Martin Narey, former head of the prison and probation service, caused a stir at a conference of the International Correction and Prisons Association in October, when he publicly renounced the belief, that he himself had been instrumental in creating when in office, that prisons can reduce reoffending (here).
I’m surprised how little response there has been – it’s almost as though people can’t quite believe he said something so sacrilegious. Such comment as I’ve seen is either gentle ignoring it as some sort of dubious jeu d’esprit, agreeing with him, or claiming that if properly funded and run, prisons could cut reoffending. (One who agreed with him said that it was hopeless to take on the vested interests of the ‘recidivism industrial complex’.)
What he said – and didn’t say
Is he right? And if he is, what are the implications for penal policy, and prison management?
First, though, what did he actually say? Well, of course he did not say, prison has no effect on reoffending. ‘Of course,’, because to know that, one would have to match prisoners by offence, criminal history etc with similar offenders who got some other sentence, then see how often they reoffended. And you can’t do that, because despite what the Daily Mail would have you believe, there isn’t a similar group of rapists, murderers etc who get a fine or unpaid work. So it seems to me that we don’t know, and can’t know, what effect a prison sentence has on reoffending (other than for short sentences, where you can match with those given non-custodial sentences, see below). But we know reconviction rates are stubbornly high.
Martin also did not say, ‘nothing works’ – the slogan of some criminologists in the 1980s. He did not say that prisons could never rehabilitate anyone. Plainly, they can, as we know that from research into the effects of particular programmes, which can show reductions of 5 or 10% (see here or more recently, here). But particular programmes that work only for particular types of offender, so the impact overall on all prisoners is smaller. (By the by, when you look at these meta-studies, what an extraordinary proportion of studies are of no or limited use, simply because of poor research design!)
So what did Martin say? He said that he no longer believed it possible to drive down the reoffending rate for the whole prison population, to any significant extent. He pointed out that the most ambitious programme ever mounted to cut reoffending, that he had presided over, achieved only a tiny – too small, he said, to be the justification for imprisonment. (Curiously little attention has been paid to a similarly ambitious – and similarly unsuccessful – programme in New Zealand, which aimed at a 25% fall in reconviction rates. After initial excellent result, the trend reversed, and within 5 years they were back pretty much where they had started.)
Martin was especially critical of the ‘sheep-dip approach – the idea that a quick programme to increase employment skills or change behaviour would undo the lifetime of experience that had led a prisoner into offending. Later in his speech, he seemed to say that offenders had to decide for themselves whether to change their lives, and if they did, a good prison could help them with that change: but it was a mistake to think it was something ‘we’ could do to ‘them’.
Is he right?
He is right about the size of the effect. The programme he persuaded Jack Straw to fund in the late ‘90s, in harmony with New Labour’s mantra ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’, spent (or as we say nowadays, ‘invested’) around £250-300m year to fund programmes, which were based on the best scientific evidence, either to increase employment skills (because joblessness is linked to offending) or to modify behaviour, based mainly on cognitive behavioural psychology principles. In return, he committed to cutting the rate of reoffending by 13.4 % over a decade (1).
I have assessed the results of this programme here. I estimated (and it is extraordinary that no-one else has tried to do these sums!), that the programme ‘avoided’ about 80, 000 crimes a year at a cost of about £3-4000 per crime avoided. Worth it? You decide. I’d just point out that that little more than one per cent of all the crimes reported by the British Crime Survey (BCS) and if you crimes not reported to the police, or not counted by the BCS, a lot less than one per cent of all crime. So it’s not nearly enough to make any difference to how safe you are, or how safe you feel. It is also the case that crime fell by about half from 1995 to to 2010, for reasons we can only speculate about, but which have nothing to do with the work of the prison or probation services.
What is very striking from the data is that it is very short prison sentences that are so spectacularly useless at cutting reoffending (2). There are several reasons for this. They disrupt prisoners lives sufficiently to weaken those factors that help keep them from offending – family ties, employment – without giving time for any useful work to be done in prison on addiction, attitudes to offending behaviour and so on. And short term prisoners have never had proper probation supervision and support on release, unlike longer term prisoners - Grayling’s botched privatisation was supposed to provide this but the reality is shown in an audit report that revealed that the contract required CRCs merely to provide a piece of paper, so that’s what in many cases was produced – a piece of paper with no evidence of any real planning for release, see here. The failure to reduce the high rate of reconviction for short term prisoners is as much a failure of the probation as of the prison system.
