Government’s first concern must always be to protect the public. But sending offenders to prison is not enough to achieve this objective; we must also do our best to ensure that those who commit crime do not reoffend.
The penal system has great capacity to rehabilitate as well as to punish. It therefore makes sense in social, as well as financial, terms to ensure that those who transgress do so only once. After punishment finishes, reintegration must follow.
Crime costs us around £60bn a year: a truly staggering figure. And we know that over £9bn of that is the result of reoffending. So much could be prevented through effective and, above all, relevant education courses. Only by equipping prisoners and offenders in the community with the right skills will they be able to access work and so make a positive contribution to the economy.
That is why giving offenders the chance of a fresh start through education is so important. The Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, has called for a “rehabilitation revolution” aimed at cutting the rate of reoffending. I want learning to be at the centre of this revolution. What more effective tool is there than education to steer someone away from a destructive way of life and towards a constructive one? But for offender learning to reach its potential we must ensure that education inspires a new sense of purpose, putting those who have done wrong back on the right track.
That is why I am launching a review of the effectiveness of offender learning. I want prisoners to learn skills and develop aptitudes that will give them a better chance of finding both a job and a productive place in society on their release.
Today, more than 85,000 people are serving prison sentences, almost twice the number a quarter of a century ago. Many of those are repeat offenders. About 40% of all prisoners reoffend within a year of release and the figures for those who experience social problems like addiction, unemployment or homelessness are much higher than that.
And yet, from what I have seen for myself at Wandsworth Prison, hardened criminals are the exception rather than the rule. For most inmates, one taste of prison is enough. Few would look on the prospect of going back to gaol with equanimity. But many do reoffend, and it is clear that prison often fails them, both as an instrument of deterrence and as a means of rehabilitation.
“Let us reform our schools, and we shall find little reform needed in our prisons,” exhorted John Ruskin in 1862. His opinion remains as relevant today as it was then. Education, or lack of it, is one of the issues that are clearly linked to the likelihood of a person offending. For example, two-thirds of prisoners have literacy below that expected of 11 year-olds. Half of all men and 70% of all women in prison have no qualifications at all.
Effective offender learning benefits both prisoners and society. It offers ex-prisoners a way back to a productive and law-abiding life. But how effective or otherwise are the current arrangements, and how can they be made to work better?
It is questions like these that the review will seek to answer. The results will feed into the Green Paper on criminal justice reform that Ken Clarke will publish in the autumn and will, I hope, make a valuable contribution to the important changes we need to see in prisons and in the justice system as a whole.
Education is the cornerstone of both a productive and socially responsible society. Government must ensure that it is put to good use in order to beat the cycle of reoffending.