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29 September 2023

Nothing fails as hard as the British justice system

Everybody knows how to fix Britain’s prisons – so why hasn’t that happened yet?

By Frank Lawton

I was walking through one of London’s crown courts when I was nearly killed by a metaphor. With huge backlogs, budgets slashed and probation overwhelmed, the criminal justice system had felt on the brink of collapse for a while. Something had to give. And so it did, as the corridor ceiling came down right in front of me.

Inside the court, during my legal studies a couple of years ago, I’d been watching a county lines drug trial that seemed to have been mistaken for a Victorian farce, with technology that wouldn’t work, a jury that were dismissed and recalled until they were dizzy, and a defendant who managed to abscond for about three hours, merely by sitting in his cell as everyone scrabbled around looking for him.

Having finally been located, the court would soon learn the accused was a serial reoffender, with a drug addiction of his own. He had previously been sentenced to a raft of rehabilitation programmes, but this was news to the defendant, who hadn’t attended a single one, and no one had ever checked to see that the court orders were followed up.

As Chris Atkins’ scathing new book Time After Time suggests, none of this should come as a surprise. Atkins, a documentary filmmaker, was sentenced to five years in prison for tax fraud in 2016 (serving two and a half). His diary was published as A Bit of a Stretch, a visceral account of the squalor, violence and absurdity of life behind bars, and was then turned into a successful podcast. Time After Time: Repeat Offenders – The Inside Stories picks up where A Bit of Stretch left off, following the lives of prisoners Atkins has met and asking a simple question: why do so many of them end up back inside?

The evidence is stark. Forty-five per cent of adults sent to prison are convicted again within a year of release (rising to 61 per cent if they had served less than a 12-month sentence) – and the real number who offend again must be much higher, given that 95 per cent of reported crimes end up with no one being charged or summonsed (a fact that renders the “is prison a deterrent” question somewhat void). That reoffending costs the taxpayer £18bn a year, approaching half the defence budget. Even more startling is that 80 per cent of all convictions and cautions are handed out to reoffenders. Put another way, “if we solved reoffending, we’d prevent 80 per cent of all crimes”.

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Why are the reoffending numbers so stubbornly high? Atkins can sometimes edge into easy answers if one reason for reoffending might be isolated, and a problem “solved”. He interviews his friend Alex, a man with an obvious appetite for risk, initially in prison for defrauding a string of high-end hotels by pretending to be the 12th Duke of Marlborough. Would he never have reoffended – by committing, yes, fraud – “but for” meeting another fraudster inside? Perhaps, but then again, perhaps not. As Atkins admits, “I found it tough squaring their awful deeds with the people I’d got to know and like”, and sometimes you feel he protests too much against the system rather than the individual. Taken as a whole, however, his book illustrates how complicated offending and reoffending is; for here are the poor and the rich, the mentally ill and the seemingly stable, those with a good family, an “enabling” family, a criminal family and no family. All reoffending.

Some clear themes emerge. Prisoners lack support upon release – often walking out with little more than a £75 release grant and a promise of an occasional phone call from a probation officer whom they’ve never met – making it all too easy to slip into homelessness or the criminal network that previously supported them. The temporary accommodation that the state does provide (and 37 per cent of prisoners leave jail without accommodation arranged) tends to be modelled on abandoned horror film sets, and throws together the vulnerable, violent, dangerous, sick and addicted, with predictable consequences. A functional illiteracy rate of nearly 50 per cent among prisoners makes employment near impossible. The renationalised probation service still suffers from its near-decade of privatisation, during which standards slipped, staffing levels fell and the number of offenders under supervision doubled. The recall system – whereby prisoners can be recalled to jail for minor, unevidenced infractions of their licence – is prone to over-use and arbitrary invocation. And then there are those for whom life outside is intolerable compared with the simple routine and clear identity of jail.

So what to do? It would be easy to simply demand more cash, but Atkins is realistic about financial trade-offs and the fact there aren’t many votes in spending money on criminals, rather than, say, the NHS. And as for the universal panacea of “more education”, as Atkins uncovers, rehabilitation programmes are often gob-smackingly bogus. Put plainly, too many are untested, uncosted and unsuccessful, sold to the state as a means of “doing something”. In some cases, they have even been shown to do more harm than good: an internal Ministry of Justice report from 2012, Atkins notes, revealed that the Sex Offender Treatment Programme “made future attacks more likely” (the programme was only shut after the report was leaked to the press in 2017).

Instead, Atkins provides plenty of sensible suggestions: allow prisoners to access Universal Credit before they leave prison, rather than waiting for weeks (when they will often become homeless) and then backdating it; cut funding for any programme that isn’t evidenced (around “60-70 per cent of all courses”), saving hundreds of millions of pounds; spend that money (and more) on improving post-prison accommodation, building drug rehab centres and – novel idea – expanding the few rehabilitation programmes with some proof they actually work, such as HMP Grendon, Europe’s only therapeutic prison, which has a reoffending rate half the national average.

But despite all this, it’s hard not to read Atkins and feel a wearied sense of déjà vu. We have been here before. The problems have been known for decades. The solutions are broadly agreed upon. And yet nothing changes. This speaks to a bigger point, more alarming than that the state “won’t” or “doesn’t want” to sort things out. Rather, simply, the state can’t. It lacks the capacity. The state pulls its levers, expecting action, and finds they aren’t connected to anything. Just 5 per cent of crimes reported in England and Wales end up with someone being charged, and still the probation service is overwhelmed, the prisons rammed, the courts crumbling. Our system is failing to adequately protect the public, and failing to reform offenders.

Atkins’ book is full of examples of lethargy, apathy and head-turning: a group of teenagers organise a county lines operation on a court-ordered rehabilitation day; Jojo buys drugs right outside court, as the dealer hangs round picking up new clients; Ed leaves prison carrying a sharpened fork and a razor blade in his mouth, rolls a spliff as a police officer walks past, and waves it at the prison staff while he drives out, shouting “here’s my rehabilitation”. Actually implementing some of Atkins’ suggestions would, you hope, be a step towards fixing things. Because reading Time After Time, you can’t help feeling that soon, it won’t be just a panel in the metaphorical ceiling that comes down: it’ll be the whole damn thing.

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