Should criminals be imprisoned or should another way be found to deal with them?
It's one of those almost imponderable questions because, whatever one thinks, there are always perfectly valid arguments both your way and the opposite.
Prison has the huge advantage of taking genuinely dangerous people away from society, where they can no longer do harm to the rest of us. That, at least, is solid, and a similar also applies to lesser criminals who are never going to change and where it is therefore able to be judged better (in some of those cases) to keep them out of society as well.
Beyond those categories, though, the picture becomes very muddy. It is known that going into prison provides a strong likelihood of becoming a drug addict or maintaining such an addiction, learning criminal skills from other inmates, and then being even more of a problem to society when released.
On the other side of the coin are the rehabilitation and training facilities that can equip what are very often semi-literate and unskilled (for regular work) felons for a life byond crime.
There is no fast and ready answer to the whole question: it has to be a pragmatic choice and a careful balance to suit the needs of the day, and those are always changing.
Justice Secretary Ken Clarke says the country can't afford more prisoners (and we do have a high number per thousand population) but could inflict tougher community sentences. Now, that sounds pragmatic enough in the nation's present plight, and worth a try; but if it doesn't succeed in its aim of making society safer for the rest of us Clarke (or his successor if there's a re-shuffle in the meantime) must be prepared to change tack.
Hopefully by that time, if it should turn out that way, we smight be in a better position to afford to provide more prison places. On that basis, I am prepared to let him try this new approach and see how it goes. There will be valuable learning to be gained from the exercise, come what may, and that in itself will make the new policy a worthwhile one to implement.