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“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.

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

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.