Luke Stanley: With rising unemployment, Ministers should look beyond work-related paths out of crime – to families

27 Sep

Luke Stanley is Policy Adviser to Lord Hague of Richmond and Parliamentary Researcher to Anthony Mangnall MP. His views are his own.

Oscar Wilde once said that “every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future”. While a noble sentiment, this is not presently the case. Reoffending rates remain stubbornly high, with the same individuals committing offences again and again, trapped in a life of crime.

Robert Buckland recently set out welcome proposals to help address this. While the headline proposals in the Government’s A smarter approach to sentencing White Paper focused on keeping serious offenders behind bars for longer, it also includes a number of reforms on rehabilitation for offenders.

The White Paper proposes measures to reduce the time periods after which some sentences cease to be flagged in criminal record checks, which will help more ex-offenders into work and away from a life of crime. Likewise, the new alcohol abstinence tagging technology will help those with substance abuse issues break patterns of alcohol-induced offending.

The Government is right to combine tougher sentencing with measures to rehabilitate offenders. While serious offenders should be kept off our streets for as long as possible, in the overwhelming majority of cases, they will eventually be released back into our communities. Ensuring these individuals do not commit further offences is therefore integral to our crime strategy.

Unfortunately, despite the efforts of successive governments, reoffending rates have remained broadly stable over the last twelve years. The latest figures show that more than one-in-four commit an offence within one year of their release, increasing to almost two-thirds for those jailed for less than one year.

Reoffending costs the UK economy and society more than £18 billion a year. With the latest figures showing around 80 per cent of those convicted or cautioned having already received at least one previous caution or conviction, reducing reoffending rates will have a significant impact on reducing overall crime across our country.

Employment can be a powerful route out of crime. A Government study found that offenders who went on to find employment within a year had reoffending rates of six to nine percentage points lower than those who did not. Accordingly, most of the rehabilitation proposals in the White Paper, along with the policies the Government announced in its Education and Employment Strategy for prisons, relate to getting ex-offenders into work.

However, we are not in normal times. The Office for Budget Responsibility forecast in July that the unemployment rate will balloon up to more than 10 per cent next year, and that this figure will remain well above the recent rates of around three per cent through to 2024 at the earliest. With jobs so scarce, the route out of crime through employment will become a more difficult one. So what else can we do to reduce reoffending?

The Government could consider taking more action to support other pillars of rehabilitation, such as relationships. In his recent independent review, Lord Farmer called for family ties to become a “golden thread” running through prisons.

Indeed, research has found that offenders visited in prison by their family were 21 percentage points less likely to reoffend within a year of release than those who were not. While the Government has taken forward a number of recommendations from the Farmer Review, it could go further.

Following a recommendation in the Farmer Review, the Ministry of Justice trialled secure video calls to help prisoners to maintain family ties in situations where visits were not possible. In response to the pandemic, the Government rolled out secure video calls further across the prison estate, but only as a temporary measure. As argued in the recent Justice Select Committee report on the impact of Covid on prisons, the Government could consider making the provision of secure video calls permanent and fully rolling them out across the prison estate.

Releases on Temporary Licence (ROTL) are another way to strengthen family bonds and reduce reoffending. Recent government research found that, in the six months before release, each overnight ROTL was associated with a five per cent reduced odds of reoffending within the next year, suggesting that home leave had a significant impact.

Despite this, only 8,700 offenders were granted ROTL in 2019 at all and, while this marks a welcome fourth year-on-year increase, more could be done to boost this number still further. For example, in a recent paper, the Centre for Social Justice suggested creating a new type of ROTL, built around earned release and community payback, to help strengthen family ties.

If we are to make Oscar Wilde’s witticism a reality and break the cycle of reoffending for good, we must do more to help ex-offenders rebuild their lives. The proposals in the White Paper are an excellent step towards this, but augmenting these measures with further action to strengthen family ties could get reoffending rates falling even further, even faster.