‘Tough on crime’ or ‘tough on the causes of crime’? Throughout history, successive UK governments have pledged to introduce policies which are ‘tough on crime’. Often this amounts to populist rhetoric regarding the length of jail terms in an effort to ignite public confidence that they are adopting a zero-tolerance approach which, in turn, fuels the public in their campaigns for tougher sentencing for repeat offenders – ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key’. While a lengthy prison sentence serves to give effect to the punitive element of sentencing, how much does it really help? It is unrealistic to suggest that somebody convicted of their fifth drug-fuelled, desperate burglary is going to prison for life. However, a lengthy prison sentence with limited prospects on release and a high likelihood of burglary number five happening fairly sharpish surely cannot be the best way forwards.

The current reality is increasingly crowded prison estates and no discernible reduction in the re-offending rate. The incumbent government is no exception in its proposed sentencing policy. A 2020 report commissioned by the Prison Reform Trust in response to the government’s proposed Sentencing Bill highlights that such punitive reforms would only serve to increase pressures on an already severely overcrowded prison estate, without tackling the root causes of offending so as to prevent a ‘revolving door’ effect for inmates. Prisons in England and Wales are at 98% capacity. Violence and self-harm are at an all-time high. By September 2019, 1,872 life sentence prisoners had tariffs.

These issues are further compounded by the ongoing Coronavirus pandemic, whereby the reduction in trials and therefore increase in remand prisoners continue to contribute to that overstretch. A custodial sentence is now additionally punitive as prisoners are confined in their cells for lengthy periods, up to 23 hours per day. (For examples of this, see 100 Days of Solitude: The impact of coronavirus in prisons, Howard League of Penal Reform (regarding young people) and R v Manning [2020] EWCA Crim 592.) The knock-on effect is increased violence, self-harm and mental health issues within the custodial setting, coupled with a lack of access to rehabilitative therapies. Prisoners are now a forgotten section of society. Those with short to medium length sentences can expect little to nothing to have been done while they are imprisoned to have addressed the root cause of their offending. As such, upon release, they remain at high risk of falling back into the cycle of destructive behaviour patterns which bring them back within the criminal justice system, behaviours often linked to mental health, addiction issues and poverty.

Despite this, people are still shouting for more while politicians try to demonstrate that they will go even harder on criminals. The media continues to fuel the fire by reporting on low sentences for serious offenders and the crime rate remains high. This raises questions as to whether there should be a greater focus on rehabilitation and, if so, how this can be accomplished without causing public outcry. In the authors’ view, rehabilitation does need to be properly looked at and in this article we will consider two programmes which could present a breakthrough in assisting with the reduction of offending. Secondly, we need to start taking a different approach to how crime is reported and start pushing ‘tough on the causes of crime’ instead of ‘tough on crime’.

Two pioneering programmes

Rather than simply baying for a more ready dispensation of imprisonment and a longer custodial term for those convicted, politicians may be advised to adopt an alternative approach to their definition of what it means to get ‘tough’ on criminal sentencing. This alternative would look more at a results-based approach rather than simply appeasing a public desire to see retributive justice be ‘done’. Lesser known examples of such policies can be seen in both Hertfordshire and Durham where alternative approaches particularly for those repeat offenders have been introduced.

Durham’s Checkpoint scheme

In Durham, the pioneering scheme known as ‘Checkpoint’ has slashed reoffending rates amongst those who have participated. In the initial trial 2,660 offenders who have committed offences such as burglary, offences of violence, theft, drug possession and criminal damage, participated in the experimental ‘deferred prosecution’ scheme whereby they contracted with the police constabulary to undertake four months of intensive rehabilitation including mental health, homelessness and substance abuse support (‘Durham’s pioneering police scheme slashes reoffending rates’, The Guardian, 14 February 2020). If they complete the programme they will not receive a criminal conviction, should they fail, they will be prosecuted in the usual way. The first results of the trial saw a 15 percentage point drop in re-offending after two years comparing those who took part in the programme with those who did not. The participants ranged from those with no previous convictions to those with extensive arrest records.

The programme has gained traction amongst police chiefs, with similar proposals being considered in Surrey, Devon and Cornwall. It offers an alternative approach by involving and consulting with the victims of crime on the progress of an offender’s rehabilitation creating an increased focus on restorative justice and local public education about the initiative.

