The meaninglessness of enshrining reform into law

Stephen Pryor offers some consequences of enshrining offender reform into law

By: 
Stephen Pryor
Date: 
Tuesday, 07 March, 2017

'I will marry her myself'. The Judge's solution to the dilemma of accountability in Trial by Jury. 

I got into trouble when I suggested in a Perrie Lecture that prisons were full of people sentenced by sentencers. Now we can blame governors and  NOMS staff. The Law will require it of them to reform offenders. So governors can now be divided into 'the Good'  and 'the Bad', with, presumably, the possibility of the sanction of imprisonment for the Bad ones.  Oh joy unbounded.

Judging the sentence

One problem.  Presumably prisons are full of people who have been sent there by someone who knows what the execution of the sentence entails.  There would be no point in sending a drug dealer to an open prison or a gang leader to one full of weak youngsters.  So it should be safe to assume that the judge will take advice and will hand down a sentence which makes reform affordable, possible and safe for other prisoners. Then he or she might reasonably claim they are a good judge too.

But no one would expect the judge to be able to reform offenders or to blame them if their sentence doesn't work.  So how about expecting the governor and the NOMS staff to be able to do it, and frame a law which obliges them to?

Sadly, for those who want the issues simplified, this is a bad time to try to make justice out of politics.  Let us look briefly at current plans.

There is nothing simple about high numbers.  They may signify hard sentencing with bags of retribution.  But retribution may drive people to feel they are a waste of space and to consider suicide.

Whichever way you slice it, prison and punishment are not the environment a taxpayer would chose for education, and certainly not for trying to turn round the failures of the education system.

Reform in custody

Surely if reform was staring us in the face we would have discovered how to do it by now.  After all, we have been trying to make it work ever since we invented custody as a substitute for deportation a couple of hundred years ago.  That is not to deny that reform can happen during a sentence, nor that there is much to commend in the efforts of staff and prisoners to achieve this and to restore justice.  But that does not make reform legally enforceable.

And most prison people know that pumping staff in will not of itself have any direct connection with reform any more than reducing overcrowding.

Perhaps the hardest truth to swallow is that reform has nothing to do with sentencing.  We hope that linking a youth offending sentence with whatever the youth offending system has to offer will result in people giving up crime though the referral to family and community, and the options then available to the sentencer do seem to.  But if we strip the cloud away we have to admit that there is no link between the adult sentence and what NOMS does from thereon in. There never has been and, if it was possible then it would be down to the courts to take responsibility for reducing crime and directing the executive.

So, I love more staff.  I love less prisoners.  I love prisons which work. And I love governors and probation staff who reform offenders. But I do hate it when we pretend that these will help to make it legally enforceable to control reoffending.

Running prisons

I spent many years running prisons and the staff who worked for me would probably have said they liked working for me.  But I was very clear that my job was to train people to be good prisoners who would help me to look after fellow-prisoners.  Some of my prisons were death traps, especially for young remands until Martin Narey got them to change the remand rules.  Some of my prisons were close to being universities and I was able to send prisoners to help run a nearby Citizens Advice Bureau.

If anyone had suggested that I was responsible for stopping my charges from committing crime, I would probably have released them as quickly as possible to the tender, loving care of the community: from which they came and would assuredly return, and tie a yellow ribbon round them so that potential victims would know them and avoid  them.  I know that prison creates prisoners and that most stop when they grow out of it, and freedom somehow shows them that it isn't worth it.  Somehow telling them that they reoffend at their peril, and that their governor will be punished by law for their reoffending, won't make much sense, though it would be preferable to being returned to  prison for breach of licence.

An offender who reoffends does not make his ex-governor, or the person who sentenced him, a sly dog.  And the option of proposing to the jury will not be encouraged. 

The prisoner's responsibility needs to be recognised as the key to reacceptance through and beyond the sentence. Then, with a little help from the sentencer and the executive, can the knell be sounded of grief and woe.


Stephen Pryor is Convenor of the Thame Group. The Thame Group comprises a number of people who have worked in the field of criminal justice for many years. We compare notes on justice. Several of us are content with the following comment on the government's prison policy plans.  In this case these include John Dring, David Faulkner and Tim Newell.