Still Paying


In 1979, Making Them Pay,  a report of a NACRO research project on the ‘substantial number of people in [Birmingham] prison who should not be there’ was published. Written by Geoff Wilkins, the project’s research officer, it focus was on receptions at Winson Green prison in Birmingham. The research was funded by the Barrow and Geraldine S. Cadbury Trust and was motivated by a desire, at a time of severe overcrowding in English prison, to identify those who should not be in prison and to identify ways of avoiding them being sent to prison.

To anyone familiar with prisons today, over 40 years later, this will all seem very familiar. Whilst there are similarities there are also some important differences.  Prison populations have increased dramatically, but the profile of who is locked up remains very much the same and prison reformers still argue that many (but not all) of those incarcerated require diversion away from prison. What, however, was significant is that many of its recommendations, designed to reduce imprisonment, had been successfully adopted.  Nevertheless, prison populations have continued to increase.

Making Them Pay

The report is a really interesting read. Its focus is on three groups: fine-defaulters; civil prisoners; and other men serving short sentences (under 6 months). [The report makes no mention of women.] Although the project received the co-operation of the prison and the local probation service, local magistrates did not provide assistance or co-operation. Nevertheless, with courts being open to the public, their practices could be observed. The report details the cases heard in one of the Birmingham Magistrates courts over 4 mornings. Most of the cases were remands (18 into custody, 31 on bail or other conditions), but 16 cases involved sentencing and these are set out in detail. All were men, all 16 pleaded guilty, only 6 were legally represented and only one received a prison sentence, but this was suspended. 14 of the 16 were fined. In sentencing the 16 the court had taken a total of 161 minutes. 

Some of those fined were given time to pay, and one paid his on the spot. Three, however, unable to pay their fines immediately, were taken down to the cells to ‘pay’ through incarceration. This was not an unusual practice and as the report highlights prison statistics for 1977 showed that in that year 16,040 fine defaulters were imprisoned, some 23% of total receptions for that year. The researcher identified 66 fine-defaulters inside Winson Green out of a total population of just over 1,000. The report provides interesting case studies on a number of these men, and concludes: ‘For such men, it is true that prison is a punishment of their poverty.’  A further 41 of the Winson Green prisoners were civil cases. The majority of these had been imprisoned for defaulting on maintenance payments. 

Out of a total population of 1,064 a further 297 were on remand (a group the report did not explore) and 142 were serving sentences of 6 months or less. A selection of 12 of the later were profiled in the report. Their histories and offences were as the report points out a “mixed bag”, but I would be unsurprised if you couldn’t find men with similar profiles in Winson Green today. 

Alternatives to Prison

Having identified ‘that for many of them imprisonment is a costly and fruitless policy of despair’, the report sought to identify potential alternatives. These included establishing ‘treatment centres’ to which drunks could be diverted; increased use of Probation supervision, Community Service Orders (these were a recent introduction) and more effective methods of enforcing payment from debtors. 

The underlying assumption that alternatives to prison would reduce imprisonment has sadly (as Stan Cohen was to point out in his essay, The Punitive City, published that year) proved an illusion, with alternatives, in practice, resulting in net-widening, and ‘community punishments’ being utilised against those who would have previously have been fined. As we have seen far more people (and for far longer) are being imprisoned for breaching these community sentences, than were incarcerated for non-payment of fines. 

Ultimate failure

By approaching the apparent problem of growing prison populations as a system malfunction – that for technical reasons ‘there are types of imprisoned offenders who should not be in prison at all’ – the research suggested some obvious reforms. These included Magistrates using probation and medical reports more, the probation service working with other agencies to develop ‘packages’ that magistrates could use as alternatives, increase use of community service orders, better legal representation, the development of a network of detoxification centres, the decriminalisation of simple drunkenness, and changes to the enforcement of fines.  

Some of these proposals have been adopted. Today, if a court fines you, you actually can’t pay on the spot even if you want to, and although non-payment of fines can result in imprisonment, no-one will be imprisoned immediately. The use of community sentences has grown dramatically. However, these have tended to be used for people who were previously fined. These community sentences have, since 1991, become significantly more punitive and a failure to comply with their requirement regularly results in people being imprisoned. It is striking that the very people most likely to be imprisoned for non-payment of a fine in 1979 are the very same people as those imprisoned for breaching a community sanction in 2021.

The aspirations of the research project were undoubtably laudable. Nevertheless, like so many reform initiatives they not only failed, but also legitimised the mechanisms which facilitated penal expansion. I have written elsewhere that rather than seeing prison as a failure we need to recognise that it is successful in it is in maintaining an unjust social order. In the same year Making Them Pay was published the former Chief Executive of the Howard League, Hugh Klare in a review of Mick Ryan’s ‘carefully researched study of the Howard League’ (The Acceptable Pressure Group) conceded ‘caused me pain to read’, because ‘I saw again how large a part of my life’s work had failed. My most cherished dreams came to nothing. What is more, I had to recognise that what I had most ardently desired was based largely on a (hopeful) illusion – a sad but common experience.’ 

So over four decades after Making Them Pay was published we find, that despite various reforms, courts are still sending the same types of people to prisons, only in far greater numbers. Equally depressing is that despite their failures penal reformers still peddle the same myths about the potential of reform.  But it not the reformers who pay for their failure.

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