Prison works… for some

20 January 2015

Prevailing rhetoric around the state of the UK prison service revolves around the sense of crisis. Ken Clarke famously made a damning speech in which he called prison “an expensive way of making bad people worse”. However the current Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling has been adamant in affirming that “prison does work”. In a recent roundtable with Michael Spurr, Chief Executive of the National Offender Management Service, Reform posed the question: “Does prison work?”

Prison is widely thought to be ineffective in rehabilitating offenders and deterring them from crime, with Ministers and policymakers referring to “stubbornly high” recidivism rates.

The real picture is more complex. It is indeed true that the proven reoffending rates for short-sentenced prisoners are still “stubbornly high”, hovering around the 60 per cent mark for the last decade. Reoffending rates for those prisoners serving sentences of more than a year tell a different story however. Proven reoffending by long-sentenced prisoners has fallen by almost 20 per cent over the decade to 2012 to less than 35 per cent.

This raises some important questions over the role of prisons in the criminal justice system. Clearly, if prison is ineffective for short-sentenced prisoners, a change must be made. The Transforming Rehabilitation programme has made progress on this by extending post-release supervision to this group.

Additional reforms could include either introducing shorter rehabilitation programmes in prisons that offenders could complete even if they are on short sentences, or even removing short sentences as a disposal altogether, as community orders are shown to have much better reoffending outcomes for this group. This would also have the benefit of dramatically reducing the prison population, and may even have a knock-on effect on wider sentencing behaviour.

There are concerns that mandatory life sentences for some crimes have resulted in a “ratcheting up” of sentences for less serious crimes. Removing the option of a prison sentence for non-serious and non-violent crimes could therefore have the opposite effect – a “ratcheting down” of sentences for more serious crimes.

Despite concerns over how prisons will adapt to changing offender demographics and continued budget cuts, falling reoffending rates represent compelling evidence that prison is improving, at least for those serving long sentences. Further reform is needed to ensure that a solution is found for the rest.

Clare Fraser, Senior Researcher, Reform



Ryan Anthony Richardson

19 February, 2015

Thank you for this piece. I am currently serving an unspecified sentence in my community with the help and hindrance of mental health related torture via Hf radio signals, voice technology and electromagnetic weapons. I have a chequered past however I am a very broad minded and caring person when it comes to matter of a person in need of help or love and understanding. This situation , however progressive or trangressive my treatment is. I feel like I would like to know more about what I am experiencing and why it is I have had to, in my opinion deteriorate or continue to worsen but become more passionate and informed about the state we live in today. I was born into a working class background, I have never voted. I agree with most of the arguments across the board for Conservative and Labour but I am technically a Liberal Democrat. I would like to know how I have or could be of assistance, as my situation and position as someone who is disabled, as I write to you from home in bed and on benefits. I am capable, or would feel at greater use to be put to work with what I am experiencing. Not to keep static, but to move forward myself. I do believe that with anything, choices are made for people without full awareness of implications. The search for the truth can end up with alot of lies. Fear and life, like crime and punishment is a scary thing wherever you are in the world. I would like to help.Not have to join in hindering myself, and others. In the quest for safety. Bis Gleich,


21 January, 2015

Wonderful idea but already towns in the north west (Blackpool, Liverpool, Manchester) are filled with offenders, some committing small crimes over 100 times without prison sentence. They're issued a tag or fine, the fine can be a small deterrent but for those on an income of benefits anyway, it doesn't seem to be anything more than a minor inconvenience. there needs to be more hand holding/checking in with these kinds of offenders who know they won't go to prison to stop reoffending