It is my belief that the British penal system is broken. In many respects, we, the people, broke it, because we can’t decide what it’s for. Are prisons there to punish? To protect? To rehabilitate? Or to deter? The answer should be all four – but in equal measure.
There are over 80,000 people in custody in the UK right now. We want them to come out to lead law-abiding, productive lives but we are not prepared to give them the tools or the opportunities to take that second chance and make it work.
Of course we should punish people who break the law – how else do we hold society together and keep people safe? But there has to be a balance between retribution and rehabilitation. We have been tough on crime, but not on the causes of crime.
Most prisoners cannot read, let alone write. If you can’t write a CV, fill in a form, write a simple letter, even read a court summons when you’re in trouble, you can’t function as a law-abiding member of society.
Two simple reforms would transform the life opportunities of ex-offenders overnight.
Firstly, no prisoner should leave prison until they can read and write to GCSE grade C. Prison is an opportunity to fix things that went wrong earlier in life, so they don’t blot the rest of our lives. That would mean some people staying in prison longer and some getting out halfway through their sentence, as almost everyone does now without doing anything to earn it.
Secondly, ex-offenders should be given the chance to re-earn their good name. For me, the big thing wasn’t the prison time. It was the stain on my character. I now have a criminal record. And like anyone who has been sentenced just once to four years or more, I’ll have to disclose that to anyone who asks for the rest of my life, while someone who has been in and out of prison on a dozen short sentences for burglary or bag snatching will get to wipe the slate clean even though they are the repeat offender.
If we truly want to give people a second chance to be productive members of society, all criminal records, except for murder, violence and sex crimes should be wiped clean five or ten years after the individual’s release. It doesn’t get rid of police records, Google or peoples’ memories. But I can’t think of a better incentive to never commit a crime again.