Belfast Telegraph

Tackling reoffending is key to prison reform

Stop jailing people for short sentences and introduce alternative punishments to stop repeat offending, argues Pauline McCabe, the Prisoner Ombudsman

The biggest failure of the prison system is reoffending. Not my words, but those of Justice Secretary Ken Clarke in his speech to the Conservative Party conference in October.

Few would argue with the need for reform of a justice system in which almost half of those sent to prison commit another crime within 12 months of their release.

Reoffending not only increases the prison population and the costs of running prisons, it is the factor that most undermines the rights of victims — because people come out of prison and add insult to injury by perpetrating more crimes, very often against the same victims.

As Mr Clarke said, the current situation is indeed “absurd” — particularly as he promised a “rehabilitation revolution”.

Here in Northern Ireland the first steps in such a revolution are already in train, in the shape of a review of the prison system, which is being carried out by Dame Anne Owers, the highly experienced former Chief Inspector of Prisons.

I suspect if asked what they want from the justice system, most members of the general public would say they want a system that puts victims first, offering redress and instilling confidence the crime will not be repeated.

It is clear such a system can not be built on the basis of the current sky-high reoffending rates.

Two main planks of policy are needed to stop this vicious circle. First, there must be purposeful regimes in our prisons under which all inmates have a disciplined routine and are given work, education and training opportunities, instead of being locked up in their cells for long hours with nothing to do, as is too often the case.

People who are bored and fed up don’t use fewer drugs. People who have no skills and few social resources can’t help or better themselves on their release.

Second, there should be a reform of sentencing policy, in line with the Hillsborough Agreement, so fine defaulters and others who have committed relatively minor, non-violent crimes are not being locked up for six months or less.

Instead, there should be rigorous community sentences that are used as a means to increase the skills — both social and work-related — of offenders, while at the same time making a meaningful contribution to the quality of life in that community.

It is important to emphasise community sentences are not a soft option — they are punitive.

Offenders are forced to acknowledge that they have done wrong, and they are made to do things they would rather not have to. There should be particular priority given to building on current arrangements for providing well-supervised, well-run community sentencing programmes for young offenders.

It really must be a last resort to send young people to an institution where they will be likely to make unsuitable relationships with prisoners who have committed serious crimes and will have greater access to drugs.

The justice secretary is promoting the increased use of community sentences because all the evidence is that — unlike prison — community-based rehabilitation and restorative justice, backed by mental health, drug dependency, adult literacy and related support programmes, reduces reoffending.

To take one very telling statistic — 71% of those sent to prison for six months or less reoffend within two years, compared to 30% of those who receive community sentences.

In common with Mr Clarke, I believe those who have committed serious crimes should go to prison.

But here, too, the fact that we are sending so many people to prison for minor offences is hampering progress.

Prisons end up with a mix of inmates on remand, or serving short sentences for antisocial behaviour, minor theft, shoplifting and defaulting on fines, and prisoners who have committed serious crimes.

Given this profile it is difficult to meet the rehabilitation needs of anyone. Those on remand have no sentence plan, those on short sentences don’t have time to complete offender management programmes, and there are not enough resources to provide comprehensive rehabilitation for prisoners who are guilty of serious crimes.

Dame Anne Owers’ review is taking place against the backdrop of big cuts in public spending.

It is vital the horse trading involved in making these cuts does not distract us from the need for reform. We can’t carry on running prisons the way we do now, only spending less on them. Add in the fact that elections are due to take place next May, and I believe it is critically important for the public to think now about what kind of justice system they want in future, and to build a consensus about this.

This consensus must be based on an understanding of the best ways to change offending behaviour. In essence, if you want to be tough on crime don’t hand out short prison sentences — because going to prison increases the likelihood of reoffending.

Have no doubt: reoffending is the biggest problem facing the prison system and the issue that must be put at the centre of reform.

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