Making the criminal justice system work

prisonerpic2 copyPrison isn’t working and in the US they are being shut down. Here in the UK a range of approaches are being trialled but they may not be tackling the core issue, says Ela Hunter

John* didn’t set out to be a drug dealer: stashing drugs was just a favour for a mate; getting paid was a mate’s way of saying thank you. The favours and the thank yous got bigger. John’s mates were making a small fortune. He started buying small amounts and selling at a profit – easy money. A few years later he decided to go it alone. By the time he was 21 he was a successful entrepreneur who just happened to be trading Class As.

Ask what made him start pushing drugs and he’ll tell you about getting kicked out of college and working for £200 a week in a dog-end retail park, with friends making a living from their wits and their guts. Ask him what made him want to stop and he’ll describe his second stint in prison, talking to the addicts he used to think of as ‘dirty little smackheads’. Hearing their stories he realised how much they’d struggled and suffered, and that he’d kicked them when they were down.

John was lucky. A prison worker saw how good he was at advising and supporting other inmates on housing and benefit issues and moved heaven and earth to get him an opportunity to volunteer with a local charity one day a week. When he was released from prison the charity gave him a paid job and he was able to return to the family home.

For John, the path out of the criminal justice system relies not on the individual taking greater responsibility or on the system being more adapted to their needs. It’s about the two coming together.

‘The most important things are wanting to change and having opportunities. If you want to change and opportunities aren’t available, or if opportunities are available but you aren’t ready for them it doesn’t work. You can’t have one without the other. While you’re in prison you have all this structure and support, then you come out and there’s nothing. It’s not right.’

‘Transforming Rehabilitation’

John might be surprised to learn that the UK government agrees with him. Its major reform of the criminal justice system is called ‘transforming rehabilitation’. Most people working with offenders call it privatisation.

Under the plans, 21 private ‘community rehabilitation companies’ (CRCs) will take responsibility for all but high risk offenders. The new approach will include greater supervision and monitoring after release and a new requirement to ensure offenders engage with support. In other words, once you’ve served your time you are no longer free to go: many aspects of prison life – the control, supervision and support – will continue within the community. Offenders won’t even be able to move house without permission. The reforms also include an attempt to create a kind of rehabilitation supermarket with everything you could possibly need to reduce reoffending available under one roof.

Sodexo, set to run six CRCs in partnership with crime reduction charity Nacro, employs 428,000 people in 80 countries. In theory you could serve your time in one of the 4 Sodexo prisons, be released into accommodation organised by Sodexo , attend support and drug services commissioned by Sodexo, be supervised by Sodexo and be employed by Sodexo as, say, a Heathrow Airport kitchen porter. Given the package of services the company has to offer including employment in cleaning, reception, food services, care and maintenance, the government’s ‘how could it possibly fail’ attitude is no surprise.

‘What works is community support’

Five thousand miles away a kinder, gentler rhetoric is being applied to crime reduction in the USA. Right on Crime is a Republican approach that speaks of deincarceration and mass rehabilitation, and it seems to be working.

In Texas where the approach was first pioneered, serious property crime, violent crime and sex crimes per 100,000 residents have declined by 12.8% since 2003. Between 2007 and 2008 there was a 5% drop in murders, a 4.3% decrease in robberies, 6.8% fewer rapes and 7.6% decrease in recidivism.

The Right on Crime poster boy is Judge Robert Francis. In his drug court offenders stand before their peers and announce their achievements or confess their sins. The good ones get a round of applause, those who’ve erred are sanctioned.

In a recent BBC radio programme on the approach, Danny Kruger, who runs Only Connect, which works with offenders and people at risk of offending in the UK, summed up the success of Right on Crime like this: ‘What works is a community… people supporting people. Offenders, volunteers and professionals building relationships of trust and love and personal accountability.’

