Opinion: Prison can be the answer

The best way to deal with criminal and anti-social behaviour in young people is to lock them up. I will argue at Community Care Live next month that this is necessary for two reasons: to protect society from the increasing misery that young law-breakers cause and to reform the lawbreakers themselves.

Those who oppose the use of imprisonment (a small elite group which unfortunately contains almost everyone at the Home Office) argue that prison does not work because prisoners re-offend when they are released. Prison, according to their analysis, is not the answer.

Well, that all depends on the question. If you are asking if prison can be relied upon to turn bad people into good people, the answer is no – but neither do the alternatives. The recidivism rates associated with some of the Home Office’s favoured options are often no lower than prison. For example, offending behaviour programmes such as anger management courses have been found not to reduce crime. About 80% of participants had been reconvicted within two years.

It is depressing that while vast sums of money are being spent on ineffective programmes, the things that really are needed, like basic literacy and jobskills training, are underfunded. We all know that the young people who offend often come from very disadvantaged backgrounds. There is a vast amount that they need to learn just to function normally in society, and the best place for them to learn it is in prison. Some young offenders come from such chaotic backgrounds that their only hope of improvement lies in removal from the home environment altogether. We are often told that prisons are just schools of crime: young offenders mix with criminals worse than themselves and emerge corrupted. Unfortunately, many of them don’t need to go to a school of crime because their friends and families have been home-schooling them.

Many young offenders experience conditions in prison that are vastly superior to anything they have known in terms of cleanliness, diet and education. The longer they are kept there and put onto good educational programmes (which aren’t all that expensive), the better their chances of turning their lives around. And the sounder the rest of us can sleep in our beds.

Robert Whelan is the deputy director of Civitas. He will be speaking in a debate, More Sinned Against Than Sinning? The Future of Youth Justice After Blair, at Community Care Live on May 16

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