Crime: the real reason why offenders stop

1 Nov 2019 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 1 Nov 2019

Pic: Matthew Ansley, Unsplash

Sir Martin Narey stirred up a hornet’s nest this week when he told a conference of prison officers to “stop fretting about rehabilitation”.

The former head of the prison service in England and Wales said: “The things we did to prisoners, the courses we put them on, the involvement of charities, made little or no difference.”

He said the best prisons could do is to treat inmates with “decency and dignity.”

What was perhaps most striking about this was not so much what he said but the fact that it was treated as some kind of bombshell by the media.

The reality is that the experts have been telling us for decades that whilst prison works for more serious offences in so far as it takes dangerous people off the streets, it does not help them go straight. As long ago as 1990 the then Home Secretary Douglas Hurd described prison as an expensive way of making bad people worse.

 Sir Martin’s speech oversteps the mark by implying rehabilitation programmes should be dropped  but he has reinvigorated the debate about how offenders can best be encouraged to desist from crime.  

And there is no better time. An election looms and already the Conservative Party is promising tougher prison sentences and more prisons as it entrenches mass incarceration as a primary tool of the criminal justice system.

Locking more people up for longer is based on the notion that this will discourage them from offending again and deter others.

This theory has been widely taken up by politicians because it is a vote winner. However there is no  evidence that it works.

One of the most extreme examples of it being put into practice was the adoption in the 1990s by several American state of  the Three Strikes policy whereby offenders would have sentences doubled for a second offence and a mandatory 25 years imposed for a third.

This has been extensively researched with most studies suggesting the impact on crime was negligible, undetectable, and one even that found it was counter-productive with murder rates increasing when offenders tried to escape authorities or eliminate witnesses.

As for what works one of the best expositions is to be found in the powerful and moving documentary The Road From Crime made by former offender turned probation officer Allan Weaver, a must watch for anyone with any interest in building a safer society.

He describes Barlinnie Prison where he served several sentences as a “human dustbin” and a “crime factory”. He said he did not associate his time inside with rehabilitation or reform but it was useful for his education. It was there that he learned to make a knife from a razor blade and tooth brush, honed his gang fighting skills and was taught how to disable an alarm system.

In that context it seems logical to start to focus research not so much on the (roughly) 50% of offenders who go on to commit more crime after release as on the others who do not.

Several years ago a number of criminologists did precisely that. Prominent amongst them is Professor Shadd Maruna of Queens University, a global expert on the study of Desistance. Despairing of the failure of rehabilitation work they studied the real experts on the topic – people who had turned away from crime. Some of this work is well summarised in a Scottish government paper on reducing reoffending.

First the vast majority of offenders will have desisted from crime by the time they reach their mid-20s or early 30s. International studies show offending begins in early adolescence, peaks during late teens and then tapers off.

Only a small amount of offenders (around 5%) continue to commit crimes throughout adulthood.

So what makes the difference? Three factors emerge time and again:

  • Getting a job and holding one down;
  • Getting into a stable relationship;
  • Moving away from criminal peers and into a supportive social environment.

So when you turn back to the question of rehabilitation in prison, how many of these boxes can be ticked by people behind bars? Clearly none of these positive outcomes are possible in prison.

It does not follow from this, as Sir Martin appears to assert, that rehabilitation work in prisons should be dropped. Instead it gives pointers to how it might best be designed as part of a wider programme designed to promote desistance. And it further demonstrates that prison is not the best environment to help people who are not a danger to society to turn their lives around.

This makes what happens after they are released all the more important.

Unfortunately it gets worse. Around 30% of people admitted to prisons are homeless and a further 30% become so whilst behind bars. Being homeless is not conducive to building a stable life.

Yet the experience of many former offenders is that their sentences do not end once they are released. When a sentence is complete, that should be it. The offender should be given every assistance to reintegrate back into society and to become a productive citizen.

But the barriers are immense: there is widespread discrimination against ex-offenders both in terms of employment and housing, and more than often they return straight back to the chaotic lives and criminal cultures that got them into trouble in the first place. That is a challenge for all of society. Do we want to help people reintegrate or will we persist in stigmatising them for the rest of their lives?

 Given that we know the vast majority of criminals “grow out” of criminality the rest of us need to grow up as well. The question is whether we want to persist in 19th Century theories of punishment and correction for which there is no evidence, or to devote more time and effort into understanding how and why ex-offenders give up crime and to help more to do so. The fundamental problem is that all too often more punishment leads to more crime.

This, like so many areas of public policy, will require patience, persistence and courage in order to transform what is currently a crude debate into one based on and led by evidence.

There is a widespread perception that prison works and that’s why short term containment is prioritised over long term desistance. This needs to be challenged, and in so far as Sir Martin’s speech has stimulated this debate it is to be welcomed.


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