COMMENTARY: Is prison the only answer?

Why locking up more people is slowing down penal reform.

The reality is that prison is essential for serious and serial offenders who pose a grave threat to society. However, at figures of over 85,000, England and Wales currently have the highest imprisonment rate in Western Europe. Moreover, there will be over 100,000 prisoners in three years’ time – that’s enough people to fill the Royal Albert Hall nearly 20 times over.

Our over reliance on the current penal system is not only financially unsound, but also highlights our outdated approach to dealing with offenders. Picture the scene of a young single mother of two who commits an offence, let’s say minor theft. Should we, in good conscience, put this young woman in jail for this non-violent offence? Or can we find more alternative provisions that will enable her to see the consequences of her actions without contributing to the disintegration of her family? Research shows that imprisoning mothers for non-violent offences has a damaging impact on children and carries a cost to the state of more than £17 million over a ten-year period.

Evidence also suggests that prison, in isolation, does not even prevent re-offence, with nearly 70% of all prisoners re-offending within two years of release. Many forget that the deprivation of liberty is the punishment of a crime and so the whole aim of a prison sentence is to rehabilitate and to provide offenders with the skills and education to equip them for life after prison. With half of all prisoners lacking the skills required to successfully fulfil the majority of jobs on the market, we seem to have lost sight of this vision. If prison cannot offer an offender any hope or aspirations of a having a better life than the one they had before, then it is time we had a drastic rethink

We live in a society that places its emphasis on the ‘what’ of a crime; we need to change our approach to drag focus over to the ‘why’. Over two thirds of male sentenced prisoners suffer from two or more mental disorders while many are already on the fringes of society, having been brought up in care. Many offenders are people who were homeless beforehand, with low levels of literacy or are survivors of domestic abuse. We have to re-evaluate the approach that would further isolate these vulnerable people from their families and communities. Vilifying these offenders and putting them all in prison will not resolve the situation. Instead, we need to try and understand the nature and the motive of each crime, enabling us to give a punishment more fitting to the person and the situation. How can a person suffering from a learning disability, who may have a limited ability to cope with the criminal justice system, receive the same punishment as someone fully aware of their actions?

Instead of throwing money at the penal system, we need to follow the example of our Scandinavian counterparts, who are putting more emphasis put on heavy community service and other alternatives such as reformative justice. This way, families are more likely to stay together and those children are less likely to be placed in care. Instead of a child growing up with a parent bouncing in and out of custody, children can grow up in a more stable family unit and are able to directly see the consequences of a crime. Seeing their mother or father having to do community service every day, as opposed to being an elusive figure they rarely see, is a much more positive and educative image for a child.

Alternative sentences such as mental health, drug programs and job training can bring about such positive changes, as can organised community service. According to research by the Prison Reform Trust, nearly 56,000 people successfully completed community payback sentences in 2008, amounting to over eight million hours of beneficial labour in the community.

We need to step up and leave the, ‘tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime’, rhetoric of our present and previous politicians behind and take a new approach, relevant for the current day. Prison reform is not a ‘light touch’ approach to dealing with offenders. It’s giving weight to constructive rehabilitation over old fashioned retribution, acknowledging the power of the carrot over the stick.

Prison is not always the answer, but having a good and honest sense of moral judgement is.

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