The most expensive boarding school of them all

May 31

‘“It’s all a joke. All I do with the parole officers is pretend to look like I care.”
I remember how surprising I found Nathan’s words, five years ago now. I met him after he’d been released from Rochester – the first man I’d ever met in that situation. He’d been left with a £53 warrant, a license with a list of conditions, and a set of appointments to keep with housing and parole and so on. Was that really it? Who’d offer him work now he had a criminal record? If he didn’t care about the parole officers, what incentive was there to get a job, to further his education? There was one guy, from a charity, who’d introduced us. He’d try to call Nathan every day. He said it was going to be a struggle. Most of his mates were drug dealers. That was the only way Nathan knew how to make money.

It’s easy to forget how far crime has fallen in the last twenty or so years. While the figures will always be nebulous, most readings suggest the rate has been roughly halved. This has come about due to a tough drive on law and order that started with Michael Howard and was enthusiastically seized upon by Tony Blair.

How much did it cost? Between 1994 and 2004 the prison population more than doubled. There will be 96,000 prison places by 2014. It’s an expensive business. You think David Cameron’s upbringing was expensive? Pah – he came cheap. A year of prison costs about £11,000 more than a year at Eton.

It’s this gigantic outlay – this determination to get offenders out of circulation – that lies at the centre of our success on crime. The cost was huge. But – especially in terms of short-term sentences – it wasn’t just financial.

We know how thin a line there is between the psychiatrist’s treatment room and the jail cell, a line the media rarely wants to acknowledge. We know about the horror stories that have come out of places like Holloway, the scores of female suicides that have accompanied a huge expansion in women prisoners.
And while there was a fall in youth re-offending over these years, it was outweighed by the growth of young prisoners. The year I met Nathan, 2007, was the year Rod Morgan, the Chairman of the Youth Justice Board, resigned, due to the number of young people who were being sucked into the system. Many of these children were born of the fifty nine per cent of men and sixty six per cent of women in jail who are parents.
Despite the de facto acceptance of prison as a long-term solution, it wasn’t until last year we had conclusive figures comparing the re-offending rates of community penalties and short prison sentences. Few who work in the criminal justice system were surprised to learn the latter was slightly higher.We live in politically uncertain times, and nothing raises more questions than Ken Clarke’s aim to slash prisoner numbers. First – is it about saving money, or is it about that phrase – now droned out so regularly and so half-heartedly that when it comes from the mouths of politicians it’s almost lost all meaning – “breaking the cycle”? Or – more likely – a bit of both?

This matters, because you have to ask how effective the reduction will be when probation is suffering from funding cuts. And anyway, will the Tory right let Clarke implement half his policies (the fifty per cent sentence cut for guilty pleas has already come a cropper)? Is there any concrete evidence that payment by results will work? Pardon the phrase, but the jury’s out.

Britain lies at a crossroads. We’ve taken a path which means the criminal justice system deals with more people than ever before. Punishment is nothing without rehabilitation. It’s just a bit of time in the most expensive boarding school of them all.

This was a guest blog for No Offence CIC.