Prison reform by reducing reoffending is an area where a changed Conservative Party intends to make a massive difference.
Some progress has been made in the last thirteen years, but still our prisons are on the brink of crisis. The Government recently announced the end of its reckless early release scheme – apparently having been advised that it would have to be re-introduced after the election. It is the irresponsible action of a government that has long put political expediency ahead of the national interest. But there is an even deeper problem at the heart of the prison estate. The ideal of a criminal justice system which makes any significant contribution to reducing reoffending is a long way off.
Every year over 300,000 offences are committed by those released from prison during just the year before; and half of all crime is committed by those who have already been through the criminal justice system. Too many prisoners are simply going in and out and in again. It is a disturbing waste of lives and money, and has no place in a modern, civilised Britain.
I found myself in Peterborough and Holloway prisons last week. The staff at both work very hard, but it was also clear that a prison can only be as good as the flaws in the system allow: overcrowding across the prison estate means around 200 of Peterborough’s prisoners are actually from London, cut off from their families and future employers; a lack of diversion into proper treatment means 70% of prisoners have two or more mental disorders; a country plagued by drug abuse, and again, a lack of diversion into proper treatment, means the young mother I met in HMP Holloway and her 3-month-old baby are both behind bars; no support post-release and no job to go to had led Susan, another prisoner, to complete a sentence for shoplifting, only to be released and do it all over again. The depressing examples are endless.
Yet failings are easy to moan about, particularly when solutions are hard to identify and implement. Change will of course be difficult, and require tremendous political will, but we can and must try. Reducing reoffending is our aim above all, and to achieve it we need a rehabilitation revolution both in and outside prison – before, during and after custody.
By the time an offender reaches prison, the damage is already done – both to victim and offender. So firstly, I want much greater attention paid to troubling behaviour before it develops. We must also address the underlying causes of our broken society: stop the 48% of prisoners who ran away from home as a child; train the 60% who had no qualifications prior to imprisonment; employ the 67% who had no job; house the 32% who were homeless; and help the 50% who were hazardous drinkers. When it comes to sentencing, the system should help the victim and offender – not confuse both. We will end automatic release halfway through a sentence, so that victims do not feel cheated; and introduce “min-max” sentencing so prisoners, prisons and the public know what they are getting.
Inside, prisons should be a hive of activity, with prison officers, the voluntary sector, and the private sector harnessed to revolutionise prisons into centres of real rehabilitation, education, training, and work. I want busy prisons where ‘purposeful activity’ is not measured by when a prisoner steps out of his cell, but by when the 4 out of 5 prisoners who currently cannot do so learn to fill in a job application form, when they acquire a transferable skill, or complete an apprenticeship. We must also incentivise prisoners through a system of ‘earned release’, so their sentence end can be brought forward from the maximum through engagement in rehabilitative programmes and demonstration of a real desire to reform. Doing little or nothing with prisoners while inside protects the public for the period of their incarceration, but increases the risk to society when they are released.
What happens after prison is of the utmost importance. For if we spit out disorientated prisoners, with little notice, even less training, no job, no money, and no home, we are setting them up to fall off the cliff edge. We need a consistent release process rather than the current ad hoc response to overcrowding, for which prisons, probation and prisoners cannot plan. Eventually, we also want to see all offenders met at the gate – not by their local drug dealer, but by a member of the voluntary, private or public sector, perhaps paid by results for the prevention of their reoffending.
To bring this all together and make it work, we are going to need something leaner, less bureaucratic, and more effective than the leviathan that is the current NOMS. The one consistency in the system today is that from the moment of the crime, to the end of a prisoner’s time, there is nothing consistent or coordinated about an offender’s management. The system cries out for the local control of offenders, supporting their rehabilitation along the path from conviction to post-release, and coordinating all the fragmented efforts which alone will struggle, but together will thrive.
Reducing repeat offending is a crucial part of mending broken Britain.