In order to tackle high reoffending rates, the U.K. needs to adopt a smarter penal system to break the cycle which takes both a financial and social toll on the U.K.
Reoffending rates in the U.K. are some of the highest in Europe. The figures speak for themselves, with 44% of adult men re-incarcerated within a year of release. For those serving sentences under than twelve months this figure increases to 59%. Moreover, it is estimated that reoffending by recent ex-prisoners costs the economy somewhere between £9.5bn to £13bn annually. What is even more striking is that almost three quarters of this cost can be accredited to past short-sentenced prisoners – those convicted of relatively minor offences - roughly £7-10bn.
So if the courts have sent an individual to prison before, then custodial sentences become less of a threat. The courts have used their ‘Benign Big Gun’, their nuclear option in other words. There are no more scare tactics to prevent reoffending as the courts have used their most punitive measure to punish. Essentially, fear of incarceration is mitigated for the offender and longer sentences results in an increased cost to the taxpayer.
We must, therefore, look for better means of punishing some prisoners, in particular those currently handed short-term sentences in order to discourage reoffending. This could potentially be achieved through ‘restorative justice’, whereby a convicted person is punished through a more rehabilitative means.
Ideally, restorative justice would punish a convicted person, while still allowing them some freedom and liberty. The point is simple: if they are allowed the freedom to pursue a job or education they can better themselves while still paying their dues.
Opportunities to pursue a job or further education and skills in prison may possibly reduce motivations to return to crime after prison. Unfortunately, in some cases a criminal record can last a lifetime, which can severely impact job opportunities in the future. We should, therefore, look at restorative justice as a way to rehabilitate criminals so that they can become fully-functioning members of society.
One example of restorative justice is community sentencing, in which a person convicted serves the community by cleaning council blocks. Most of the time, first time convicted criminals are sentenced to community sentences.
However, as can be seen from the graph below, community sentences have almost halved from 2006 to 2016.
Figure 1: Amount of Community Sentences handed out from 2006 to 2016. Source: Prison Reform trust: Prison the facts, Bromley Briefings Summer 2017
A report by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies believe the introduction of suspended sentence order (SSO), in 2005 has led to the decrease of community sentences being issued. A SSO means the offender is not sent to prison straight away, but is given the chance to stay ‘out of trouble’. The period for which SSOs lasts for up is two years with the period being determined by the court for each individual case.
Moreover, the Ministry of Justice mentions, “It is clear that the new SSO is considerably decreasing the use of community sentencing”. The figures from the Ministry of Justice’s 2016 Criminal Justice Statistics show that SSOs have more than doubled from 7% in 2006 to 16% in 2016 for sentencing outcomes for indictable offences at all courts. This may be due to SSO requiring very little initial cost to the taxpayer making it seem like an attractive option for punishment.
However, community sentencing would punish a convicted person to the extent that their time would be devoted to cleaning say: wasteland or decorating public buildings. It would also allow them the freedom to carry on with everyday activities, such as work or education. Moreover, it would help lighten the costs on councils required to undertake this sort of work.
Another option to explore is ‘Electronic Tagging’. Electronic tagging is essentially a monitored curfew. It ensures the convicted person will remain in their home during curfew by sending location data to a ‘base unit’ through an electronic tag on ones’ ankle.
Again, like a community sentence ‘tagging’, punishes the person, in this case limiting their freedom through a curfew, while allowing them the option to work or attend school.
As mentioned above, the cost of issuing SSOs require very little initial cost (the only cost being court fees). However, with the reoffending rates for SSOs being over 34%, SSOs can end up being very costly and with estimated cost of £73 per prisoner per day in prison. On the other hand, electronic tags are some five to six times cheaper, costing between £8-16 a day.
Furthermore, both options do allow the courts to pursue more punitive measures in the event of re-offense. At a time where 68% of prisons are overcrowded, with some operating at 50% above their ‘certified normal accommodation’, restorative justice would have the added benefit of lightening the pressure put on prison staff and costs.
On the face of it SSOs do seem sensible in that they give the convicted person an opportunity for a ‘blank slate’ as it were. However, there needs to be some form of punishment to deter new and existing offenders.
Both community sentencing and electronic tagging ensure punishment, while allowing the convicted person to pursue a job or education. Basically, it allows the convicted person to better themselves in a cost-effective manner thus, being a ‘smarter’ approach in punishing convicted persons.