6 Sep 2011

Kenneth Clarke proposes ‘radical changes’ to penal system

As Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke pledges to reduce high rates of reoffending in the wake of the riots, experts tell Channel 4 News the criminal justice system is “not rehabilitating anyone”.

Van entering prison, as Ken Clarke suggests radical changes to penal systems

Writing in today’s Guardian, Ken Clarke argued that not a lack of measures to reduce the risk of people committing new crimes once released from prison “did not make for intelligent sentencing”.

He was responding to news that 75 per cent of those adults involved in the August riots had previous convictions.

Clarke pledged to reduce reoffending rates, saying he wanted to introduce radical changes to “focus our penal system relentlessly on proper, robust punishment and the reduction of reoffending”.

The proposal to engage prisoners in work programmes was generally welcomed by rehabilitation charities and prisoner groups. But Mark Johnson, ex-offender and founder of the rehabilitation charity User Voice, told Channel 4 News that while he agreed in theory, he was concerned about the kind of work that Mr Clarke intended.

“We need to ask what will the work teach the prisoner,” he said.

“If it’s just work for private companies, like screwing on light-bulbs, is that meaningful work that will help prisoners in the long run?”

Short term sentences

At the moment, short term sentences, with little scope for re-skilling prisoners, run the risk of taking the responsibility of change away from the prisoner, says Graham Beech, strategic development director at Nacro, the crime reduction charity.

He told Channel 4 News that short term sentences “do not give anyone the time to work on some deeply entrenched and complex issues.”

We need to ask what will the work teach the prisoner? Mark Johnson, User Voice charity

An alternative to short term prison sentences, community sentences are less likely to lead to reoffending, according to figures from the Ministry of Justice released this year.

They are generally given out for minor offences and are intended to benefit the local area. The details of a community sentence are at the discretion of the judge, but involve a combination of unpaid community work, skills training, treatment programmes for health issues like addiction or mental health conditions and some restrictions on lifestyle, for example a curfew.


However Mr Beech told Channel 4 News that community sentences under the current system are not enforced strongly enough, meaning that offenders stop taking part before finishing a programme that would help with their rehabilitation.

“We know that many people drop out before they finish their sentence,” he said. “The net effect is that the sentence that was imposed is not completed: the work that would change attitudes and behaviour has not been completed. Community sentencing needs to restrict the offender’s liberty in such a way that they can comply with programmes that will make them less likely to offend again in the future.”

Clarke’s proposals, which echo his green paper on reoffending, also recognised the importance of working with private and voluntary groups outside the penal system who help with the rehabilitation of former prisoners.

‘Short term sentences do not give anyone the time to work on some deeply entrenched and complex issues’ Graham Beech, Nacro

Jenny Leadley, criminal justice researcher at the New Economics Foundation (NEF) think-tank told Channel 4 News that she welcomed the inclusion of charities and organisations who work with offenders in the debate about reoffending.

“The criminal justice system is not rehabilitating anyone,” she said. “Other charities and groups are just as important as the probation and prison services.”

Prisoners who have difficulty getting employment and accommodation on release from prison had a reoffending rate of 74 per cent during the year of their release, according to a survey by the Ministry of Justice, compared to 43 per cent for those who have no problems in these areas.