(RE)think piece

A ‘new chance’ instead of prison – can it reduce crime?

A ‘new chance’ instead of prison – can it reduce crime?

Juste Abramovaite and Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay

Can prison really transform people who commit crimes into law-abiding citizens? In this piece, Juste Abramovaite, Research Fellow at the Institute for Global Innovation (University of Birmingham) and Siddhartha Bandyopadhyay, Professor of Economics and Director of the Centre for Crime, Justice and Policing (University of Birmingham) critically assess the value of imprisonment and its alternatives through the prism of public safety.

Criminal justice policy often divides people, even when they agree on the objectives. For instance, people who agree that crime policy must ‘keep the community safe’ as a primary objective may still argue over the optimal use of prisons. For many, the difference in opinion is not driven by ideology. Rather, this happens because people hold different beliefs about the efficacy of prisons in driving down crime and keeping the community safe.

The public debate has mirrored divisions within politicians. Former Tory leader Michael Howard’s (in)famous claim that ‘prison works’ has many supporters but is far from a consensus, even within his own party. The view of ex-Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, that prison was often

“a costly and ineffectual approach that fails to turn criminals into law-abiding citizens”

has many supporters globally, including right-wing think-tanks that worry about the costs of incarceration forming seemingly surprising alliances with the left. Indeed, periods of tightening budget cuts have caused a re-think and there is a growing appetite for exploring alternatives to custody, especially when prisons’ inefficiencies are getting more closely scrutinised.

This enthusiasm has been matched by some emerging evidence of the criminogenic impact of prisons or, indeed, of all types of contact with the criminal justice system,  including low-level ones. There is also a greater understanding of the vulnerabilities of people in contact with the criminal justice system, and how these are linked with criminality.  For example, there is some evidence on people who use drugs committing petty crimes to fund their drug use.

An academic study for the UK shows that, for property crime, alternatives to custody can be effective i.e. instead of a custodial sentence, issuing an alternative (such as a community sentence or fine) is correlated with lower crime rates. This is also much more cost-effective. Whilst this is encouraging, detailed crime datasets are difficult to obtain and they are often only available at the aggregate level – i.e. it is available for each region and not at the individual level, which makes it difficult to draw conclusions about the behaviour of individuals.

One may ask how does contact with the criminal justice system affect crime, in particular what might be behind the criminogenic effect of prison.

Having a criminal record adversely affects employment prospects and prison further leads to interaction with other people involved in crime, which can lead to more ‘learning’ of criminal opportunities. The twin effect pushes towards more crime and causes even worse employment prospects for a recidivist, leading to a cycle of criminality. This negatively affects families including children through social stigma and children suffer particularly from absent parents. Indeed, family where someone has been to prison is considered an ‘adverse childhood experience’ which has been associated with later life criminality.

The aggregate studies provide interesting correlations but we need more individual level studies analysing criminal behaviour. A good example of such a study is the New Chance programme – as the name suggests, it was designed to give people a ‘new chance’ by diverting them from prison through assessing their needs (mental health, low income, lack of housing etc.) and providing support to meet their needs instead of traditional criminal justice processing which could potentially lead to a prison sentence. This programme was analysed by our team (for West Midlands) using what is called a ‘quasi-experimental method’, to estimate the impact of the programme on re-offending rates. We matched a control group of people who would have been eligible for support via New Chance, but did not actually receive any support through programme, to the treatment group,which received support through the New Chance programme, and computed the impact of the New Chance programme.

We found, for those on the New Chance programme when compared to the control group:

  • overall reoffending rates went down by 16%
  • reoffending rates were lower after 2 months, 6 months and 12 months (drop of 7-11%)
  • reoffending rates were up to 37% lower for people with mental health issues
  • reoffending rates were up to 55% lower for people with substance misuse issues

All findings were statistically significant, suggesting that the New Chance intervention had a positive effect on the mental health of those in the programme who suffered from mental ill-health.  The programme also provided suitable support for their substance misuse problems, which, in turn, had a positive effect on criminal behaviour. These findings are not the only ones highlighting this and there is more emerging research into this worldwide.

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