By Eric Allison, in The Guardian
Cuts in public spending present an opportunity for a bold justice minister to begin sorting out the mess that is the penal system in England and Wales. The added incentive is that it would save money and reduce reoffending.
You may know the depressing statistics: the prison population is nudging 85,000 – a rise of 20,000 since Labour took power; our incarceration rates are sky high – Germany, with 20 million more inhabitants, locks up 10,000 fewer men, women and children than we do; it costs around £40,000 to keep an adult in a UK jail for a year; the annual cost per person in a young offender institution is £100,000; and the estimated annual cost per child in secure training homes and training centres is, respectively, around £215,000 and £200,000 – roughly seven times the cost of sending a child to Eton.
And what do we get for all that? Across-the-board reoffending rates of around 65%, rising to over 80% among young offenders.
Many factors contribute to the failure of the penal system – gross overcrowding, jails unequipped to deal with the massive increase of mentally ill prisoners, and lack of drug treatment facilities.
But tackling youth reoffending is crucial, because society will otherwise pay a heavy price for decades to come – financially and in human suffering. If we crack it with this age group, we pave the way towards a more manageable and civilised criminal justice system.
Why do we persist in the current treatment of young criminals, against overwhelming evidence of its failure? Because successive governments have slavishly accepted custody as the norm.
Consider this: all children misbehave, and all parents impose sanctions, such as financial penalties and the cancellation of treats. But please stand up any parent who believes that the way to deal with their misbehaving child is to lock it in a room with other naughty kids.
Of course, there are some children who are so dangerous that they require intense, controlled supervision. But the notion of custody as standard for kids who go astray belongs in the past.
There is no shortage of alternatives: intensive fostering, for example, where a support team works with offenders and families, and which, since 2004, has produced a 50% lower reoffending rate than custodial alternatives.
It's not cheap, but compared with the cost of imprisonment, it represents a bargain for any politician bold enough to take the risk.
Eric Allison writes on criminal justice.
Source: The Guardian (2009).