharp shocks» (e.g. Criminal Justice Act 1948), now one gets used to a revised version of that policy that re-instates the supremacy of punishment in the form of «long and diverse sharp shocks».
These data seem self-evident and appear to be an indictment of alternatives which, originally designed to provide diversion from the penal system, appear to have become a supplement to it (e.g. Austin and Krisberg, 1981; Cohen, 1985; Hudson, 1984; Cavadino and Dignan, 1992 among many others). But contrary to these claims, other authors, though recognising the weaknesses of alternatives to custody, have challenged the nature and misuse of the net-widening concept. For example, McMahon (1989), Vass (1990: 77-114), Vass and Weston (1990) remark that documentation of net-widening is problematic, and that in some places empirical research proves that it does not occur (see also Vanstone, 1993). Moreover, economic explanations as to the cost-benefit preferability of imprisonment or non-custodial alternatives are not always satisfactory and comparisons are suspect. Despite the high quality of some economic oriented studies, in fact, none of these can be regarded as conclusive (Scull, 1984; Greenberg, 1990). Despite all claims and the massive, somewhat contradictory literature available on the subject matter, knowledge concerning the relationship between alternatives and prison remains incomplete.
Problems emerge when quantitative measurements are carried out. An increase in the prison population, for instance, does not necessarily imply a failure on the part of alternatives to custody. Nor does a decline in the overall number of prisoners indicate that alternatives are playing a role in that process. Data may waver due to factors such as: police tactics, legislative changes, sentencing practices, social, gender and ethnic characteristics of offenders, length of prison sentences, the general political climate, and the social «demand» for punishment.
It is our contention that appropriate changes in the ways in which alternatives are utilized can genuinely lead to decarceration. We believe that the range of alternatives available in a particular country is not an indication of potential decarceration observable in that country. The prevailing «culture of punishment» in a national context affects the nature of available alternatives, the willingness to use them, and finally the punitive degree embedded in them. In the following pages we will make suggestions as to how alternatives could be utilized with a view to genuine decarceration. At the same time, we will hint at the cultural obstacles which hamper the process of decarceration itself in the two countries under examination.