Monday, 20 July 2015

Breaking the Cycle of Crime with a Carrot

On Friday, after approximately two and a half months as Secretary of State for Justice, Michael Gove made a well received speech about prisons.

In brief summary, he talked about the horrendous re-offending rates:

45% of adult prisoners re-offend within one year of release.

58% of adult prisoners serving less than 12 months re-offend within 12 months.

More than 67% of under 18 prisoners re-offend within 12 months.

Clearly prison does not work if it results in these outcomes and Michael didn’t shirk from telling it how it is and identifying the extent of the problem and persistent failure. He went on to propose that education was a key way in which re-offending rates could be reduced and how increasing the responsibility and autonomy of Prison Governors could help it happen.

I read through the text of the speech, agreeing with every sentiment, but it was one particular sentence which gave me real pause for thought. It said:

‘There is a drive to change things, an urgent need to improve how we care for offenders, which will shape my response.’

The words that leapt out at me were ‘how we care for offenders’. Really? A Conservative justice secretary talking about ‘caring’ for offenders - what an extraordinary event. Conservatives are known for their tough on crime, big stick approach to criminal justice which historically has caused rapturous applause at Conservative Party Conferences from the party faithful.

But look at the results. Has the approach of a long succession of Conservative and Labour Home Secretaries and Justice Secretaries delivered results? 

Clearly not.

So perhaps this significantly different ‘tone’ betrays a significantly different approach which gives  cause for hope that a real change may flow from this.

In the past Home Secretaries and Justice Secretaries seem too often to have developed policy to provide a response to what they think the public wants - a big stick, tough on crime approach based on the presumption that ‘toughness’ will provide the deterrent required to reduce crime - ‘prison works’. ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’. Lots of nice sound bites and lots of applause - no results..Wrong approach.

Instead of reaching for the habitual stick, Gove is clearly thinking about the motives of offenders, and circumstances which offenders find themselves in and is looking for solutions from a far more logical and productive perspective.

I am convinced that this approach is the key to unlocking this conundrum. 

I don’t suppose that the Secretary of State thinks that access to academic education in itself will cause a revolution. But it can make a difference for those who don’t have basic literacy and numeracy skills and for those for whom imprisonment could offer a chance to move beyond basic education to further education. And it could make a difference to prison culture, if prisoners genuinely start to see a period of imprisonment as a time to change the course of their life.

If education leads to employment it can be THE crucial element in preventing re-offending alongside social support (ideally family and friends), and having a place to live. In many cases education that delivers practical skills is likely to be a very effective way of reducing re-offending - particularly when the sort skills they learn are not limited to skills that require a job (its difficult to get a job as an ex-offender) but can enable them to work on a self-employed basis. 

I spent some time working with a repeat offender who had finally managed to break his own cycle of repeated criminality when he learnt basic construction skills in prison. He left prison able to earn a modest living working for himself doing minor building work. For the first time in his life he had a practical alternative to crime without having to do mundane, very low paid work that was so dull it was just a matter of time before he cracked and returned to crime.

I suspect that some may miss what Michael Gove is up to here. They may dismiss this speech as yet another repackaged ‘rehabilitation revolution’ - strong on rhetoric but short on consideration, research or intent. Or they may just think that having spent most of the last 7 or 8 years working in education that he sees education as the answer to all the world’s ills.

But I think BBC correspondent Nick Robinson in his recent ‘The Inside Story of the Battle Over Britain’s Future’ got Michael Gove about right when he describes him by saying:

‘He is a softly spoken revolutionary, a genuine radical’. 

I spent a couple of years learning all I could about the prison system and saw how the big stick attitude to offenders habitually displayed by politicians (except perhaps Ken Clarke) was matched by the attitude of many prison officers working in the prison system. 

The general approach that I encountered, with some notable exceptions, was of prison officers who saw it as being their job to punish prisoners, even persecute them in some extreme cases. The result is a highly developed ‘them and us’ culture in prisons and therefore the only people who could help prisoners make life changing actions and decisions alienate themselves from the entire group -unsurprising then that the cycle of crime perpetuates.

I am convinced that prisons and the cycle of crime problem need a revolutionary approach - A complete rethink and reworking and a lot more use of the carrot rather than the stick.

(To be continued..)


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