The Prime Minister gave a stirring speech last week in which he outlined the government’s new policy on law and order. The key, he insisted, was to be ‘tough and intelligent’ — which naturally suggested that previous policy had been soft and stupid. The truth, however, is that there is much more continuity between the old policy and the new than David Cameron suggested. One of the ‘new’ policies is ‘two strikes and you’re out’: if you commit two serious violent or sexual offences, you will get an automatic life sentence. Similar regimes have been promised before. Previous Labour governments introduced ‘indeterminate sentences for public protection’ for serious offences. Their point was to ensure that any criminal who was given one would not be released until determined to be ‘safe’ by the probation authorities. Those sentences were often, in effect, life sentences. The coalition abolished them earlier this year, partly because they were blocking up the prisons.
‘Two strikes and you’re out’ is not a promise that can be kept. It would increase the number of people in prison. The prisons are full, and there is no money to build more. This was why Ken Clarke, Mr Grayling’s predecessor, insisted that he was going to get the prison population down. He promised a ‘rehabilitation revolution’: more offenders sentenced to ‘community punishments’, which would diminish the rate at which they were reconvicted and so ended up back in prison.
Mr Clarke’s ‘rehabilitation revolution’ had the same effect as the many previous attempts to diminish reoffending: virtually nothing. The Prime Minister is relying on a rehab revolution, too, to empty the cells needed for ‘two strikes and you’re out’. Over the past 40 years in Britain, almost every variety of rehabilitation programme has been tried on criminals in the hope of reforming them into honest citizens. Not all of them have been total failures, but not one of them has worked in a reliably effective and practical way. The reconviction rate has stubbornly remained at well over 50 per cent — which means that more than half of those who are given some form of punishment by the courts are caught again within two years of release. And many more reoffend but are not caught: there are between ten and 20 times.
The failure of rehabilitation schemes is particularly evident with the group that you might think offered the most hope of improvement: young offenders. Supervision has failed spectacularly here, to the extent that the more intensive the supervision, the more spectacular the failure. The ‘Intensive Supervision and Surveillance Programme’ for young offenders is supposed to involve the most rigorous monitoring. But 90 per cent of its young charges commit fresh crimes as soon as they are no longer on it. Indeed, many commit crimes while they are under ‘intensive supervision’: even the study that the government used to trumpet the value of the programme found that 84 per cent were reconvicted within 12 months of starting on it.
These facts are known to all ministers and officials in the relevant departments, but they make no difference to the commitment to Intensive Supervision and Surveillance, which continues all over Britain, and resists all attempts to replace it with something — anything — more effective.
In his speech, the Prime Minster suggested that part of the reason for the failure is that those responsible for running rehabilitation programmes haven’t been trying hard enough to make them work. He thinks ‘payment by results’ — payment to those managing rehabilitation schemes increases with the length of time offenders stay out of jail — will reduce reoffending. But the fault hasn’t been that they haven’t been trying. It is that programmes of rehabilitation simply don’t work. Most of those who stop committing crimes do not do so because they have been on a rehabilitation course. The most reliable agent of reform isn’t any state-sponsored programme. It is the passing of time. After the age of about 30, most men stop committing crimes, usually because other values, such as being with a family, and being decent, start to matter enough to act as a disincentive to preying on others. Those who keep on the criminal trajectory, however, tend to commit more serious crimes.
Collectively, we invest billions of pounds every year in the hope of reforming criminals. Thousands of people are employed at the task. And yet there is very little evidence that it is worth it. In fact, most of the evidence is that it is not worth it — that we are spending the money and effort to no beneficial effect.
What keeps our belief in the system going? It is very difficult to abandon the idea that evil-doers can be reformed by the righteous. The religious ring to that phrase is deliberate, because I think our commitment to the idea that criminals can be rehabilitated derives, in large part, from our Christian heritage. The people who first tried to reform criminals in a systematic way were the evangelical Christians of the 19th century. For them, every individual was made by God with a soul that was sensitive to God’s commands, so that to hear the Word of God was the first step to heeding it. God could enter the soul of criminals and transform them — and would do so, if they were exposed to His message. That is why the original prison reformers put so much emphasis on religious instruction as the most essential element of rehabilitation.
Today, almost no one in any government department, still less in the Probation Service, believes in that idea. But without it, what reason is there for thinking that the way to reform criminals is to put them on courses designed to improve them? What reason is there for thinking that any procedure followed by a government official or agent can turn a recidivist criminal into an honest citizen? The more we learn about the basis of human behaviour, the more it seems that an individual’s dispositions — to commit acts of violence, to get addicted to drugs, and to use force and fraud in their relations with others — are determined very early in life, and certainly prior to a first conviction. By the time the probation officers get to work, it is usually too late for their efforts to have much effect.
We can’t give up on the hope that there is goodness in everyone, goodness that means they can be transformed from criminals into decent people. The institutions that exist to realise that hope, however, are a continual disappointment. Which is why it remains overwhelmingly likely that the Prime Minister will remain trapped in the same dismal spiral that dogged his Labour predecessors: promising a combination of new, tougher punishments and effective rehabilitation programmes, and then quietly abandoning them because the rehabilitation programmes don’t work and so the cells needed to lock up more criminals remain full. David Cameron isn’t soft and stupid. But he can’t be tough and intelligent either.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 27 October 2012