Ed Boyd is Managing Director of the Centre for Social Justice.
It is no longer good enough for prisons to warehouse inmates. They must become places of reform and turn people away from a life of crime. This was the call at the heart of a speech made by Liz Truss, the Justice Secretary, at the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) on Monday.
She backed up her words by promising to make reforming offenders, for the first time, a legal requirement for prisons. She insisted that it is this way, not through arbitrary caps or quotas, that the prison population should be reduced and how communities will be made safer.
This focus on changing prisoners’ lives is wholeheartedly supported by the CSJ. In fact, it would be downright reckless to do anything else. Investing time, money and effort into reforming prisoners is not, as some would suggest, soft on crime. It is smart on crime.
There is a benefit in keeping dangerous people off the streets to give communities a respite from crime. But it is not enough. For, at some point, prisoners will return back to those same communities. The test of a good prison system is whether they commit more crime when they return or have changed their ways.
Yet on this test the prison system is clearly failing. The majority of those who leave prison will be convicted of new crimes within a year. It has been this way for decades.
The cost of this reoffending is stark. In financial terms, it costs the taxpayer up to around £13 billion every year. Yet this is nothing compared to the social cost. Reoffending destroys communities and tears families apart. Today, around 200,000 children are growing up with a father who has been in prison. And two-thirds of boys growing up in these circumstances go on to offend themselves. Unless we break the cycle of offending the next generation will follow in their fathers’ footsteps.
Moreover, a failure to turn prisoners’ lives around wastes their own locked up potential – it would benefit us all for them to flourish and take hold of a more positive future for themselves and their families.
This leads us to the million-dollar question: what does it take to rehabilitate someone? What can be done to turn people away from a life of crime and help them reach their full, crime-free potential?
The answer is surprisingly simple to understand (if not more difficult to act upon). It is to tackle the root causes that are holding people back: family breakdown; addiction; worklessness; educational failure and problem debt.
These issues are endemic in prisoners’ lives. The facts tell the story:
- Just under a quarter were taken into care as a child;
- Two in five prisoners committed offences to get money to buy drugs;
- More than two-thirds were unemployed prior to prison;
- The majority have the literacy age expected of an eleven-year old;
- The majority have debts.
A justice system rooted in tackling these five pathways would transform lives and make Britain a safer, more prosperous and socially just country.
That is why it was so encouraging to hear Truss put them at the heart of her justice agenda. She said on Monday that she plans to introduce a new law that will give her a duty to “hold the Service to account for the progress offenders make on getting off drugs and getting the education and skills they need to get a job on the outside”.
And she made clear that she believes “a prisoner’s family is the most effective resettlement agency”.
This, then, is the basis for hope for our prison system. If these root causes can be tackled then reoffending will go down, and communities will become safer. The evidence on this is clear. For example:
- Prisoners who fail to find a job are 20 percentage points more likely to reoffend;
- Prisoners who are not visited by family members are 21 percentage points more likely to reoffend;
- Prisoners who take class A drugs on release are 33 percentage points more likely to reoffend.
This is why the CSJ has remained focused on tackling our five pathways for more than a decade, and will continue to for the next decade. Quite simply, it is what is proven to tackle poverty and change lives for the better.
The CSJ is passionate about these pathways being embedded in our criminal justice system. It is for this reason we are proud to announce we are setting up a Criminal Justice Unit to develop reforms and help drive the change that is necessary place rehabilitation at the centre of the justice system.
Reforming our prison system is not an option. It is a necessity. It has been for decades. By reforming the justice system to tackle the five pathways, Truss has a great opportunity to give offenders a second chance and create stronger, safer communities.