Last week on the BBC show, Sunday Morning Live, Lord Ramsbottom used a metaphor to compare prisons to acute hospital wards – places that should only ‘admit’ those with the highest amount of need. This makes sense, as many people who conduct research into prison reform refer to the so-called ‘schools of crime” theory, which suggests that low-level offenders, who commonly serve sentences of less than 12 months, essentially learn how to commit crimes in a more effective manner.
This claim seems to have some resonance when you consider reconviction rates following these short-sentences – around 60% of those serving less than a year in prison are found guilty of another offence within twelve months.
So what could the answer be?
I think Lord Rambottom has got it exactly right. We should use our prisons sparingly – only detaining those who pose a distinct risk to the general public. In the UK we have a fantastic army of probation workers and forensic social workers, who, instead of being the final part of a long and painful process, should be embedded into the criminal justice system at a much earlier stage. They are the professionals best placed to advise the courts about how community initiatives could contribute to rehabilitating low-level (typically acquisitive or drug-addicted) offenders.
Indeed, community sentences lead to more favourable reconviction rates than the short-term prison sentences mentioned earlier. According to figures released by the Ministry of Justice from 2011, there was only around a 34% reconviction rate for those serving sentences in the community – almost half compared to custodial sentences of less than 12 months. In addition, community sentences make economic sense. According to an informative fact sheet produced by the Howard League for Penal Reform, a typical 12-month community order, comprising of both punishment and rehabilitation elements, costs £4,000 to administer, compared to the cost of £37,500 for sending a person to prison for the same period of time. If we were to completely remove all prisoners serving a custodial sentence of less than one year (approximately 7,500 as at June 2012) and replace their sentences with community equivalents, the public purse would be spared a little over £281million every year.
The importance of a saving such as this should not be underestimated, especially when we consider the scale of recent Government spending cuts. If the public feared that this approach would make them less safe, this could be addressed by re-assigning some of this saving to sure-up staffing levels of the probation serving, meaning that increased numbers would be in employment, paying tax, and helping some of society’s most vulnerable people to reintegrate and move away from crime.
So what would prison be for?
I would advocate that prison should be a place for those convicted only of the most serious offences – murder, manslaughter, sexual offences, domestic violence, and cases of particularly violent robbery. In line with the risk-need-responsivity model of offender rehabilitation, these prisoners require the highest level of intervention and, by removing low-level offenders, professionals working within HMPS will be able to focus their attention on these individuals.
This approach may be seen as liberal, and wouldn’t be supported by tabloid heavyweights (such as the Daily Mail and Daily Express), but that should not be a consideration when setting criminal justice and public policy. Yes, of course it would be nice for everyone to agree with Government decisions, but criminal justice is far too important a topic to allow the emotion of, for example, being a victim interfere with due process, sentencing, and effective rehabilitation. It is only by piloting such schemes that we can evaluate their efficacy.
Naturally, there should be clear guidelines for reporting of potential changes to the criminal justice system – scaremongering by right-wing populist press outlets have the potential to be counterproductive to attempts to reform the prison system, and, in line with what is predicted by desistance theory, could have an opposite effect on reconviction outcomes (due to a lack of opportunities for sentenced offenders to reintegrate back into society through their community orders).
In short, we should trial potential changes to the criminal justice system in order to allay public concerns and test effectiveness. Changes should be reported sensibly and without political agenda, as doing so could jeopardise any initiatives introduced. Finally, removing from prison those serving less than 12 months could save millions of pounds, and significantly reduce rates of reconviction.
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