Hertfordshire’s Choices and Consequences

Deferred prosecution agreements are not the only way in which a more rehabilitative approach to sentencing has been introduced. In Hertfordshire, the Choices and Consequences programme known as ‘C2’ was launched a few years ago but remains largely self-contained and therefore has not been widely publicised outside the jurisdiction of St Albans Crown Court. This collaborative scheme involves the courts, the police and the probation service and provides an intensive programme that amounts to a deferred sentence, providing a real alternative to custody. During the deferment period, the offender works with the police to identify other offences they may have committed as well as abiding by a residence condition and tagged curfew, undertaking an abstinence requirement and submitting to random drug testing, as well as attending probation support sessions to address underlying issues. The emphasis on personal responsibility requires the offender to engage and be willing to put in the work and therefore individuals are identified as being suitable for the programme by professionals. (More on the C2 scheme here.)

The resource argument

There has been an increased recruitment to the police with a target of 20,000 extra officers by 2023 pledged by the government (44% of target reached according to Home Office figures published on 29 April 2021). One of the perceived drawbacks of programmes such as Checkpoint and C2 is the additional cost and resources required to get such initiatives into operation. The additional recruitment may make such programmes a viable alternative to be rolled out more widely and ultimately, contribute to a longer-term strategy of reducing both our crime and imprisonment rate.

England and Wales already have one of the highest rates of imprisonment in Western Europe and people are kept in prison for longer than in many other European countries (see report in The Independent). Prison overcrowding remains a serious issue contributing to levels of violence amongst inmates thereby making it harder to reintegrate these people back into society at the end of their sentences and the risk of producing more dangerous offenders at the point of release. A commitment to the use of these increased police resources to seek to avoid prison (be that before prosecution or at the point of sentence), and to put offenders on a new path emphasising personal responsibility in an environment of support for the personal, societal and medical issues that have contributed heavily to their offending has genuine potential to yield the desired results. The obvious political issue is presenting such a redeployment of resources in a way palatable to the public.

Looking to Scandinavia

If there were to be a move towards rehabilitative measures, this move would need to be handled sensitively and in a way which does not fuel the sense of outrage the public seemingly already feel about sentencing. While the media play a crucial part in society, ‘selective reporting’ is commonplace. This combined with a misunderstanding, or lack of education, about the justice system, could result in backlash. It is well documented that in Scandinavia, there is a far more significant focus on rehabilitation that punishment and their offending rates are at about 40%, which is around half of that in the United Kingdom. In short, rehabilitation works. However, part of the reason why this works is because it is normalised and has been for many years. In 2014, Nils Öberg, director-general of Sweden’s prison and probation service at the time, stated: ‘Our role is not to punish. The punishment is the prison sentence: they have been deprived of their freedom. The punishment is that they are with us’ (see interview in The Guardian). Throughout Scandinavia, crime is not sensationalised by the media or by politicians and it is barely reported (‘Why Scandinavian prisons are superior’, Doran Larson, The Atlantic). This is something that perhaps we could learn from Scandinavia. Social unrest often arises following media reports of well-known cases, a recent example being the tragic case of the death of PC Andrew Harper. This is followed by politicians promising to be tougher which in turn leads to public opinion around crime as a whole becoming much more hardened, and so the cycle continues. Sensible, frank reporting coupled with a change in political focus could go some way to softening public opinion and normalising rehabilitation.

The above said, it is interesting to see how the public have responded to the schemes highlighted earlier. In Durham, despite concerns that the initiative represents ‘soft justice’, only five victims had complained out of the 2,660 offenders who had completed the programme in February 2020. This suggests that the public are far more open to tackling offending behaviours than one might think. Again, with open and responsible reporting from the media on the statistics and the impact these measures could ultimately have on the wider community, as well as support from politicians, the public may be willing to listen and adapt. This could result in normalising rehabilitative measures, such as in Scandinavian countries, which, statistics suggest, could have a huge impact on rates of re-offending.

Opportunity to think creatively

In conclusion, the situation in prisons compounded by Coronavirus is presenting the need for a discussion about reform and a strategy for addressing the punishment and rehabilitation of offenders in the longer term. Programmes such as Checkpoint and C2 provide what appears to be successful alternatives to custody in reducing re-offending rates. However, they do not ignite the political imagination of the public. Politicians need to consider what matters more to them; populist soundbites or constructive solutions to a pervasive societal issue? Despite perceptions, the Checkpoint example has shown that victim support for such a scheme is high. The pandemic, coupled with increased investments in front line policing may provide the opportunity to think creatively about these issues, if those in charge are willing to take it.