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Prison is not the answer

15 November 2013

It has little effect on crime, argues Martin Wright; society needs to rethink its purposes and sentencing policy

MORE THAN 4000 criminal offences have been created since 1997, three-quarters of them potentially imprisonable. Sentences also keep getting longer. Once again, we approach Prisons Week (17-23 November) with a prison population close to the 86,000 maximum capacity.

We know the harmful effects, especially of short sentences; so it makes no sense to persist with this policy. This is a world-wide failure. The International Centre for Prison Studies regularly reports overcrowding and appalling conditions in every continent.

In the UK, punishment heads the list of the purposes of sentencing, even for community sentences. Presumably ministers either believe that it works, or that the electorate wants it, despite research funded by the Ministry of Justice suggesting that 81 per cent of victims of non-violent crime would prefer an offender to receive an effective sentence rather than a harsh one. A similar proportion would favour community sentences, if they prevented reoffending.

The reason for creating more and more imprisonable offences seems to be something like this. An offence hits the headlines, such as knife crime, or fraud by welfare claimants or bankers. "Something must be done," goes the cry.

The easiest "something" is to increase the maximum penalty. Later, more appropriate preventative measures are introduced, such as stop-and-search, identity checks, stronger regulation, and (easier said than done) changing the culture. Some of these are effective, but people assume that the penalties, not the preventative measures, are responsible for any improvement.

Imprisonment generally makes things worse. The Prison Reform Trust's Prison Factfile (December 2012) shows that 47 per cent of adults are reconvicted within one year of release, and more of those with sentences under 12 months (57.6 per cent), young offenders (71 per cent for ten- to 17-year-olds), and those who have been in prison before (76.4 per cent with 11 or more previous sentences); but eight per cent fewer of those given community sentences than similar offenders imprisoned for less than 12 months.

Plans for massive prisons, such as the 2000-place institution proposed at Wrexham, mean that more prisoners will be held far from home, which will make it difficult to keep contact with families and friends. Few prisoners have work inside (averaging 11.8 hours per week in 2009-10), education (82 per cent are at or below GCSE grades D to G in writing), or treatment (three-quarters of mentally disordered prisoners are returned to the community with no appointment with outside carers).

Many prisoners have been taken into care (24 per cent) or experienced abuse as a child (29 per cent), and have no qualifications (47 per cent). Locking them up far from home, with little to do, and a stigma when they come out, is hardly likely to help them to stop reoffending, although 97 per cent of them say that they want to.

Once a court decides that the offence is so serious that prison is necessary, the length of prison sentences is determined on the basis of an arbitrary attempt to ask "How bad was the crime?", and translate this into a period of time. So the Sentencing Council guidelines give a range within which a sentence may be increased or reduced because of aggravating or mitigating factors. These periods, however, have little relevance to what is needed to (re-)habilitate people from (mainly deprived) backgrounds with all sorts of needs.

We need to ask different questions: how to make things better for this victim (by the offender or the community); how to encourage this offender not to harm anyone else; and how to reassure the victim and the public that enough is being done.

Traditional questions are "Which law was broken? How much should the offender be blamed? What should the punishment be?" They focus on the offender. But making things worse for offenders does not make things better for victims.

Instead, we can begin with the victim, by asking: "What happened? Who was affected? What needs to be done to make things better?" The offender should be held accountable and make amends; but the community has to enable him or her to do better. Meeting victims (if they are willing) to hear first-hand the effects of the crime is one way; it might also make more impression on some white-collar offenders in their remote offices.

WE NEED to avoid criticism of the "Jail let-off for shoplifters if they apologise" variety (as The Sun put it on 2 March 2011). We all, including victims, need to feel that this "something that must be done" shows enough concern. One way is by taking away people's liberty, but purposefully: by requiring them to work and attend programmes in the community in their own time, not by warehousing them in institutions that do more harm than good.

Second, people naturally feel that wrongdoers should experience pain; accepting responsibility for causing harm to others is painful, but in a restorative way, and allows them to earn redemption by making amends.

Third, imprisonment is not excluded in certain cases if we have a clearer idea of what it is for: to enforce community-based programmes if offenders do not co-operate, or for public protection if there is a risk of serious re-offending. Where some crimes are concerned, it may be appropriate to remove the perpetrator from the community for a time to take stock. But these should be prison's primary purposes, not by-products achieved in spite of the regime.

Last, both conventional and restorative justice theories lack the idea of feedback. The factors in the lives of offenders which led them to commit crimes should be studied more by policy-makers and community leaders.

We have created the pressures of an increasingly unequal society, cut back on care for the weak, and failed to educate the privileged about their responsibilities to the less fortunate. If we cause our brothers and sisters to stumble, they are crushed for our iniquities.

Dr Martin Wright is joint editor of Civilising Criminal Justice (Waterside Press, 2013), and a former director of the Howard League for Penal Reform.

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