Getting people who used to be in prison to act as mentors for those now being released cannot fix the devastating impact a short time behind bars has on people’s lives, the Howard League for Penal Reform said yesterday (20 November).

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has outlined plans for more people leaving custody after sentences of less than a year to be met at the prison gates by mentors providing advice on housing, employment and how to tackle drug and alcohol addictions.

The Howard League for Penal Reform has warned that, without mentors being given costly training, support and resources, the proposals will achieve little and could even make existing problems worse. The charity also has concerns about a proposal for the work to be carried out through Payment by Results.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “This proposal is the wrong answer to the wrong question. Rather than coming up with new attempts to grab headlines, the government should accept that most people these mentors would be trying to help ought not to be in prison at all.

“Short prison sentences help no one. Inmates sit idle in cells, in jails too overcrowded for them to benefit from rehabilitation schemes. During that time they may lose their job, their home, and their family and friends. This deeply flawed system costs the taxpayer a fortune and increases the likelihood that a perpetrator will reoffend, while providing no recompense or comfort to victims.

“People being released from prison need help with complex issues, ranging from housing and benefit entitlement to checking on their immigration status. At a time when budgets are being slashed, will mentors be given the training required? Mentors could be a good thing, but they will need a skilled professional service working behind them.

“We have serious concerns about the direction Mr Grayling is taking. The government is failing to deal with the real issues.”

Wandsworth Prison by Derek Harper

Wandsworth Prison by Derek Harper

Key concerns:

  • Under the Payment by Results system, service providers will only be paid in full if they can show they have brought down the reoffending rate in their area – but it is open to abuse because it will be possible to fix the figures. The bodies responsible for reporting that someone has committed a crime are the very people who will be paid if that crime is not reported. If a frontline member of staff hears that a former prisoner has committed a crime, they may come under pressure not to report it.
  • Large private firms who secure mentoring contracts may transfer risk to their subcontractors, the voluntary organisations that will be delivering the service.
  • Firms will be paid for cutting reoffending when it is possible that their input had little or no influence in a person’s decision to stop committing crime. Reasons for desistance can be small and simple. For example, a former prisoner may desist because they have a new partner, have a new job or have gone back to living with their parents.
  • Where will the money come from? The government recently announced that it was cutting an extra £450million from the prison budget over the next six years. Some of the work that is done by voluntary organisations is very good. Saving money by cutting the prison population would enable more good work to be carried out in the future.

Image by Derek Harper [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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