Johann Koehler

With recent reports stating that almost three quarters of those charged with offences during the London riots had prior convictions, attention has turned to Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke’s description of Britain’s “broken penal system”. Johann Koehler, from the Institute of Criminology, discusses some of the latest projects to reduce reoffending, and how politicians may have to risk the ‘soft on crime’ label to move forward.

Sophisticated and responsive treatments, usually incorporating psychological techniques, work better than ‘one-size-fits-all’ measures like prison.

Johann Koehler

The Mercat Cross is an innocuous but beautiful octagonal building on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile. Although it originally functioned as a place where merchants would gather and sell their wares (its name being derived from “Market Cross”), it was re-fashioned in the Late Middle Ages for a unique and spectacular form of punishment.

Criminals caught stealing from the nearby market were nailed, by the ear, to one of the doors of the Cross and were pelted with rotten fruit until the morning, whereupon the Sheriff would remove the nail and they would go free, hopefully never to offend again. Thus, two forms of punishment were hypothesised to reduce the likelihood of recidivism in the 14th Century: shame and pain.

Fast forward to the present day, and we find that thankfully, criminology has advanced considerably in the intervening seven hundred years. The tools of science are being brought to bear on how to reduce recidivism in the most effective and humane manner possible. In fact, it has emerged that the two can be pursued in close harmony: when punishments are harsh and degrading, as in the Mercat Cross example, or when prisoners are warehoused into cells without dignity and humanity, as is the case in many developed and developing countries, the likelihood of reoffending is remarkably increased.

Contrarily, effective rehabilitation of criminals requires an appreciation of just how different people are. Anyone who has taught a group of students, no matter the material or the students in the class, has had to grapple with varying learning styles and capabilities; teaching a criminal how to desist from crime upon release from prison shares many of the same principles.

Sophisticated and responsive treatments, usually incorporating psychological techniques, work better than ‘one-size-fits-all’ measures like prison. Treatments such as restorative justice that emphasise the reintegration of criminals into the community through affective, conversationally-based conflict resolution, are also promisingly effective and are much cheaper than the roughly £40,000 it takes to lock someone up for a year.

One of the projects we work on at the Institute of Criminology seeks to explain what programmes can be developed and implemented to reduce reoffending throughout Europe. On one hand, this requires a detailed understanding of what measures different countries have put in place to deal with the prison populations under their supervision, and on the other, it requires gathering together all the studies that have taken place to gauge the effectiveness of those programmes in order to discern what works best, and for whom. We’ve managed to locate a substantial gap between what is being done throughout Europe to reduce reoffending, and what those countries could be doing to reduce crime, and save money.

When the UK Justice Minister Ken Clarke announced last week that he was resuming the Coalition’s commitment to a rehabilitative approach for dealing with offenders, he paid heed to the fact that the current penal system is unsustainable. Many – almost 75%, in fact – of the August rioters had already been to prison at some point in their lives. Coupled with the doubling of the incarceration rate during the New Labour years, the UK has suddenly found itself with too many prisoners, not enough money, and a revolving door of reoffenders. The picture is altogether similar in too many countries throughout Europe.

Fortunately, breaking the cycle that results in career criminality and distended penal systems is not as difficult as was once believed. But it takes investment in programmes that are often made to seem ‘soft on crime’ – the death knell for many a politician. Moving forward, countries throughout Europe are displaying an impressive commitment to rehabilitating offenders.

Clarke’s recent proposals are but one instance in a series of political manoeuvres across the continent that evince a desire to move away from the criminogenic strategy of incarcerating prisoners with the mis-placed hope of reducing crime. Smarter tactics are available, and path-breaking work is being conducted at the Institute of Criminology to recommend concrete steps governments across the continent can take to re-shape their criminal justice systems so that they are safer, more humane, cheaper, and ultimately result in much less crime.

Johann Koehler is a Research Assistant at the Institute of Criminology. He is currently working on a European Commission-funded project that seeks to develop and strengthen evidence-based practice in criminal justice systems throughout Europe.

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