Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Custody as the challenge to corrections

The custodial environment is justified in terms of a variety of principles of punishment.

Despite their problematic nature, however, recidivism figures do not suggest that the prison component of a sentence improves prospects for deterrence or rehabilitation, by comparison with other sentencing options.

In a recent UK Home Office review of punishment outcomes, 59 per cent of prisoners discharged from prison in 1998 were re-convicted within two years of release.

As for community corrections, despite a high level of successful completions (over 80 per cent), the actual re-conviction rate remained around 55 per cent.

The crucial distinguisher, therefore, may be the economic and emotional cost of imprisonment, against negligible comparative benefit on the recidivism score.

While Weatherburn suggests that higher imprisonment rates have some impact on crime rates, the best figures he can draw are a 10 per cent increase in the prison population bringing about a 2-4 per cent reduction in crime.

Translated to current NSW punishment practice, that would mean that an investment of around $350,000 might register a minimal crime rate drop. If the same was to be spent on community corrections and probation in particular, the return on crime reduction would be significantly better.

The ultimate popular wisdom on why we need prisons is that they contain the dangerous and make communities safer, at least for the term of the imprisonment. Hence, the longer we can make that term, the safer we feel. Except for the occasional good year, escape rates in NSW continue to be around 1.5 per 100 prisoners. But at over 70 a year that may not be such a comforting figure.

The data referred to in other parts of this chapter tends to suggest that, in terms of recidivism, deterrence, and even crime prevention, the results from community prevention options are no worse than the prison, often better, and always so much cheaper. In addition, it would appear that rehabilitation and restoration have better chances of success outside the prison than in a custodial setting.

Loss of correctional motivation outside prison walls

The deteriorating relative investment in community corrections in recent years speaks volumes about how often successful, non-custodial punishment programmes are out of political favour. In addition, the predominance of the prison as the popular punishment model has meant that under-resourced and apparently undervalued alternative sentencing options do not figure in political considerations of the efficacy of the criminal sanction.

Recent evaluations of the Drug Court and Juvenile Conferencing in NSW should give the community confidence in diversionary initiatives, and the international experience of both suggests a significant potential benefit in their expansion. However, the corrections discussion seems disproportionately located in custodial settings.

A consequence of this might be to expect research and development in the area of pre-release programmes. The research is there, as well as the empirical confirmation, that well planned and well-resourced pre- and post-release initiatives will ensure important and realistic correctional outcomes.

As will be mentioned, the challenge is to reinvest in non-custodial corrections, and to recognise the corrective capacity of community collaborations and partnerships.

This will require some declaration of political interest. To ensure this in the prevailing penal climate, it may be necessary to include the development of community corrections models prominently within an integrated progressive punishment plan.

Is correction possible in prison?

Victoria, for instance, is investing substantially in a best practice strategy to reduce re-offending, as Birgden explains:

In addition to risk management to address community protection and justice principles, enhanced well-being to address autonomy and therapeutic principles is required. The psychological theory of good lives proposes an enhancement model of rehabilitation. The legal theory of therapeutic jurisprudence proposes how the roles of legal actors may be therapeutic. Both theories are concerned with the enhancement of psychological well-being.

Birgden argues for a correctional system responsive to offenders. She suggests the possibility of a 'culture shift' to reaffirm rehabilitative as well as punitive goals for sentencing.

Where cognitive treatment programmes in prison seem to work against a measure of reconviction, they have been operated in a 'what works' context. Programmes which come within this reference include the Canadian-originated 'Reasoning and Rehabilitation' and 'Enhanced Thinking Skills'.

These programmes promote self-control (thinking before acting), inter-personal problem solving skills, social perspective taking, critical reasoning skills, cognitive style, and understanding the values which govern behaviour.

Not inconsistent with the Canadian studies, while reconviction rates for the treatment population were up to 14 per cent better than the control group, this only held for medium to low risk prisoners. For high risk, the differential fell to a low 5 per cent. In any case, this study provides a potential for a cost effectiveness evaluation of offender programmes.

As suggested earlier, recidivism rates alone as a performance measure of the effectiveness of offender programmes are too narrow an evaluation of rehabilitation practice in prison. More realistic is an integrated approach focusing on the climate of programme delivery, cost effectiveness, the programme's integrity and the treatment outcomes. In this respect, life quality issues are a vital measure of the relevance of correctional programmes in prison.

If rehabilitation is to be preferred as a motivation for punishment, then its location should be in community corrections and restorative environments, if only on the basis of cost effectiveness considerations. In saying this, however, in the medium term prison will be the environment for certain offenders, and there is no reason to deprive them of rehabilitation programmes, provided performance measures and resource justifications shift from unrealistic to simple, practical, obvious and predictable concerns.

