“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 new French revolution: how En Marche! disrupted politics

The rise of Emmanuel Macron's party has shattered the accepted wisdom.

Alexandre Holroyd bears many similarities to his new boss, Emmanuel Macron. Like the French president, a former banker, Holroyd started his career in the private sector, at the management consultancy firm FTI. At 39, Macron is the youngest ever French president; Holroyd is nine years younger. Both are strongly pro-European and confident in their common mission.

“The Assemblée Nationale is going to profoundly change,” Holroyd told me, sipping fizzy water in a café near St Paul’s Cathedral in London on 16 June. Two days later, in the second round of the French legislative election, he was elected France’s MP for northern Europe – one of the 11 constituencies for French expats around the world – representing Macron’s party, En Marche! (“Forward!”), which swept to a resounding victory.

“People said, ‘These newbies from En Marche! won’t know what to do,’” he told me. “But they will reflect French society: diverse, equal, with multidisciplinary experiences.”

Macron’s election in May capped a remarkable 12 months for the former economy minister, who left the Parti Socialiste (PS) government to run as an independent candidate. But the real power – of the kind that will allow him to implement the liberal reforms he has promised France – arrived only with the legislative election victory.

En Marche! won 350 of the 577 parliamentary seats, a majority that should enable the president to pass laws in the house easily. And the party did so by selecting younger, more socially diverse candidates than is usual in French politics. As with Holroyd, most of the candidates for En Marche! were running for office for the first time. When the National Assembly reopens, three-quarters of the faces will be new.

The renewal of the political class was one of Macron’s main campaign pledges. “There was this will to stop the two main parties’ [the PS’s and the Républicains’] sectarian obstructionism,” Holroyd said. “The French people are fed up with it.”

Much like a Silicon Valley start-up disrupting a sector of the economy – Uber with taxis, for instance – En Marche! sought to disrupt French politics. Macron launched it in April 2016 as a “political club” while still serving in François Hollande’s government. Three months later, more than 3,000 people attended its first event in Paris. The movement welcomed people of all political parties, allowing them to sign up for free online.

Today En Marche! has more than 240,000 supporters. The party’s main source of funding was individual donations and during the presidential campaign, it raised €6.5m. (Macron also took out an €8m personal loan.)

The rise of Macron and En Marche! has shattered the accepted wisdom of French politics: 39 is too young for a president; one cannot be “neither left nor right”; a career in the private sector does not lead to politics; no one can run for the presidency without the support of a pre-existing party.

Yann L’Hénoret, the director of the documentary Emmanuel Macron: Behind the Rise (available on Netflix), described En Marche! as a “very young” team in which “everyone could give their own view” before Macron had the final say. “Young people are said not to be politically engaged. I saw the inverse, every day, all the time,” L’Hénoret told me.

En Marche! members set up more than 4,000 local committees across France and beyond. Anyone interested in Macron’s project could create one and invite family members, friends and neighbours to take part. “Engage in a march, a conversation, a dinner,” the movement’s website suggested.

The groups then started “the Great March”, a canvassing initiative. “It was like an audit of the society,” said Holroyd. A dual citizen of France and Britain who grew up in west London, he became one of the early marcheurs in July 2016, when he quit his consulting job to set up the London committee. He had never been a member of any party before but Brexit acted as a trigger. “I saw my father’s country tearing itself off from Europe and realised I would regret it if I didn’t contribute to Macron’s project, whose European values I profoundly share.”

A graduate of London’s Lycée Français and Kings College, Holroyd could easily engage with his French expat peers – something that helped him win 70 per cent of the vote in the second round. “The only other party to go and talk to the people was the Front National,” Holroyd said. “The particularity of En Marche! is that many members came from the private sector. It’s exceptional in politics that people in the party have professional experiences. It spoke to many people.”

As En Marche! crowdsourced its candidates, it also ensured that its policies resonated with their locals. During the London “march”, 95 per cent of the participants told the committee that they were expats in the UK because of the economic opportunities here. Macron wants France to be able to entice professionals, too. Financially and socially, his goal can be summed up as: “Make France attractive again.”

Achieving a parliamentary majority has boosted Macron’s hopes of implementing major changes. Reforms may start as soon as this summer, with a liberal reorganisation of France’s rigid labour laws, which currently offer strong protection for workers. “France must invest in the industries of the future,” Holroyd said, quoting his president by the word. “Renewable energy, denuclearisation, ecological transition . . . We must become champions in these fields.”

Despite the scale of the victory, Macron’s team will have noted that the turnout was at a historic low on 18 June – at 42 per cent – suggesting widespread voter apathy. And despite its much-praised social diversity, En Marche! has only one working-class MP for every five middle-class ones. “We are conscious that we’ll be in a difficult situation if, by the end of the mandate, things have not changed for the people who have been left behind for years,” Holroyd said. “Those in outer suburbs, in post-industrial and rural lands.”

If they are to succeed, Macron and his MPs will have to find a way to win them over.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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