Jennifer Armstrong. Full Paper.

March 15th 2016.Is the Criminal Justice System Fit for Purpose?  Read here the full text of this important paper.

There is a quote which, like me, you will have often heard – although I didn’t know that it came from Churchill :“The treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of a country”

As you will well know, custody is only one type of sentence – the sentence reserved for those whose offence is what we call ‘so serious’ which means that it is so serious no other court disposal/sentence is considered to be appropriate.  We do not have time this evening to look at the whole criminal justice system so I have chosen custody because for me it illustrates problems which run through the whole system.  In our discussion later you may well bring in other parts of the system.

The question I posed was ‘Is our criminal justice system fit for purpose?’ In other words, does it do the job it should be doing?

I would like to make it clear at this point that the percentages I quote below are taken from the Prison Reform Trust’s Bromley Briefings, summer and autumn 2015.  I find these to be the most reliable and up to date figures available.

There is generally considered to be four main reasons for imposing a custodial sentence:

–      Retribution – that is punishment

–      Incapacitation –  depriving someone of their liberty in order to keep the public safe

–      Deterrence – seeking to deter the person from committing further crimes

–      Rehabilitation – changing people to enable them to lead law-abiding lives

It is very important to always bear in mind that almost every prisoner will be released back into the community.

So those reasons again: punishment, public safety, not offending again, changing lives.

1 Punishment
Nick Hardwick former HM Inspector of prisons said in his final report “Once you lock someone up, even in the best prisons and even for a short time, that is a very severe punishment indeed.  It’s as bad as you could imagine and possibly more so, and don’t think that a little flat-screen television in the corner is going to alleviate it”.

There is no doubt that loss of liberty is a huge punishment.  I have been going into prisons for 10 years and I still experience a sense of relief when the last of the series of gates and doors is unlocked and I step outside.

We in this country – and all my figures are for England only – have become more punitive: even allowing for population increase, we lock up far more people than we did 25 or so years in spite of the fact that during that time crime levels have fallen.  We have the highest imprisonment rate in western Europe.  70 of our 117 prisons are over-crowded. This affects whether activities, staff and other resources are available to keep prisoners purposefully occupied and to work on learning new skills. A prisoner who is unemployed because there is no activity available for him might spend 22 hours a day, and eat all his meals, with another prisoner in a small space originally designed for one, perhaps 2mx3m with an unscreened toilet. There are proven links between overcrowding and violence and self-harm in prison.

So it seems we certainly achieve the punishment requirement.  Chris Grayling, the former Secretary of State for Justice, did not think being locked up was enough.  You will no doubt recall his efforts to stop books being sent in for prisoners. Thankfully, that ruling has been reversed.  You may also recall that his predecessor Kenneth Clarke was fairly quickly replaced when he began to question the value of prison in some cases.

2 Incapacitation
I would be the first to say that people who pose a threat because of say their violent, dangerous or anti-social behaviour need to be removed from society for a period of time, put out of harm’s way.  But does this apply to everyone in prison today? We will look at that in a minute.

I do know one man who said he had such a bad time in prison that that in itself would stop him re-offending – the fear of returning. He is a vulnerable man, of low ability, low self-esteem who was terribly bullied by other prisoners and not well protected by those in authority.  That is not of course how the deterrence theory is supposed to work.

What the 2015 statistics show is that 45% of adult offenders are re-convicted within 1 year of release.  Of those serving less than 1 year the figure is nearly 60% and for those under 18 it is nearly 70%. These figures indicate that in the majority of cases the act of locking someone up does not deter them from re-offending.

This can be described as bringing about change in people so that they want to lead law-abiding lives. That is surely what we want and I repeat what I said earlier that almost all prisoners will be returning to open society. Is this goal being achieved? Well, almost certainly not if such a high percentage are ending up back in prison.

You may recall that on the notes I sent out before this meeting I quoted James Timpson, CEO of Timpson’s shoe repairs.  He has a policy of employing ex-offenders; giving them a second chance.  Here is something he said recently: “If you lock people up and don’t give them any opportunities to better themselves, you are bound to have more victims when they are released”

So let us now look at who is in our prisons.

First, we obviously have that cohort of prisoners, overwhelming men, who have committed seriously violent offences – murder, attempted murder, rape, arson and so on.

And then we have the following:
Drug addicts

An awful lot of drug addicts.  One third of men and two thirds of women in prison report that their offences were drug related. A large number of offences are committed by people under the influence of drugs.  Their offences will presumably have fallen in the custody bracket according to the current sentencing guidelines lines.  But did prison, in its role as rehabilitator, deal successfully with their addiction? Maybe for some but many on short sentences would be unlikely to qualify for courses. (And remember that dealers, get are quite rightly sentenced more harshly, are very often not addicts). They may have to go cold turkey but they are not equipped with long-term strategies for breaking the habit. In addition, you will no doubt be aware that drugs are readily available in most prisons. Prisons are full of drugs. They get in by all sorts of means. And they stop addicts being rehabilitated. In fact, they create new addicts; people who had not previously taken drugs.  Since prisons are among the most secure places we have, how is it that the authorities have failed to get to grips with this?

I am involved in a course in Guys Marsh prison.  2 weeks ago was the last session before one of the groups was due to graduate.  When I got there that day most of the course members were so much under the influence of drugs that we could not continue.  These were legal highs – NPSs New Psychoactive Substances as they are called – which I was told had been ‘catapulted’ into the prison grounds a couple of days earlier.  This is not an open prison so men are not wandering about unsupervised.  Why was it not possible to prevent those drugs reaching the prisoners?

