- Our Work
- The Reformer Blog
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