That may well be the case. But it’s also true that years before Right on Crime was born the US government decided to reduce incarceration. From 2003 people found with less than a gram of drugs were sentenced to probation instead of jail. In 2005 extra funding was poured into supervision and treatment programmes. People were no longer locked up for technical revocations. More money has been spent on halfway houses, schemes to help addicts and mentally ill offenders.

It wasn’t so much about loving all the hurt away

as acknowledging that incarceration had been excessive

By 2007 when Jerry Madden was appointed chair of the House of Representatives Corrections Committee and announced Right on Crime, the direction had been set and gains were being made. It wasn’t so much about loving all the hurt away than acknowledging that incarceration had been excessive and caused far more problems than it solved. Low level offenders were spending too long in prison and, far from reforming, were getting worse, with no help on release.

A degree of deincarceration is likely in the UK. Justice minister Simon Hughes recently admitted that half the 3,800 women in prison in England and Wales, many of whom have mental health problems and have often been victims themselves, should never have been put in prison. It’s an interesting perspective which, arguably, could be extended to victims of homelessness, poverty or addiction.

homeless man

There is no clear evidence yet that dealing with homelessness and substance abuse prevents re-offending

Changing the system to prevent re-offending

If the government does turn its head towards initiatives working to keep vulnerable people out of prison, it might well lock eyes with Meam (Making Every Adult Matter).

Set up in 2008, Meam brings together mental health charity Mind, Clinks (which supports organisations working with offenders), Drugscope and Homeless Link. It estimates that there are 60-70,000 people experiencing multiple needs and that coordinated approaches will increase wellbeing, keep vulnerable people at risk of offending out of jail and reduce the burden on public services.

Evaluations in 2012 and 2014 found that after a year of intensive, coordinated support, wellbeing increased. Gains were maintained in the second year but Year 3 was a mixed bag: some behaviour such as intentional self harm slipped back towards the baseline.

George Garrad, Meam’s local networks manager, says that while systems change is the ultimate goal, ‘none of the partnerships are there yet. They have started to scratch the surface.’ But are they scratching the right surface?

Some would argue that Meam’s focus on improving the way agencies work – better partnership, consistency, coordination and sustainability – is missing the focus on external and personal factors that can really change the way people think and feel about themselves and others. How can the systems change in order to make sense to someone whose life means little more than surviving another night without starving, freezing to death or having their head kicked in? How can its outcomes and imperatives genuinely speak to people who, mentally and physically, live a million miles away?

In a recent documentary called The Road from Crime, Alan Weaver, a probation officer and ex-offender, found that for offenders to make the transition they often needed a change of identity. For some this happened when they moved away from their old haunts. For others it was finding God, having children, falling in love or getting a job.

Speaking of his brother’s new found Christianity after years of crime, he said: ‘He found a whole new identity for himself. With that came a community, just as supportive and close as the gang he once belonged to.’

A Clinks survey found help with housing, debt, getting access to employment, education or training did have a positive impact on reoffending. But the picture was complicated. Almost half of those who received help with a benefit claim said they were more likely to reoffend. Almost everyone who needed help to address debt was happy with the advice they’d been given, but 85% said it had either made no difference or that it had made them more likely to reoffend.

More than half of those receiving help on education, training and employment said it made no difference. I know from experience that it’s not unusual for organisations housing, feeding, training and supporting offenders to find the homes they’ve decorated and furnished lying empty or trashed or used as brothels or crack dens. Stolen boilers are an occupational hazard, antisocial behaviour is par for the course. There are some success stories, but not many.

One thing the new approaches in the UK and the US have in common is that neither seek to address the deep divisions in our increasingly unequal society. It’s not about who you are, they say – clearly, rich and privileged people commit crime too – it’s about changing behaviour. They may be right. But if they’re wrong, if you can’t pull up the roots of criminality while maintaining an economic system that creates an army of people who don’t belong and have very little to lose, the current reforms will have hardly scratched the surface.

* not his real name.



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