The answer to this is a very complex one with many factors to consider. Because there are so many variations in punishment and rehabilitation worldwide, I am going to talk specifically about the UK. When a person commits a crime, they are caught, arrested, charged, appears in court and is sentenced.
The death sentence has not been used in the UK since 1964. Since then, prisons have focused on a combination of punishment and rehabilitation of prisoners. We have come a long way from dungeons and public hangings. But is what we are doing working?
Think of prison as a posh dungeon. If you lock a person up for a determined length of time, are they going to be a different person by the time they come out? Probably not! This is why a range of interventions and rehabilitation programs have been designed and implemented.
In 1779 the British Government passed the Penitentiary Act, which made the rehabilitation of criminals a function of all prisons. Since then, while imprisonment has remained the central form of punishment in the criminal justice system, the emphasis on correction rather than punishment has increased.
If we want to be able to rehabilitate prisoners and reduce the rate of reoffending, we must understand the factors which increase the likelihood of offending. However, this is no simple or straight forward task. It depends on the type of crime and the nature of the person who commits it.
If a person had a drug addiction and stole to feed his habit, they would receive programs which primarily focused on their drug addiction. However, if a man was jailed for actual bodily harm or grievous bodily harm, they would receive programs which focused on anger management.
Rehabilitation techniques and programs vary in different institutions. Techniques can be in the form of educational programs and vocational training to help offenders learn new skills. There are also psychological based programs which address different aspects of an offender’s life or addiction issues.
The UK spends a vast amount of money each year in an attempt to rehabilitate prisoners through various programs. However, the general public’s perception of the prison service is that it should be punishing offenders for their crimes and to protect the public. Therefore, when there is money spent on improving facilities and amenities there is a public outcry that prisons are better than some holiday camps.
I can somewhat empathise with this view. I have been at the receiving end of several crimes. I have been sexually assaulted in a town centre. I have had motorbikes stolen. I have been burgled. Therefore, if I thought these offenders were taken into a nice comfortable room, given a TV, gaming stations, food cooked for them, washing done – I’d feel as though justice was not done. How can you tell a mother who had her child raped or murdered that the offender just needs help and assistance? You can’t. There needs to be a fine line between punishment and rehabilitation. However, if we do not try to rehabilitate these offenders, they will always return to the community and commit a crime again.
Michael Gove suggested a few years ago that the death penalty is a suitable way to deal with serious offenders. However, what about those who have been wrongfully convicted? There is evidence that mistakes such as these are possible. In the USA, 130 people sentenced to death have been found innocent since 1973 and released from death row. Some people also argue that retribution and vengeance are morally wrong. Others argue that everyone has a right to live and regardless of their actions, we have no right to terminate a life.
The fact remains, that prison in the current form is a combination of punishment and rehabilitation. I did have a look at the government statistics for reoffending rates in preparation for writing this. They are complicated to navigate and get a clear picture of reoffending rates, especially when you want to compare yearly figures. The most recent results suggest that 28.7% of male adults released from prison between January to March 2018 reoffended within one year. However, these figures are not directly comparable with the report in October 2017 as it was changed from yearly to quarterly reports.
Despite the lack of clear comparable figures, it is generally known that around 30% of offenders will re-offend within one year of release. This average rises considerably the more prior offences a prisoner has. This would suggest to me that rehabilitation programs are not as effective as they could or should be.
The former director-general of the Prison Service, Sir Martin Narey, has said rehabilitation of offenders in jail does not work. He highlights that short programs administered within a prison setting cannot undo a lifetime of damage. He suggests that the best prison can offer inmates is to be treated with dignity and respect. He said: “Decent prisons in which prisoners are respected seem to provide a foundation for prisoner self-growth. Indecent, unsafe prisons allow no such growth and further damage those who have to survive there.”
Furthermore, he added: “Stop fretting about rehabilitation. Politely discourage those who will urge you to believe that they have a six-week to six-month course which can undo the damage of a lifetime. The next time someone tells you they have a quick scheme which can transform lives – transform is the word of which you should be particularly suspicious – politely explain that life isn’t that simple.”
This is the most sensible thing I have ever heard from an official in the criminal justice system. How can we expect to change and heal a lifetime of issues with a six-week course? These courses are based on cognitive behavioural programs which do have a proven record for working. However, there is a severe lack of long term effectiveness of these beyond 12 months.
I believe there needs to be very long term, or maybe even lifelong support, for offenders. I have spoken with many offenders who all agree that once you are released you are left to your own devices. One man begged me to not let me send him back to the same neighbourhood to live as he was sure he would re-offend.