The news that reoffending rates are down should be welcome to everyone working in the criminal justice sector.
With recent unrest at prisons in Hertfordshire and Wiltshire, the hard-won success on the part of prison officers, governors and service providers like Novus may be missed. That would be a shame.
The latest figures show that positive engagement with learning in prison reduces the chance of reoffending. Those prisoners who do not engage with learning services provided in prison had a reoffending rate of 43%; those given and taking the opportunity had a rate of 34%.
At first glance that rate suggests that prisoner learners are only 9% less likely to reoffend, but that misses the point – that is 9% fewer crimes, fewer victims and less time spent in court. If anything, it proves the point that properly investing in prisoner learning - alongside improving the prison estate and properly supporting prison officers - will lead to further reductions in reoffending.
The total yearly cost of reoffending to the tax payer has been conservatively estimated by the National Audit Office at between £7.4 and £10.7 billion. This figure is based on calculations that include the direct costs of crime as well as re-imprisonment; a reduction of 9% on the lower figure alone would benefit society to the tune of £666 million.
Moreover prisoner learners on average receive a prison sentence on re-offence that is 120 days shorter than their initial sentence. With the prison population standing at 85,863 in June 2017, the potential impact of prisoners engaging with learning in prison cannot be understated.
The Prison Service faces undeniable challenges; overcrowding, staffing and the priority for the system to be safe and rehabilitative, as recognised in the White Paper on prison safety and reform, are clear. Last week, the chair of the Justice Select Committee Bob Neill MP highlighted the need for prison reform to be a top priority and I could not agree more, particularly if this includes investment in rehabilitative interventions such as education.
A lower reoffending rate is not a panacea; it will not solve all the problems faced by our prisons. However, the reduction in reoffending does go some way towards showing the value of properly investing in the prisons estate. Safety must remain a top priority, but the approach to rehabilitation and the value of education need to be considered as equal priorities. Success in this area will in turn reduce demand on the system and address the capacity issues which exist today.
When an offender is given an opportunity to learn and engage, this can help to contribute to a prison environment that is calm, disciplined and secure and one which supports the work of the prison officers.
The challenges faced by many offenders are a magnification of those faced by society: challenges of health, social inclusion and relevant skills. Unlocking an offender’s door to participation in education not only addresses the offender’s challenges but those of society as a whole. This can create a virtuous cycle that promotes the value of learning and positive activity in rehabilitation and will demonstrate benefits later on.
If we are to achieve further reductions in reoffending in the future, we need to embrace opportunities as they arise through appropriate investment in education contracts. Prison reform cannot be solely about drugs and drones; it has to be about empowerment of prison governors and a clear commitment to investing in the rehabilitative services provided by learning organisations like Novus. If the government can commit to providing the resources and reform then there is an opportunity for providers like Novus to work closely with its partners and with HM Prisons to solve the problems that are holding us back.
Chief among these, we have to maximise the benefits of intervention and ensure that learning outcomes and skills acquisition become as valuable to offenders as the learning activity itself. Simply spending time in the classroom is not enough in itself; ideally it should be linked to realistic outcomes which help to meet employers’ needs. I would like to see space created for education providers to be regime partners with governors and other stakeholders, ensuring that offenders on release are best placed to put themselves forward in the job market.
And prisoners cannot be abandoned at the gate; we need to see real partnerships that bring together the right data, provision and partners that support prisoners into work. Novus recently hosted a roundtable that discussed the potential value of prisoners in responding to the skills shortage within the catering and hospitality sector.
There is an untapped labour market within our prisons, a population of offenders capable of being upskilled to meet the future needs of employers. In post-Brexit Britain, this market could be crucial. I call on employers to engage with rehabilitation partners like us to maximise this untapped market; let’s work together to address your workforce planning issues in a way which benefits everyone, including society.
In addition to the multi-agency support which already exists, we need to broaden our horizons to see prison learning as an investment on a par with vocational or university education in the potential human capital of UK plc.