Joe Connelly: Locking up people short-term doesn't work '“ community justice is an answer

It is widely understood that prison, and particularly short term sentences, is not the answer to reducing offending or reoffending. It does little to address the symptoms of those offending, or to encourage reform, and many of the negative behaviours that result in a prison sentence are exacerbated inside prison. Those sentenced to six months or less are twice as likely to reoffend than those serving a ­Community Payback Order (CPO).

Plans for a change in policy to extend the presumption against short sentences is a positive move in the right direction. If the ­proposal to extend the presumption against short term sentences from three months to 12 months is enacted, this will have a significant impact on those organisations providing the alternative service.

If not prison, then what? There is a strong argument for community justice. Many of those facing short term sentences are typically struggling with issues such as addiction, homelessness, isolation, and long term unemployment, as well as mental health problems. More often than not, it is these issues that have led to criminal activity, causing chaos and disruption amongst family and friends. A prison sentence, no matter how short, often heavily affects those family members, especially where the individual is a woman with children.

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So the solution has to be something that addresses the cause, and actively works to change the way of thinking. There is evidence to show that many community justice programmes are effective in breaking the cycle of destructive behaviour, and reducing the risk of reoffending.

Prison also has a hefty price tag. The average annual cost to the taxpayer of a year in custody is £34,000. Community justice programmes often cost a fraction of this and offer long term benefits due to a reduced risk of reoffending. There are wider benefits for community justice programmes: individuals might find a permanent home, employment, no longer rely on benefits, begin volunteering and contribute to the community.

However, if community-based services and programmes are to be the alternative to custodial sentencing of 12 months or less, then these services must be appropriately developed and resourced, and evaluated to ensure efficacy. There must also be greater understanding of what is available, and trust that the alternative works, amongst those giving the sentence.

Venture Trust has two criminal ­justice programmes that are integral to the Scottish justice landscape, ­Living Wild and Next Steps. The focus is on supporting individuals in a community and wilderness setting to make positive changes through personal development, experiential learning and acquiring life skills. Participants are helped to raise their aspirations, confidence, understand cause and effect and responsibility, and give them space for change. In a recent study, evidence suggests that 75 per cent of women who have completed the Next Steps programme are less likely to reoffend, and 83 per cent are employable, with a significant number already in work.

Lucy shows just how powerful and effective these programmes can be. She spent ten years addicted to ­heroin. During this time she was also convicted of theft and lost her son to care. Her life had hit rock bottom.

She said: “I was in and out of the criminal justice system. My son went to stay with my mum because, as I wasn’t looking after myself, they thought I wasn’t looking after him.”

Today, speaking from the grounds of Perth College Lucy has been clean for more than two years. At 37, she has returned to education for the first time since she left school at 15. She is aiming for a degree with a dissertation in addiction and recovery.

One of Lucy’s proudest achievements was being recognised recently with a local champion award through the criminal justice system.

The system that could have locked her away provided her with the opportunity to change her life, in the form of Venture Trust’s Next Steps programme. CPOs are a valuable alternative to short term custodial sentencing, for the wellbeing of the individual, to the taxpayer, and for the safety and benefit of the wider community. We need the authorities to work closely with organisations like Venture Trust in order to get the best results. We really do have the opportunity, right now, to start getting this right; to start making justice work. Let’s invest in it.

For more information, please visit our website: Joe Connelly, head of programmes at Venture Trust.