The costs of imprisonment
One of the key drivers behind the MoJ’s Transforming Rehabilitation project is that of saving public expenditure on the criminal justice system by reducing reoffending.
The biggest saving would be reduced use of imprisonment – the average annual cost of a prison place is £27,851 (MoJ figures for 2011/12)
However, ever since the two main political parties started going head-to-head on who could be toughest on crime in 1997, we have started seeing a growing disconnect between crime rates and the number of people in prison.
There has been a steady decline in recorded crime across all measures in the last fifteen years whilst the number of people in English & Welsh prisons has grown steadily – it was 83,796 last Friday, 28 June.
Will custody rates rise even higher under TR?
One of the key changes under the Offender Rehabilitation Bill currently working its way through Parliament (despite last week’s defeat in the House of Lords) is that short term prisoners will receive mandatory supervision on release.
Although this development is broadly welcomed, one of the consequences will be that some of these prisoners will not comply with supervision and therefore will be breached and returned to prison.
The recently updated impact assessment of the Offender Rehabilitation Bill estimated that 13,000 short term prisoners per year will be returned to prison because they will breach the new mandatory period of supervision on release.
I can see two other factors which will drive up the custody rate.
Firstly, Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, is encouraging this by a somewhat mixed two-pronged political message which can be summarised as:
- We will send all offenders to prison
- We will then make sure they don’t come back.
We know that, historically, sentencers have been shown to be very sensitive to the political climate and are likely to increase their use of custody when a Justice Secretary makes high profile speeches recommending its use.
Secondly, the new mandatory supervision will enable many sentencers, particularly Magistrates, to have their cake and eat it.
Let me explain.
Currently, when faced with a drug dependent offender who persistently commits a high volume of low level offences – typically shoplifting and minor fraud – magistrates often impose a community sentence (usually with a drug rehabilitation requirement) because they know that unless the underlying problem of addiction is addressed, there is little hope of them stopping offending.
Under the new provisions, sentencers will be able to impose a short prison sentence safe in the knowledge that the offender will be able to get support and supervision on release. Indeed, in the case of drug using offenders, released prisoners will be subject to extensive drug testing for the first time.
As we know, one of the reasons that short terms prisoners have such high re-offending rates is that custody does such a lot of damage – houses and jobs are lost, supportive relationships are damaged, sometimes irretrievably.
It’s entirely possible that Transforming Rehabilitation will, paradoxically, result in higher short term custody rates and an increase in reoffending.