Theodore Dalrymple

Let’s abolish parole

Offenders should be locked up for what they have done, not for what they might do

The furore over the parole granted to John Worboys, the rapist taxi driver, misses the point entirely — that the system of parole is disgraceful in theory and irredeemably unwork-able in practice. The only thing that it is good for is the employment of large numbers of officials engaged in pointless or fatuous tasks who might other-wise be unemployed.

The system is predicated on the ability of experts to predict the future conduct of convicted prisoners. Will they or will they not repeat their crimes if let out early?

It is true that, using a few simple statistical measures, such as numbers of past convictions and age, you can predict this with an accuracy somewhat better than chance. But all further efforts to refine prediction actually reduce, not increase, accuracy. The problem of false positives and false negatives is inescapable — some people will be predicted to commit further crimes who will not, and some will be predicted to go straight who will break the law again.

The earnest fatuity is typical of modern maladministration, where procedures are mistaken for outcomes. Even though it has been known for years, since the 1980s at least, that the various courses run in prisons to change offender behaviour do not work, they still continue. The system is more recidivist than the criminals.

The courses ‘to address offender behaviour’ and to give them ‘better thinking skills’ are nothing but rites of passage on the way to early release, which has been more or less decreed in advance by government policy. The courses are obligatory, as are confessions of guilt and declarations of remorse. But they are rightly viewed with contempt by those who complete them: nothing could be more demeaning of a human being than to suggest that he steals things or is violent to others because he cannot think straight.

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