There is significant evidence that prison life and society tends to exacerbate the behavioural and social determinants of crime. Violent, inhuman, unsafe, confrontational, and exploitative prison settings will distort appropriate social and moral messages consistent with crime prevention.

A reluctance to deal with illiteracy, drug abuse, anger, indolence, and marginalisation will leave offender populations ill prepared for social reintegration. An under-resourcing of pre-release programmes will compound the problem.

These issues can be confronted in a more basic, universal, best practice model for prison life, and as such will achieve the small but consistent improvements in prisoner life quality that produces measurable performance indicators.

The Home Office, as the administrator of English prisons, is now required to meet modest targets in the improvement of prison life and the reduction of re-offending following release. This has necessitated the development of a new context for corrections, one directed to the improvement in the quality of prison life and an investment in 'what works' with offenders.

A recent study to evaluate the quality of life in five English prisons from the perspective of staff and offenders found that staff and prisoners agree on 'what matters' in assessing prison quality, suggesting that there is a broad consensus about values; that these include respect, fairness, decency and order; that prison life quality resembles the expectation for civil society; and that safety is a critical concern. One prisoner respondent reflected on his aspirations for prison treatment:

To me, being treated with humanity means being provided adequate, reasonably comfortable and clean accommodation and being acknowledged as a person with individual needs, desires, concerns, strengths and weaknesses.

Prison staff would find it hard to argue against this. However, it is the bigotry of public opinion about prisoners 'getting it too easy' which tends to endorse further social exclusion in prison.

Paradoxically, it is this that increases the likelihood of re-offending on release and the associated threat to community safety.

Along with this commitment to the quality of life in prison has been an appreciation that time and money needs to be invested on an inmate-by-inmate commitment to improved sentence planning, and better arrangements for post release supervision.

Progressive punishment plan: harmonising sanction and rehabilitation

If crime control and community safety are to continue as the motivations for punishment (recognising just deserts and deterrence principles), then lower re-offending targets as public service/government commitments seem reasonable for corrective services agencies. This means that, for rehabilitation programmes to play a realistic part in the achievement of these targets, there must be a two-pronged approach to corrective services:

(1) In an atmosphere of rationalised prison resources, correctional programmes should be integrated and offender-centred. In this respect, individualised sentence management strategies should be a priority. Life quality concerns will be an important programme focus and relevance indicator. The programmes must operate under straight-forward performance indicators, which rely neither on problematic risk measures nor artificial selection criteria such as the diagnosis of original offending.

(2) Non-custodial environments for correctional programmes are to be preferred and promoted, if only on the basis of cost effectiveness. Such programmes must rely on investment in pre-release and post release transition and institutional support so that re-offending targets will be secured.

This dual approach will work if it focuses on 'what works', rather than what 'might' work. It must also grow from a foundational environment of trust and mutual self--respect rather than in an atmosphere of discriminative access to behaviour management, and thereby early release, based on suspect measures of re-offending risk.

The development of community collaborations and partnerships in the development and delivery of custodial and non-custodial correctional programmes should be encouraged as the natural progression from custodial corrective climates designed to foster cultural change within and without the prison. Particularly in the areas of employment, work ethic generation and purposeful activity, locating corrective initiatives within community settings increases the potency of employment as a factor against re-offending.

Ultimately, a progressive punishment plan, which has as its central plank corrections and restoration, will need to argue its relevance in a different way to the prison. Imprisonment is accepted as a preferred sanction despite its failings because of an epidemic of community confidence in its capacity to protect. This approach can and should be challenged by an approach to punishment planning which values realistic evaluation.

For corrections programmes inside the gaol in particular, consideration must be advanced for regimes, conditions and costs in the creation of practical prison performance indicators, such as: average hours engaged in purposeful activity; time unlocked; programme completions; total education study hours; nature of prison employment; releases on temporary (pre-release) license; accommodation in cells beyond their capacity design; prisoners testing positive for drugs; escapes; assaults and self harm; cost per uncrowded place.

A renewed commitment to rehabilitation within a smart and resource effective criminal justice model will build bridges between custodial and community corrections. Issues of cost and resource accountability in public spending are eventually catching up on the lavish investment in the failing prison of previous decades. Rights based and equitable correctional opportunities are the essential precursors for a return to rehabilitation that avoids the excesses of the sixties, the denial of the seventies, the rejection of the eighties, and the disappointment of the nineties.

By Professor Mark Findlay 20 July 05

Crime and Punishment

Prisons, by their nature and the communities they house, suffer more acutely from the social exclusion that characterises the underprivileged parts of Australian society. Without the exacerbation of a custodial experience, these characteristics alone militate against the successful reintegration of prisoners back into the community.

Prisons as progressive punishment?

Prisons, by their nature and the communities they house, suffer more acutely from the factors of social exclusion that characterise the underprivileged sectors of Australian society.


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