Sophia Worringer is Deputy Policy Director at the Centre for Social Justice.
With prisons overflowing and criminals being set to walk free due to lack of space, there is an option to be both tough on crime and rehabilitate those caught in its revolving door.
Prison punishes offenders by depriving them of their liberty. It also protects the public by keeping dangerous individuals off the streets, but prison doesn’t work when it comes to the reduction of crime and rehabilitation. The latest Government figures show that over half of adults released from prison after a sentence of less than 12 months reoffend within a year.
We don’t have to send prisoners to Estonia – and sever any rehabilitative family connections they may have – or go soft on crime to reduce reoffending and turn lives around. As the prison population grows, it is right that we are honest about how many offenders roll in and out of prison on short sentences and recognise that the cost of reoffending is an estimated £18 billion per year.
The Government is right to grip this issue by introducing a presumption that custodial sentences of less than 12 months will be suspended and nonviolent offenders can be monitored intensively in the community. The Centre for Social Justice has long called for a real alternative to custodial sentences, giving magistrates and judges confidence to mete out sentences that are both rehabilitative and robust.
Not everyone who deserves punishment needs to be in prison. The Government is right to put forward a tough alternative to prison. Sentences in the community can be just as punitive, provide a better opportunity for rehabilitation, and can reduce reoffending rates. This approach can also ensure there is adequate space in prisons for those who need to be kept away from the public, such as violent criminals.
Community provision provides better options for rehabilitation. 97 per cent of adult community education providers were rated as good or outstanding, up from 93 per cent in 2021. Within the prison estate the figures are not so positive. Only 37 per cent of education, skills and work activities in prisons and young offender institutions were graded good or outstanding and purposeful activity was judged to be poor or not sufficiently good in all but one of the adult male prisons.
This is not about being soft on crime. A former prisoner in HMP Northumberland, now a colleague at the Centre for Social Justice, said his time inside was tough but the year he spent afterwards subjected to a strict curfew outside was no easy ride.
He said “I spent a year on bail…This was hard. It was so restrictive and difficult, a prisoner in my home, trapped by my own walls and missing the joys of life and liberty. There was a stigma that family, friends and peers placed on you in every daily interaction… The punishment was otherwise little different. Indeed, there was no shame in the face of other prisoners, shame which burned into you with a tag around your ankle.” For many prisoners having to continue the responsibility of work or caring (where safe to do so) is more of a punishment than being carted off to prison and being cooked for three meals a day.
We all know from our own experience of lockdown that being stuck in our homes day after day feels like a punishment. Add to that the stringent conditions that can be enforced through sophisticated tech where alcohol intake, drug use or even going into a pub can be monitored and its clear having a community sentence can be equally as punitive. Given around half of prisoners are addicted to drugs keeping people out of prison could actually reduce their drug usage.
The Government’s ambition to enforce stringent sentences in the community must be matched by community programmes that ensure criminogenic needs are addressed. This is not just about filling offenders time with projects to keep them busy, or even just about community payback. Ministers must seize this opportunity to give offenders sentenced to the community real opportunities for work and education and ways to tackle the root causes of addiction or spiralling debt. Tackling these challenges should be a condition of their sentence.
To make this work, offenders will need to quickly engage with programmes after sentencing. Those who disregard the order of the court must be swiftly arrested and resentenced without delay. The Government must also ensure regular court reviews of criminals’ progress are part of the new sentencing to ensure offender accountability.
By combining a robust package of monitoring requirements, alongside meaningful opportunities for rehabilitation, robust community sentences presents an opportunity for justice to be served while offering real rehabilitation for those caught in the revolving door of crime.