There has been a plethora of statistical reports published recently by the Ministry of Justice, which tell us that the prison population continues to rise by 1% a year, while the number of community sentences has fallen by 7%. Within prisons, there has been a rise in self-harm, self-inflicted deaths and assaults. These reports include:
• The Offender Management Statistics Quarterly Bulletin: England and Wales, July to September 2014.
• The impact of short custodial sentences, community orders and suspended sentence orders on re-offending.
• Safety in custody statistics: England and Wales.
The statistics presented give a really interesting account of some of the challenges the Criminal Justice System (CJS) is facing and some of the experiences people in the system are having. This information is especially important in the context of the Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) programme, as this is the largest reform to the CJS to date. It is essential that as the programme embeds the trends shown by the statistics are taken into account and responded to by the new providers. More information about TR can be found here.
In this blog I have pulled out some of the key statistics from the above reports, relating to adult offenders in England and Wales. I have focused on what this tells us about the experiences of people in custody and those on license in the community.
The population in custody
The number of people in prison continues to rise, with the Offender management statistics quarterly bulletin: England and Wales highlighting that it is rising annually by 1%. The report tells us that this is being driven by greater numbers of adults sentenced for sexual offences, and an increase in the remand population. Indeed, the remand population rose by 5% in the year to December 2014.
In terms of changes to the sentenced population, the report shows that during the same period, the female sentenced population saw increases in shorter sentences and decreases in longer sentences. However, the opposite is true for the male sentenced population, which accounts for 95% of the total prison population. During the year to December 2014, there was a 5% increase in prisoners serving determinant sentences of four years or more.
As many readers will know, the Ministry of Justice has designated 71 prisons as ‘resettlement prisons’ that are designed to facilitate a better transition between prison life, and returning to their local community upon release. It is anticipated that short-term prisoners will serve their entire sentence in resettlement prisons, whilst long-term prisoners will serve the beginning and end of their sentence there, with the rest of their sentence served in a non-resettlement prison. However, the TR programme does not set out plans for rehabilitation activities in non-resettlement prisons, which should give rise to concern. If the long term prison population increases will we need greater clarity as to what services or interventions are available to those prisoners, and how we expect them to prepare for their release into the community.
Safety in custody
The statistics above point to some of the potential challenges the CJS is experiencing now and might experience in the future. This made me think about the possible implications for prisoners, so I turned to the Safety in Custody Statistics: England and Wales. Key findings from the statistics show that between 2013 and 2014:
• Self-inflicted deaths increased by 12% from 75 in 2013 to 84 in 2014.
• Self-harm incidents increased by 6% from 23, 240 to 24,748.
• Recorded assaults in prison custody rose by 11% from 14,207 in the year to September 2013 to 15,763 in the year ending 2014.
It is worth noting that the risk of death, self-harm or assaults is distributed unevenly around the prison estate as age, gender and time in custody all account for differences between prisons and different risk groups.
Although the statistics give cause for concern, they are only part of the story and it would be valuable if more qualitative research was undertaken to uncover why these trends are taking place, and most importantly, what can be done to reverse them. One example of such work is the Harris Review which is an independent review into self-inflicted deaths in custody of 18-24 year olds, for which more information can be accessed here. Another important example is the recently published Stolen lives and missed opportunities report by the Transition to Adulthood Alliance (T2A) in partnership with Inquest that analyses the deaths of 65 young adults and children whilst in prison between 1st January 2011 and 31st December 2014.
In the community – effects of sentencing
According to statistics in the impact of short custodial sentences, community orders and suspended sentence orders on re-offending, short term custody (less than 12 months in prison) without supervision on release, is consistently associated with higher rates of proven reoffending than community orders or suspended sentence orders. Proven reoffending in this instance includes cautions and convictions for one to five years, with an additional 6 months allowed for cases to go through the courts.
It is also worth noting that as the prison population has increased, the Offender Management Statistics Quarterly Bulletin shows that between September 2013 and September 2014, the number of offenders starting community orders fell by 7%.
On 1st February 2015 the Offender Rehabilitation Act (ORA) came into force and means that short term prisoners serving less than 12 months will receive supervision upon release. More information about the ORA can be found here. As this is implemented, there will be keen interest to see what impact this has on the reoffending rates for short-sentenced prisoners.
Whilst thinking about reoffending rates it is also important to keep desistance theory in mind. Although there is no agreed definition amongst researchers, desistance is a highly individualised journey, whereby a person is likely to move in and out of offending before stopping altogether. For many people reoffending is likely to occur when they are on their journey towards desistance from crime, and before they have managed to address the reasons why they commit crime in the first place. There are a range of other outcomes that indicate progress along the journey to desistance including the frequency and severity of reoffending, the attitudes and behaviour of service users, and factors like their mental health, wellbeing, family relations and employment, that are not always taken into account by the data. This often means that the statistics only show us part of the story, and don’t give us absolute clarity on how the CJS is impacting on the people in it. Clinks has published a guide to desistance, that you can access here.
These statistics give us some indication of the current challenges within the CJS and what the possible implications are for people in contact with the system. In that sense they are a useful resource for the practitioners working on the ground. As the TR reforms are embedded there will be keen interest in whether these statistics change for the better or worse. Although these statistics only show us part of the picture; voluntary sector organisations, think tanks, academic institutions working in this area and service users themselves, continue to provide valuable insight into why people re-offend and what can be done to better support people on their journey to desistance.
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The RR3 special interest group on Covid-19 will today convene voluntary sector leaders to discuss what is needed to mitigate the impacts of the virus on CJS voluntary organisations and the service users they support. We'll publish the key points from the discussion in a blog.