Our guest writers are Mark Day and Rebecca Nadin of the Prison Reform Trust
While Gordon Brown yesterday accused the opposition of “ramping up” public fear of crime, a new report launched by the new economics foundation (nef) demonstrates the true costs of the political arms race over criminal justice policy engaged in by both main political parties over the past two decades.
The report, “Punishing Costs“, found that locking up children and young people for non-violent offences is costing the taxpayer millions, while doing little to reduce the amount of crime.
England and Wales imprisons more children than almost any other country in western Europe, with roughly 2,500 children in prison at any one time.
The case against child imprisonment in all but the most serious cases is lengthy and well-evidenced. Imprisonment is the least effective of all the sentencing options available to the court, with three-quarters of children reconvicted within a year of release – for the youngest children, this is closer to 80 per cent.
As the nef report highlights, child imprisonment is also expensive – very expensive – costing on average six times more than a place at Eton, and considerably more than community alternatives.
In addition, the experience of imprisonment can be corrosive for children. Self-harm rates are significantly higher inside than out. Retaining contact with friends and family is also difficult, as many children are held far from their homes with a fifth receiving no visits at all.
Imprisonment is extremely disruptive to schooling, with many school-age children leaving prison finding it extremely difficult to access mainstream education, despite all the evidence suggesting that being in full time education is one of the best ways to help children to stop offending.
Finally, we routinely imprison our most vulnerable children, children who have learning disabilities and difficulties, mental health problems, children who have experienced abuse and neglect, many of whom would be better dealt with in the community.
Out of Trouble is a five-year Prison Reform Trust campaign, supported by The Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund, working to reduce child and youth imprisonment in the UK.
Whilst much of our work focuses on unnecessary imprisonment, we also champion alternatives to custody which have the potential to offer young people, and the communities they come from, a better deal. This is where restorative justice, a way of resolving conflict and repairing harm by bringing the offender and the victim together through closely managed ‘conferences’ or meetings, comes in.
The case for restorative justice, or restorative approaches as it is also known, has been building on the ground for some time now, with many schools and residential children’s homes around the country using restorative practices to great effect as an alternative to traditional forms of punishment and conflict resolution.
As yet, however, this momentum has not been matched within the formal youth justice system. Despite this, policymakers in England and Wales need not look far for evidence that restorative justice can work, as, since 2003, Northern Ireland’s youth justice system has placed restorative ‘youth conferencing’ at its heart.
Introduced as part of an overhaul of the youth justice system, the youth conference order is available both pre-court, as a diversionary order where the young person admits the offence at charge, and post-conviction, as a court-ordered conference. Conferences are organised and facilitated by trained specialists, and involve offenders giving an account of the offence, before victims and others involved, including community representatives, are offered the opportunity to ask questions and explain the impact on them.
Victim participation rates, a key measure of truly restorative encounters, are high at two-thirds of all conferences, and almost 90 per cent of victims express satisfaction with the outcome. The number of children being sentenced to custody has declined, with the youth conference order accounting for almost a quarter of all sentences.
And crucially, reoffending rates are lower than for other community sentences, and significantly lower than custody, with just under 38 per cent of young people reoffending within one year, compared to 71 per cent of those released from prison. Contrary to some of its critics, restorative justice isn’t a soft option, requiring offenders to come face to face with their victims, and hear, often for the first time, exactly how their actions have caused harm.
In addition, it has real potential to act as a robust alternative to custody, with violence against the person offences accounting for a quarter of all conference referrals in Northern Ireland. Perhaps most importantly, it gives both offenders and victims the opportunity to input into an action plan for making amends which the offender must stick to. Plans can include written apologies, specified activities, unpaid work, a curfew or compensation.
How could the lessons of Northern Ireland be replicated more widely? One way advocated in the nef report would be to devolve budgets for prison places to local authorities. At the moment, prison places are paid for by central government.
Transferring the costs to local governments – together with more power over how they can arrange youth justice services locally – would remove the perverse incentive to give up on young people in trouble and allow them to end up in custody. The councils would be allowed to keep some of the savings created from reducing custody, which could be reinvested in the reduction of crime.
The report finds that local authorities could reduce the use of imprisonment by 13 per cent without need for controversial legislative change or a large increase in public spending. The policies considered include better co-operation between local agencies and courts, and using interventions of restorative justice that allow offenders to repair the damage they have caused in the community.
These changes could result in more than £60 million of savings in England, and more than £2 million for some local authority areas. With the impending general election, and the attendant, inevitable focus on youth crime, it must only be a matter of time before policymakers wake up to restorative justice’s potential to radically reduce the escalating social and economic costs of child imprisonment.