“Two Strikes and You’re Out”: Shouldn’t we be more proactive about criminal justice?

Our political system is fixated on punishing ex-prisoners after they have reoffended, as opposed to trying to get things right in the first place.

At the recent Conservative Party conference, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling announced his new “two strikes and you’re out” policy. Simply put, if you’re found guilty of two offences that both carry a prison sentence of 10 years or more, you will be sentenced to life imprisonment.

This sounds like a nice idea. To be fair to the Government, a lot of what they say on law and order, does. But what’s the substance? Is focusing attention on this group of offenders worthwhile?

Upon analysis of reconviction rates of different groups of prisoners, there seems to be a trend – the longer you stay in prison, the less likely you are to be reconvicted. Compared with short-term sentences, which have a 12-month reconviction rate of around 60 per cent, lifers who are released are generally not reconviction within the same time-frame - with the official figure being somewhere between one and two per cent. Those who fall between these two extremes have a reconviction rate of around 50 per cent (within two years of release).

That is not to suggest that former life-sentenced prisoners don’t go on the commit further offences. It could be the case that either (a) they aren’t caught, or (b) it takes them longer to re-offend (although the idea that further crimes are not detected, given the amount of supervision that they are under, seems highly unlikely). However, the low rate when compared to short-stay prisoners does lead to me ask – why is the Government announcing this drive?

I’ve written at length on this site about how we should use prison sparingly - citing both economic and societal benefits for doing so. However, it seems strange to announce a whole policy based on such a small proportion of the population. It is akin to the US Government announcing a national strategy to address the prevalence of “short sleep” problems among their college students (estimated to be just under five per cent). It sounds ludicrous that they would do such a thing and, although being a far-fetched example, demonstrates how out-of-focus the “two strikes” policy could be.

That’s not to suggest that the future offending of life-sentenced prisoners should just be ignored. However, it seems epidemic in our political system that we have a fixation on retribution and punishing ex-prisoners after they have (re)offended, as opposed to trying to get things right in the first place – by encouraging a more equal society or making our prisons into environments that are more conducive to personal growth.

How would we do this?

There is some great work going on at HMP Grendon, a prison which houses prisoners (known as "residents") for extended periods of time. It has been home to some of the country’s more dangerous and difficult offenders, but has consistently had an enviable record of prisoner violence (with the exception of the murder of a resident convicted of child sex offences in 2010 – the only killing that has ever taken place in Grendon). Additionally, residents who spend more than 18 months at Grendon have a two-year reconviction rate of just 20 per cent – less than half the national average, and adding more credence to the suggestion that only the most dangerous criminals, who can be engaged in long-term therapeutic work, should be incarcerated.

So what’s Grendon’s secret?

The regime at HMP Grendon is greatly different than other category B establishments. Here, residents live in discreet “therapeutic communities”, and are treated in more a more humane way than other establishments. As eminent criminologist, and former governor at HMP Grendon, Professor David Wilson, describes:

“A therapeutic community is a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week, 52-weeks-a-year commitment to analysing your behaviour in the context of a prison to try and gain insight and understanding into why you ended up in that prison.”

This sense of acknowledging your own shortcomings is seen as a vital first step in the rehabilitation process - and sets strong foundations for positive intervention work. Therapeutic communities promote a collaborative approach to offender rehabilitation – with residents being allowed out of their cells for extended periods and engaging in group discussions designed to address their criminal pasts. Additionally, HMP Grendon is a prison that offenders volunteer to go to – knowing that their fellow residents have the power to vote them out if they feel that certain people would not be appropriate for their communities (see my post on prisoner voting rights for an overview of how harnessing and encouraging democratic involvement can help to promote desistance).

This set-up makes the prison environment more realistic, and, therefore, more comparable to being ‘on the outside’. I’m in no doubt that this better prepares Grendon’s residents for release, and reintegration, than does being in a prison environment that relies on inmates being locked up for long periods of time, with little time for social interaction and personal development.

One thing to bear in mind with therapeutic community places is that the cost around £10,000 more per year than a typical prison place. However, I have previously set out how substantial savings can be made by sentencing low-level offenders to community orders (average cost £4,000 per 12-month order) as opposed to short prison sentences (approximately £40,000 per prisoner, per year). In addition to cost savings, these community sentences are shown to have significantly better outcomes in terms of reconviction rates within 12 months (34 per cent for community orders compared to 61 per cent for those serving less than 12 months in prison). By doing this, prison staff will be free to focus their attention on the higher risk, longer-sentenced residents of the prison estate. This would also be in line with the evidence on offender rehabilitation, which suggests that the lion’s share of rehabilitation resources should be aimed at those posing the highest risk. In short, we really do need to "speculate, to accumulate".

Naturally, reducing the prison population will likely lead to a public backlash, and claims that those in power have gone "soft" on crime. However, this brave and reforming step would lead to lower reconviction rates and substantial savings to the Ministry of Justice – savings that could go towards reducing the country’s deficit, or be re-invested in education, the NHS, or affordable housing projects – all of which, coincidentally, could also facilitate lower crime rates. Small-scale pilot schemes could be utilised in the first instance in order to allay some of the public’s fears, and demonstrate the positive effects that an approach such as this could have on local communities.

For too long, we have sat back and watched political leaders engage in reactionary rhetoric, blaming offenders for re-offending when very little has been done to fix the broken penal system that in many ways keeps the "revolving door" swinging. It is about time that we reform our broken system, and adopt a more proactive approach towards offender rehabilitation.

Chris Grayling at the Conservative Party conference. Photograph: Getty Images

Craig is a forensic psychology blogger interested in evidence-based criminal justice and desistance from crime. He tweets as @CraigHarper19.

Photo: Getty Images
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A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 70p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits It's easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough. 


Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.