Recidivism rates are often used to evidence the failures of the penal system, and the criminal justice system at large; however the lack of attention given to the methods of rehabilitation which may prevent repeat offending places the argument in jeopardy.
I accept that the Probation Service is very much a part of the criminal justice system, and therefore can be argued to have a fair amount of blame rightly apportioned to it. It is also the case that the Probation Service and all institutions which are involved in the mechanisms of rehabilitation are operating in prevailing social and political climates which dictate that a lack of draconian penalties is the reason for recidivism.
There is a reluctance to accept any action which may be of benefit to a criminal, preference being given instead to deterrence through harsh penalties and conditions. Although all people exercise free will, to a greater or lesser extent, and must be held accountable and responsible for their decisions and actions, the notion that the infliction of suffering can in itself prevent future criminal behaviour is in its construction too simplistic, and does not give appropriate regard to the societal factors which, in many instances, contribute to the offending behaviour.
There are a few relatively uncontentious factors which I would argue reduce the likelihood of offending behaviour in the first instance, and thereafter the chance of recidivism: a supportive and stable family environment; education; and employment. This is not an exhaustive list, nor is it meant to operate as a ‘catch-all’ to resolve every type of crime, notable exceptions include white collar crime, and more serious crimes in general require something above and beyond an unstable family and a lack of employment; as such I refer back to my previous point about free will and personal responsibility.
If however, one was to look at addressing circumstances which may have contributed to instances of criminality it is not an unreasonable place to start. There is in general little that the criminal justice system can do directly to create a stable family environment, but what it can do is offer opportunities for education whilst inside prison and upon release, and it can ensure that the opportunity to gain employment is not made unreasonable difficult for those one time low level offenders.
I would argue that the ability to support oneself through legitimate means is of true significance in preventing prolific, and repeat low level offending.
It is therefore welcome news that as of the 10th March 2015, the Data Protection Act 1998 has been amended through section 56, which now prohibits a person from requiring someone else to produce certain records as a condition of employment, or for providing a service, except where the relevant record is required by law or where it is justified in the public interest.
This is of great importance because under current law, a person convicted of an offence, who as a result, has spent four years or less in prison, and has not offended subsequently, does not need to disclose their conviction to a prospective employer.
However, some employers are circumventing this safeguard by making candidates make and submit a personal request under the Data Protection Act, which enables them to request data held about them by another person or organisation, which then reveals their conviction to the employer.
This practice of trying to circumvent the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act by asking an applicant to carry out a data search may now result in a fine of up to £5,000 in a Magistrates Court or an unlimited financial penalty in a Crown Court.
The Justice Minister, Simon Hughes, said:
“It is vital that people with a conviction should be given every opportunity to reintegrate into society after serving their sentence and putting their offending behaviour behind them. For too long some people who may have had a minor conviction many years before face an unfair struggle to get a job and rebuild their lives.”
“Finding a job can be a crucial step in the rehabilitation process. This change will help make sure ex-offenders are given a level playing field when they apply for work.”
It is necessary for dangerous offenders to disclose their convictions, particularly for jobs which involve work with vulnerable people. That is a utilitarian argument in favour of the protection of the public from those who have proven themselves a danger; to prevent them from exercising positions from which they could execute further harm; and it is quite right to do so.
The same does not apply to lower level offending prior to a second offence being committed. If those offenders are expected to rebuild their lives, and in fact be rehabilitated, then impediments such as this must be removed or there can be few complaints if recidivism rates remain high. I applaud the change to the law, in the spirit of personal responsibility it must offer the opportunity for a person to change.