When it comes to rehabilitation, everyone is expected to have one of only two views.
Either you’re a starry-eyed, ivory tower, Howard League-style true believer who wants just about every hardened criminal out of prison and on a ‘transformative’ cruise, fully funded by the taxpayer.
Or you’re a tough-minded retributionist – someone who, even if handed a magic wand that would make criminals turn their lives around and never commit a crime again, wouldn’t wave it.
Almost no time is ever given to a view I suspect a great many of us hold: that rehabilitating large numbers of serious, repeat offenders is extremely desirable in theory, but even after centuries of trying we are rather clueless about how to do it.
What about those of us who say cautiously, as Gandhi said of Western civilisation, that for most criminals rehabilitation is so far merely “a good idea”?
Recent announcements by David Cameron and Michael Gove suggest government policy will soon cater for those of us with this view: that we need to do far more before we can declare rehabilitation fit for purpose.
Consciously modelled on Gove’s free schools, prison governors are to be given unprecedented autonomy. They can opt out of national contracts for suppliers, they will have total control of their budgets and enormous freedom to innovate.
They can decide how prisoners spend their time. If governors think they can cut re-offending by making their prisons more educational, more work-focused, or simply by making them tougher, they can do so. This policy has implications far beyond prisons.
Some attack prison for its high reoffending rates. They are right that no one should be complacent about the hundreds of thousands of victims of reoffending each year.
But they are flying in the face of reality if they single out prisons. Reoffending is a huge problem for the whole criminal justice system. The reoffending rates for criminals who receive community sentences, fines, suspended sentences and discharges are similarly depressing.
Prison is if anything better than the known alternatives for cutting reoffending. Not only does prison give communities plagued by crime a vital respite for as long as the criminal is in prison, but the re-offending rate for criminals serving community sentences is higher than for all but the shortest prison sentences – even though those criminals sent to prison are much more likely to be hardened criminals.
There is also the fact that the vast majority of prisoners – 76 per cent in 2011/12 – had already served at least one community sentence before going on to reoffend so badly they ended up in prison.
When prisoners re-offend, it nearly always reflects an earlier failure of community sentences, fines, suspended sentences and the like to rehabilitate – not merely a failure of prisons to do so.
The reality is that big cuts to the prison population would mean far more crimes against decent people, and it would also do nothing to help re-offending. Serious, repeat offenders tend to re-offend whether or not they go to prison.
As David Cameron said last week, it is “nonsense” that “we could somehow release tens of thousands of prisoners with no adverse consequences”.
So what Michael Gove is aiming to achieve could be truly transformative. We can’t currently rehabilitate very well inside or outside prisons. If giving prison governors the autonomy enjoyed by free school head teachers manages to slash reoffending, we will have achieved far more than any number of alternatives to prison.
All this prompts the question: have those pundits who are crowing that this is all a repudiation of prison – almost a calculated insult to Michael Howard – really thought through the implications?
If, a few years from now, the one known way to cut a criminal’s likelihood of re-offending dramatically is to send them to prison, would we want to send criminals to prison more or less often?
The more effective prison is at rehabilitation, the stronger the case for sending a greater number of serious, repeat offenders to prison to be rehabilitated (although potentially for less time each).
As it stands, we have more serious, repeat offenders than we have prison places. Even those appearing before the courts with 80 previous convictions are more likely than not to avoid prison. Criminals who have never been to prison reoffended 133,000 times in 2013/14.
There is already a strong argument that we should lock more of these people up to protect the public. If we know that it’s the surest way to rehabilitate them as well, the case is still stronger.
There are limits to what even the most inspired and determined prison governors can achieve, and expectations should be realistic. But where some do succeed in stopping many criminals reoffending, we should do what can to sending more serious, repeat offenders their way.
If Michael Gove’s prison revolution succeeds, we should prepare to use prison more, not less.