Work and training at heart of government’s plan to cut reoffending

Campaigners have welcomed last month’s government green paper on reducing reoffending through better access to employment.

But they argue that agencies could struggle to make the proposals a reality because of the pressures of the prison population and discrimination against offenders in the community.

Currently, about 76 per cent of prisoners do not have paid employment on release.

Nearly three-quarters of young offenders aged 16-17 are in full-time education, training or employment when they finish their custodial or non-custodial sentence. But this drops to 57 per cent for those who have left custody.

The green paper includes performance targets for Jobcentres to get offenders into work, and “employability contracts” for prisoners with incentives such as earned privileges in custody.

Offenders would receive increased training in prisons and job opportunities would be provided according to local employers’ needs under the proposals, which are out to consultation.

The government wants to promote schemes like the National Grid-led offender training and employment programme, which claims to have cut reoffending rates to 7 per cent for ex-offenders it has employed in the gas industry. This compares with 58.5 per cent of offenders released from prison or beginning a community sentence in the first quarter of 2002 who reoffended within two years.

The green paper also proposes a work-focused curriculum for 14- to 19-year-olds, and calls for better interagency working to bring young offenders back into training or work. It promises further proposals for young offenders later in the year.

But with the prison population at a record high of  77,000 – including nearly 3,000 juveniles – some argue already overburdened staff would be unable to offer adequate support.
Chris Chaston, senior policy officer at young people’s charity Rainer, says the proposals will be “heavily affected” by whether sentencing policy changes to divert more people away from custody.

“While prison numbers remain so high the ability of staff to focus on training and support can be compromised,” he says.

Phil Hope, minister at the Department for Education and Skills, says the government has no plans to set a target figure for prison numbers before implementing the proposals, and denies that population pressures are a barrier. The plans should actually help bring numbers down, he says.

“We need to make sure there is a good regime where prisoners can get training and a job on release, so they will be less likely to reoffend than come back to prison,” he says.

Steve Taylor, director of campaign group Forum on Prisoner Education, warns that the proposals should not just be aimed at meeting Jobcentre targets. “Offenders must be consulted properly so they can be placed in jobs they will enjoy.”

The Youth Justice Board says that young offenders in particular will need the right amount of preparation and a flexible approach.

“It is futile to set young people up to fail or encourage them into jobs that they may not have the necessary skills and abilities to sustain,” a YJB spokesperson says.

Campaigners also point to the government’s failure to reform the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 as the biggest potential barrier to the green paper’s success.

Under the law, which is not mentioned in the green paper, offenders must declare their convictions during a “rehabilitation” period ranging from six months to 10 years, depending on their sentences.

An offender who was aged 17 or under when convicted and who is sentenced to between six months and two-and-a-half years in a young offender institution faces a five-year rehabilitation period, while someone over 18 serving a similar prison sentence must wait 10 years.

Pauline Batstone, chair of the Association of Youth Offending Team Managers, says reform of the act “must go hand in hand” with the green paper’s proposals to make them workable.

“The bottom line for any employer is – if the choice is between two equally qualified workers, one with a criminal record, which would they choose? I would suggest the one without the criminal record. The ex-offender has to bring a lot more skill and experience to the interview than the non-offender.”

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