Monday, 29 April 2013

What should be done to tackle the UK’s high re-offending rate?

Re-offending is a costly problem to the current government; it can also impose long-term harm on the victimised individuals and communities, the offenders themselves and their families.  Almost half of those released from prison are re-convicted within a year, a rate which has remained this high for a decade.[1]  Over half of all re-offenses were committed by those with 11 or more previous convictions.   The UK’s prison population stands at over 85,000 – a figure which has doubled over the past 20 years.  The economic costs are enormous; re-offending accounts for between £9.5bn and £13bn of the overall cost of crime to UK society of £64bn per year.[2]

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling is addressing the urgency of the problem by both toughening penalties and implementing reforms to rehabilitation, utilising various community organisations who are pursuing mentoring and innovative rehabilitation methods.  These government reforms will allow lower-risk offenders to be supervised by private firms and charities on a payment by results basis, while prisoners serving sentences of less than 12 months will be forced to undertake a period of rehabilitation upon release for the first time.  These policy prescriptions have come about from an analysis of the reasons for and circumstances in which re-offending occurs, including ex-prisoner homelessness and unemployment.  There is growing agreement from all points on the political spectrum that prevention is preferable to tougher sentencing as a means of promoting better economic, social and personal outcomes.

The key to tackling the re-offending cycle is to provide prison-leavers with better options which lead to long-term personal sufficiency, both economic and psychological.  It’s imperative to assist people leaving prison in the areas of employability skills, job search and placement, and housing.  How these services are delivered can come from a variety of sources including local government programmes, charities and social enterprises.  The government has made it clear that the criminal justice system has been opened up to more providers and that they are to be paid by results for their effectiveness 

Current programme providers, both in the UK and elsewhere, are pioneering new approaches to rehabilitation; these represent a bank of trials as a means of testing whether particular re-offending prevention programmes work.  Those conducting such trials need to have adequate data on re-offending to verify the effectiveness of their work.  The Ministry of Justice’s recently launched Justice Data Lab (suggested and supported by New Philanthropy Capital) will allow organisations working with offenders to better understand the tangible impact their work is having on re-offending rates so that they can see what works and what doesn’t.  This will enable them to demonstrate their impact to commissioners and allow them to fine-tune their services.  In the past, charities had to depend on their relationships with local police forces, prisons and probation trusts for information on re-offending.  The Data L:ab will enable the promotion of quantitative measures to demonstrate effectiveness.  Improved commissioning could also reduce costs and deliver improved value for money for the government.

There has been an analogous move in the field of development toward greater involvement of local stakeholders using programmes as trials.  The economist Tim Harford is a champion of this evidence-based support for policy.  I think his thoughts on this subject are an appropriate approach to the problem of re-offending:

“…let’s hear it for pragmatism: for trusting evidence rather than theory; for looking at the specifics of the situation rather than some overarching narrative; for preferring what works to what fits our preconceptions; and for being willing to test our ideas and change direction as is necessary.[3]

There is a plethora of rehabilitation initiatives being tested in the communities of the UK; their outcomes will yield up which ones work most effectively.

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