Does prison reform criminals and provide enough of a deterrent to stop them ever going back?
Er, No. According to studies by the Home Office, between 75 and 80% of adult male prisoners are re-convicted within two years of being released from prison. The Police federation, taking into consideration allegations of crime where a named suspect (with known previous convictions or precons as we call them) who were not charged, and incidents where Police dealt but no crime allegations were made, suggest a more conservative estimate of upwards of 90% of convicted prisoners being involved in crime after being released from prison. Even if you are of the "innocent until proven guilty in court" brigade, upwards of 80% is still pretty damn high.
Some people argue that prison doesn't stop people committing crime because we have more repeat criminals than ever. The fact that sentences are considerably shorter than ever before and you have to do a hell of a lot to actually get a custodial sentence because of the increased prison population is lost on them. The kind of people who argue that prison doesn't work are also the ones who believe that simply getting arrested by the Police would devastate their lives, they have little or no experience of actually dealing with criminals 'at the coal face' and the thought of going to prison terrifies them. I read a great line the other day on The Coppersblog during a discussion about sentencing guidelines in reference to prison -
"It's like doubting aspirin works because you took one 3 months ago and now you have a headache"
Personally, I don't care if criminals are reformed. If they commit a crime, go to prison, get reformed and then never commit another crime for the rest of their lives then great, that can only be good for society and the people like you and me who want to live honest lives. If they don't get reformed, but never commit another crime for the rest of their lives because prison scared them so much that they never wanted to go back, then also great. Same result, different paths to get there, but at the end of it no one else has to suffer.
One thing is certain about prison - if someone is inside, even if only on remand, they're not able to be out committing crime, and that can only be a good thing. The fact that re-conviction rates are so high means that the only respite from the vast majority of criminals is when they are locked away. I am well aware that other crimes are committed by people in prison such as drug use and assaults on Prison Officers and other inmates, but at least they aren't out screwing over innocent peoples homes or otherwise making their lives a misery.
When I was first looking at joining the Job, I went out on a 'ride along' for a night shift. Whilst out in the area car I experienced my first hunt for a burglar who had been disturbed in the process of breaking into someones house. It was, quite frankly, awesome. The officers I was with predicted the identity of the suspect based on his MO (modus operandi or method of operating) and then successfully tracked him down, as they knew his usual haunts and what routes he would use to get there that kept him mostly out of sight. Once they had him stopped the dog unit tracked back to the house, and that was him in the bins (custody) for the night.
Job done, and I was hooked.
They knew that the suspect had not long been released from prison, and as he was a prolific offender, his release had been circulated to the officers as "one to watch out for". The suspect had in excess of 50 convictions for various offences but mainly burglary and possession of class A drugs. As a habitual hard drug user, he used burglary as his method of getting the cash together to get his fix and by his own admission (he had a number of outstanding burglaries TIC'd or taken into consideration, confessing to them to get leniency at court) he was committing around 2-3 every couple of days. This by the way is not a lot, I've heard of people doing 5-10 a day.
Despite his numerous previous convictions, he never got more than a year of actual jail time when convicted at court because he never had aggravating factors such as violence or weapons, hardly ever targeted homes where the owners were in, always TIC'd a few burglaries and always pleaded guilty at the first hearing. As much as I hate burglars (number 3 on my list of criminals I hate after paedos and rapists) he would be classed as a low risk offender, even a nice burglar in the eyes of the court, if there can be such a thing.
Clearly he wasn't reformed, and the risk of going back obviously did nothing to deter him from violating peoples homes. By his own admission however, every single day he spent in custody physically stopped him from being able to burgle someone.
Since joining I have had dealings with hundreds, if not a couple of thousand, of people with criminal convictions. I can only remember a handful of those with less only one or two precons, it actually comes as a somewhat pleasant surprise when you get a court print of someones precons and there is hardly anything on it. In stark contrast, I've also seen prolific offenders with a precon list running into the 200's. Just think about that for a moment, over two hundred convictions at court. Then think about the number of times they would have been arrested and not charged, or committed offences and were never identified as the suspect, let alone the amount of Police and court time taken up by just one person.
I don't think I've ever met a Police officer who honestly thinks that sentencing of criminals in this country is appropriate to the crimes committed. We often have discussions at work about what kind of sentencing system would be more effective at stopping criminals. Examples of suggestions would include enforced cold turkey for drug addicts, hanging, shooting, 400 year prison sentences like they have in the states and building a huge wall around the Isle of Wight and dumping them all there to fight it out amongst themselves - Escape from New York style.
My personal view is that the more someone chooses to commit crime, the more they should have the possibility of them being able to commit crime removed. The only way to do that is to remove them from society by locking them up in a cell. Yes, they may have more gucci kit than a benefit scrounges council house, better meals than I would ever be able to get in a canteen (and free) and all the DVD's they would ever want, but at least they won't be able to stick a pint glass in your face when pissed, kick your front door in while your kids are asleep, or stamp you to death for asking them ever so politely to bugger off somewhere else at 4 in the morning instead of getting drunk outside your house.
My ideal would be a minimum tariff, irrespective of the crime, that escalates exponentially with more convictions as it would eventually completely remove those people who chose to turn to criminality. Here's how my sentencing guidelines would work - firstly you start off with a weeks custodial, regardless of the offence. If they commit an offence that would attract a higher custodial sentence for a first time conviction (like murder) then the higher sentence takes over. After the first offence conviction, you increase every subsequent sentence by a factor of five. A second time offender would get a minimum of five weeks, third would get twenty five etc. After no more than five convictions someone is going to be locked away for at least twelve years, if they are stupid enough to get a conviction after that then they're going to be locked away for the rest of their useful life. Their problem, not mine, and I think five chances is four more than they need to get the hint.
This system of sentencing is extremely harsh, but then that puts the emphasis on the person to make sure they keep their noses clean and not get in trouble. The thing I love about it is it's fair, it doesn't discriminate, if you're a criminal or feel that crime is the easy way out, or you don't care about anyone else and get drunk and lamp people for no reason, then hey, you're going to pay for it by being locked up.
As long as there are people who have never been victims of crime, don't live in areas where criminals make peoples lives hell, but who will defend the view that locking criminals up isn't the right answer, then I'll continue to be arresting people with 50, 100 or 200 previous convictions. In the meantime we all get the benefit and joy of living in a society where criminals exploit our refusal to lock them up and throw away the key.
Annoying, isn't it?