People with mental health problems
A quarter of women and nearly a fifth of men said they had needed treatment for a mental health issue in the year before custody.  Does our prison system, with its emphasis on punishment, provide an appropriate environment for helping people with illnesses of this nature? The answer is no.  In 2015 there were 250 self-inflicted deaths in prison and 28,000 self-harm incidents. Over a quarter were women although they are only 5% of the prison population

People who have been abused

50% of male prisoners have been abused or seen others being abused, before coming into prison. That may be physically, psychologically, sexually. Is our criminal justice system with its emphasis on punishment an appropriate environment for helping people who have been abused? I am sure you know the answer to that.

People with learning difficulties

A third of all offenders have learning difficulties. About half of prisoners have no educational qualifications. I know many prisoners who find reading and writing very hard.  Those on longer sentences can usually get help but not those on short sentences.  Most go out no more equipped for the complexities of life and work than when they came in.  Yet asked what would help most said a job – along with a place to live.


The age of criminal responsibility in England, that is the age when a child can be charged and sentenced, is 10.  This is one of the lowest in Europe – Germany and Italy is 14, Spain is 16 and so on. The number of children in custody in England is thankfully small.  Of those, three quarters had an absent father and a third an absent mother.  1% of children in England are in care but 33% of boys and 60% of girls in custody are what we call ‘looked after’. Does this suggest that our arrangements for caring for what we might call problem children is successful?  I think not.  I am sure you know that almost all the victims in the recent sex abuse cases in Rotherham and Rochdale were children in care.

My conclusions based on the findings above are:

–      our prison system punishes but it does not do well at deterring or rehabilitating. If it did, we would not have the re-offending rates we do.

–      a significant percentage of our ever growing prison population have problems which should be being resolved in a different place, not a prison.  These are people who do not need to be locked away in order to protect the safety of others.  In fact, prison is often an unsafe place for them.

Scandinavian prisons

Actually, it’s Norway and Sweden I will mention.  In these countries, the job of a prison officer has a higher status than here.  Most will have completed a 2- year diploma course as part of their training.

40+% of people in custody in England are in prisons with 1000+ places. We are building so-called Titan prisons like the one near Wrexham which will accommodate over 2000 prisoners.  They have been likened to warehouses.  Sweden and Norway have opted for smaller, more manageable, user-friendly buildings.

This is what Nils Oberg, director of prisons in Sweden had to say in a lecture he recently gave in London: “We in Sweden have very strong core values which underpin our daily work. I cannot overstate the importance of this. If, for example, you don’t like people of a particular kind you cannot be part of our team. If you are afraid of inmates, indifferent to them or in any way disrespect or look down on them you will be disqualified.  We run an operation where unconditional respect is fundamental to everything we do.  It is non-negotiable”. He went on to say that every day matters.  Loss of liberty is the punishment.  From Day 1 work starts on preparing offenders for their return to the outside world and for leading a crime-free life.  “We seek to motivate them, to make a good relationship with them. Without healthy personal relations we cannot hope to help anyone to the kinds of changes we are looking for.” And he makes what I consider is a very important point “We must deal with all the problems they have, not just the ones that got them into prison. If not, they will come back. In our last drug screenings, there was less than 1% intoxication rate among inmates. We have very tight security in relation to drugs, alcohol, contraband and violence”.  The obvious question on that last point is, if they can do that in Sweden, why can’t we do it in England?

James Timpson, who I mentioned earlier, visited Halden prison in Norway. A high security unit.  He says “‘I asked the director of Halden how he managed public perception – how are Norwegians able to accept the comfortable and progressive conditions of their prisoners.  He said it was recognised that this may not be the most popular way of spending tax-payers’ money but it was the most effective way of stopping re-offending’.

How could we make our prisons more fit for purpose/do a better job?

We should think far more carefully about rehabilitating some offenders in a non-custodial way.  Could the £36,000 it costs per year per prison place be better spent dealing with and rehabilitating the drug addict, the mentally ill, the abused?  We know that short prison sentences are less effective than community sentences at reducing re-offending.

With less people in prison we could concentrate on those who really do need to be there.  One of the most powerful means of getting some of those to turn the corner is through them meeting their victim, or at least a victim of a similar crime to theirs, so they can hear at first hand the impact of their crime.  This is what is called restorative justice (RJ) – restoring the balance of justice by bringing the victim into the picture.  Many, perhaps most, offenders do not think about their victim, either at the time of the offence or afterwards.  When they are brought face to face with a victim, the effect can be literally life-changing. (We are focusing here on offenders but it can be an equally valuable experience for victims).  RJ is used in dispute resolution in many walks of life and it is being trialled in a few prisons – I recently went to a talk on its use in Armley prison in Leeds.  It has such huge potential and needs far wider acceptance.

Good news?

I’m afraid this has not been an optimistic talk. So here are two snippets of what I hope are better news.

Chris Grayling has been replaced by Michael Gove as Secretary of State for Justice.  Chris Grayling emphasised punishment at the expense of rehabilitation.  During his time, education courses which had the potential to be a way out of the world of crime, were cut.  Michael Gove has pledged to give priority to equipping offenders for a new, reformed life.  He has said he is interested in early release schemes for those who learn new skills. He has announced the closure of some of our oldest, most run-down prisons.  (He has also scrapped the Criminal Court Charge – an extremely unfair means of raising funds from people who had no money which was introduced by his predecessor, against most professional advice).

Our own MP David Warburton wrote a short piece earlier this month, in Inside Times, the newspaper for prisoners.  In it he supports the move to prison reform.  He writes about children he taught who had parents in prison and the effect this had on the students.  He says education and work must be the backbone of the prison system.  He sees these as what he calls “tools of redemption and rehabilitation that can open doors to the future, and smash the prison bars”.  Let us hope he is working towards the realisation of this goals.

Jennifer Armstrong  March 2016

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