No surprise, then, that the indications are that for offences at the margins of imprisonment, community sentences achieve a better effect. That is why all parties have favoured limiting use of very short sentences – though the Tories seem to have resiled from that under Johnson. But longer prisons sentences – for which community sentences are not an alternative - do appear to cut reoffending.
Over time, I like Martin have become more sceptical about the ability of the correctional services to cut reoffending rates, or for that matter, the ability of the entire criminal justice system to have much effect on crime rates. In my case, it is largely because I’ve become aware that reoffending rates vary significantly for reasons that plainly have nothing to do with prevention of reoffending programmes, see here. We became aware of this even as we tracked the impact of the 2000 programme (1). And it’s become even more starkly clear recently, here. For example, reconviction rates for prisoners have fallen steadily in the 2010s, precisely as the prison system descended into violent chaos. Reconviction rates for community orders fell just as the disastrous Grayling privatisation of probation brought the service to its knees, such that the privatisation had to be abandoned. And in the same period, reconviction rates fell for fines, suspended sentences and cautions - sentences that don’t involve the correctional services at all. Plainly, movements in reconviction rates are not a measure of the performance of the correctional services. It is foolishness to pretend otherwise.
Let’s take a moment over the counter-argument that if prisons were all decent, modern places with adequate facilities, if they were not overcrowded, if they were all fully staffed, if staff were all properly trained, if there was support in the community for discharged prisoners – so that each prisoner had accommodation on the first night, an offer of employment, medical help, and so on – then prisons could reduce reconviction rates by a bigger margin. The evidence suggests that is so, though it also suggests that the impact would still be marginal, the just the reasons Martin advances: it would not, could not, never will, change the future behaviour of most prisoners. And that’s too many ifs. It presupposes a political will to tone down excessive, indeed, irrational use of imprisonment, which is simply not there, because the public won’t stand for it. And it presupposes billions to become available at a time when the NHS, social care, housing are all in desperate straits and have higher priority, and at a time where we are voluntarily about to make ourselves a lot poorer (Brexit, then the breakup of the UK). And it also presupposes willingness to give ex-prisoners preferential access to housing and other services. Ain’t going to happen. It’s a dream of another world than this.
So I think Martin is right.
What are the consequences for prisons?
If that is accepted, what are the consequences? An obvious risk, in terms of how we run prisons, is a punitive, even nihilistic backlash. To a degree that we perhaps underestimate, the belief in rehabilitation, explicitly Christian in its origins, has been an extraordinarily persistent feature of our prison system, even when conditions have been at their most appalling – indeed, one could argue that it is precisely that core belief which has made us recognise and condemn failure when we see it. It is not so in many American jurisdictions, for example, where punishment pure and simple is seen as the aim. Small wonder that prison reformers were appalled by Martin's speech.
The worry therefore must be that if politicians (and media) accepted Martin’s thesis, they would say: well, if rehabilitation is a pipedream, we don’t need to bother with all those expensive programmes, we don’t need to bother about overcrowding, we don't need to bother too much about being nice to prisoners, we don’t even need to bother so much about rats in cells, because we aren’t ever going to make better people out of prisoners: we just want to punish them. Indeed, in the minds of readers of The Express and Mail, the worse the conditions, the more brutal the treatment, the better. Imprisonment thus becomes mere warehousing.
Of course, all the evidence, all the logic of self-interest – never mind that of mere humanity – is against that tendency. We know some programmes do work, for some prisoners. We know that brutalisation achieves nothing, but on the contrary, does damage. We know that prisons where prisoners are afraid and feel unsafe cannot reduce reoffending, but those where they do feel safe, can, and do. We know that it is not the tax payers interest (to put it in terms the Daily Mail readers might understand) to have addicted and mentally ill prisoners return to the community with addictions undiminished and illness untreated. And surely, when we punish, we should do so in a style that reflects our values – not those of offenders. And so on.
So, as Martin himself argues, the logic is still that jails must be decent and humane places, where the needs of prisoners are met. But would that still convince, in a world where no one thought it was the job of prisons to prevent reoffending, or that they could conceivably do so? In a world where Liberal Toryism has been hacked to death and the New Right is gleefully breaking all the taboos? Where the likes of Dominic Cummings dictate policy?
And on penal policy?
