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UK: ‘prison works’ is an outdated concept that benefits no one

The best community penalties reduce reoffending rates via repentance and payback.

et again evidence shows that prison doesn’t work (“Two-thirds of prisoners given short sentences go on to reoffend”, News), but no doubt legislators will again ignore it in favour of listening to the Mail. You explain how campaigners are pressing for short prison sentences to be replaced with community alternatives, a necessity that has long been obvious.

However, one aspect of the proposal is worrying: “community sentences” is a catch-all for any penalty that doesn’t involve incarceration. This is not a very encouraging definition: “prison works” enthusiasts will simply switch to “humiliation works”, with chain gangs dressed in fluorescent clothing cleaning up litter.

What works (and what the article doesn’t mention) is restorative justice (RJ). This is something that has been available for many years, since Labour introduced it in 1998 as one of its first acts after taking power. The most important weapon in the RJ armoury was and is “referral orders”. They are much more than community arrangements. They are organised by youth offending teams, which not only embody collaboration between different agencies (police, social services, education) but also involve trained volunteers from the community to which the offender belongs. They aim to enable repentance and a degree of payback and thereby rehabilitate offenders. Victims have the opportunity of being fully involved.

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