Less custody, or more intelligent use of custody?
Civitas, 17 August 2010
The Coalition Government wants to use more rehabilitation in order to cut the costs of crime and imprisonment. However, effective rehabilitation (though a valuable aspiration) is unlikely to yield immediate cost savings and may well involve greater investment, writes Holly Terry.
One of the most challenging facts about the criminal justice system in the UK is that around 60% of offenders imprisoned this year will re-offend in the future, a percentage which gets even higher when young offenders are considered alone. It was Michael Howard who famously stated that ‘prison works’ but you would be forgiven for asking precisely what is meant by ‘works’. Two main reasons are offered in support of continuing to increase the prison population of the UK, in opposition to the current mood in government which seems opposed to continuing the current trend of investment in prison building. Firstly there is the simple fact of incapacitation, when offenders are in prison they are not in the community committing offences and secondly the issue of deterrence, that when crime is seen to come with the very real threat of a prison sentence fewer people will be attracted to it. The only problem is that whilst crime rates have been seen to fall in recent years (Home Office Statistics put the fall from 2007-2008 at 9%) the rate of recidivism among offenders has not. Recidivism leaves the case for prison open as it seems relatively clear that the way in which prison does not work is in the arena of rehabilitation.
The reasons for this are numerous, challenging and unchanging, in 2002 the Home Office’s Social Exclusion Unit produced a report entitled ‘Reducing re-offending by ex-prisoners‘ in which the following factors were identified as causes of crime, ‘education; employment; drug and alcohol misuse; mental and physical health; attitudes and self-control; institutionalisation and life-skills; housing; financial support and debt; and family network’. Furthermore the report highlighted the fact that many prisoners have experienced a lifetime of social exclusion, in other words prison and criminal activity do not represent a major lifestyle change because prisoners are used to living on the periphery of our societal consciousness. If David Cameron is correct in his assessment that we are living in ‘Broken Britain’ then the true expression of that fact dwells in those people who make up our prison population. The SEU report offered these statistics, ‘Compared with the general population, prisoners are thirteen times as likely to have been in care as a child, thirteen times as likely to be unemployed, ten times as likely to have been a regular truant, two and a half times as likely to have had a family member convicted of a criminal offence, six times as likely to have been a young father, and fifteen times as likely to be HIV positive.’ It should of course be stated that the line of causality between these statistics and the fact of offenders engaging in criminal activity is not clear cut but the picture that emerges is one of a group of people who disproportionately represent the most marginalised groups in our society.
How to deal with these facts is an issue which has yet to be fully addressed. Although New labour promised to be ‘tough on the causes of crime’ in their thirteen years in government there was little deviation from the formula that prisons works and increased prison places reduce crime. However, due to financial constraints and the dawning of a new age of austerity the wind seems to be changing. Both Crispin Blunt and Ken Clarke have recently made speeches which suggest a renewed focus on the rehabilitation of prisoners and away from a reliance on prison sentences. This is encouraging but may not be the cost-saving silver bullet which they envisage. The truth is that a multi-faceted problem requires multiple answers; drug treatment and counselling, education and training, restorative justice and mediation, constructive community sentences, the list is long and expensive. Whilst many charitable organisations already work to provide these services a coordinated effort will be necessary if a real dent is going to be made in current rates of recidivism. Furthermore these answers do not rule out the necessity of prison sentences, they simply recognise that prison as it currently stands is not offering much of a solution to the problem of recidivism – indeed many if not most of the currently successful programmes in tackling re-offending rates operate within prisons.
The future of criminal justice may not lead away from prison but rather towards prison sentences which have constructive goals as well as the aims to incapacitate and deter offenders. Such measures do not come cheap but a failure to invest in them represents the falsest of economies for as much as offenders are incapacitated by a prison sentence, the more times they are sent to prison the greater the likelihood that they will re-offend and continue to contribute to the tens of billions of pounds that crime is estimated to cost the UK in total every year.