What of the impact on penal policy? Well, one might say of penal policy, as Gandhi replied when he asked what he thought of Western civilisation – that it would be a good idea. For what penal policy is there? There are guidelines, set down by the Court of Appeal and Sentencing Council. Here’s the one on burglary. It tells you what is an aggravating and what a mitigating factor and so on. But it hardly amounts to a penal policy – how should we use different sentences in different ways, and what we are trying to achieve with them - and whetehr we are achieving it. (Mind you, the last attempt at a general framework for sentencing, a generation ago, didn't work too well.)
And I've never been convinced that general philsophical principles, such as Martin mentions, are much help with the practical busness of sentencing. Martin says that the justification for imprisonment, if rehabilitation falls, must be either deterrence or retribution. Neither help much. There’s very little evidence on the effectiveness of deterrence in sentencing, either general deterrence (a warning to potential offenders) or individual deterrence (dissuade a prisoner from reoffending). Common sense suggests that if there were no threat of prison for a given crime, more would be committed. But that a marginal increase in prison sentence lengths is unlikely to have much effect: it is the risk of being caught that matters much more to offenders than the average sentence, and most offenders simply do not weigh out risk v. reward in the prudent, informed way that deterrence theory would suppose. (Though it may work for prudent, informed people with something to lose, like drivers who don’t fasten seat belts or text while driving.)
Unlike criminologists, I am entirely comfortable with the aim of retribution, or punishment: it seems to me that’s the basic reason we have criminal justice system at all, the feeling that people who do bad things should be punished officially, on behalf of us all, after a fair process of judgement. The trouble is, that it’s as long as a piece of string. For the Express and Mail readers, sentences can never be long enough, and a promise to lengthen them will always get their juices going. That’s why politicians and the media harp on about it (and not just Tories: remember IPP?). Though perhaps even Express and Mail readers might baulk at a 36-year prison term for stealing $50. Interestingly, research suggests that the public or very ill-informed about actual sentencing practice, also that they often become less punitive once the background and facts of a particular case are given to them. But that’s exactly the information they never get.
Martin did not mention incapacitation, which what Michael Howard meant when as Home Secretary he told a gleeful Tory Conference in 1993 that ‘prison works’, thus bringing the brief downturn in the prison population post Woolf to an end (3). When in prison, an offender can’t commit crimes other than against other prisoners or prison staff, and seemingly those crimes don’t count. However, it is extremely diffiuclt to make any estmiate of ths effect on crime - one is guessing at what rate offenders would have offended had they not been in prison, how that rate would change as they age, and to what extent others otuside will merely fill the gap as it were. For that reason most estimates simply look at trends in prison popualtion v trends in crime. Most analyses conclude that impact of locking up more offenders, or the same offenders for longer, on crime overall is small, and may have much bigger costs than benefits. I looked at this issue here. (See also a summary of American research here ). For sure, as a way of cutting crime, incapcitation is a terribly bad a deal for tax payers.
Looking at all this, I don’t have any neat conclusion to offer on Martin’ s argument. I think he’s right, on the facts, but I also think it possibly opens the way for an impoverishment brutalisation of policy and prison practice in the hands of the New Tories, even though he’s a million miles from advocating that. The one conclusion one should draw is a policy of parsimony - since prison costs so much, if the evidence of its efficacy is patchy, use as little of it as you feel you must. But prison building, like war, is one thing Governments always seem to find money for.
All in all, perhaps its just as well that everyone seems intent on ignoring him.
And what about probation?
Probation, we all know, is quite wonderful. It is, surely, the jewel in the crown on the criminal justice system (or was before the botched privatisation), uniquely able to turn criminals into honest citizens merely by demnstrating the sterling moral qualities of its staff (it's called 'pro social modelling'). Or is it? Well, just apply to probation the very same test Martin applied to prison. A huge amount was invested by New Labour in ‘what works’ programmes in community sentences, as well as in prisons. And with a similar lack of result. And then reconviction rates for community orders started to fall - just as Grayling broke the probation service apart. Draw your own conclusions…..
1. VISTA Vol 11 No 1 2007 ‘Is ‘what works’ working?’, Julian Le Vay. Note that is a percentage fall in the reconviction rate, so that if the rate was 50% to start with, the targets was 43.3% - not 36.6%.
2. I commend this analysis of the case for restricting use of short prisons sentences, by Helen Mills of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies
3. A Tory achievement. New Labour then drove the population up at a record rate.
I was formerly Finance Director of the Prison Service and then Director of the National Offender Management Service responsible for competition. I also worked in the NHS and an IT company. I later worked for two outsourcing companies.
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