“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
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.