Stop the revolving door: Howard League call on new government to end overuse of prison recalls

Photograph: Andrew Aitchison/ Prison Image (Wandsworth prison)

As voters take to the polling booths today, the Howard League for Penal Reform announced plans to call on the newly mandated government to stop the widespread practice of recalling people to prison which, according to the charity, has ‘spiraled out of control’ in the last two years.

The total number of recalls for all types of sentences has grown sevenfold in 15 years. In the year 2000-01, there were 3,182 recalls to custody. By 2003-04, this number had risen to 11,268. It then rose steadily to 17,701 in 2014-15.

However, the recent ‘exorbitant’ rise in recalled prisoners follows the introduction of the Transforming Rehabilitation programme by the Ministry of Justice in 2015, with overall recalls leaping to a record high of 22,412 the first year after it was introduced. The programme aimed to reduce reoffending and provide help and support in the post-prison period by reforming probation services, including partially privatising them.

Under Transforming Rehabilitation, post-custodial supervision for a period of 12 months was extended to include offenders who had been sentenced to less than a year in prison, constituting an estimated extra 45,000 offenders at the time.

Whilst the programme wanted to curtail the extremely high reoffending rate for these short-sentence prisoners, which is currently at 60%, it has instead created what the Public Accounts Committee described as a ‘revolving door’ effect – as offenders are released only to be recalled back into custody in under a year. This is compounded by the fact that the majority of reoffenders sent back to prison are caught out on technical breaches of their probationary conditions or ‘licence’ – such as failing to attend appointments with probation officers, failing to reside at a certain address, or consuming drugs and/or alcohol.

Since the changes came into force in February 2015, there have been 12,806 recalls of people who have served prison sentences of less than 12 months. In March of this year, the Ministry of Justice reported in its statistical release that there were, as of 31 March 2017, 6,554 people in prison due to recall.

This rapid cycle of serving a sentence, being released and then recalled back to prison can have a detrimental impact on an offender’s rehabilitation, disrupting lives, relationships and putting homes and jobs at risk. Many are recalled for two to four weeks imposing a massive burden on an overstretched prison service.

The Howard League has also represented many children recalled for breaches of licence – usually for relatively minor infringements. These include a seven-month sentence for spending one night away from home, an 11-month sentence for missing two appointments with his probation worker and for spending a night away from home, and another seven-month sentence for getting into a taxi and having a second SIM card without the prior approval of his probation worker. The young man sentenced to 11 months spent a night away from home because of an argument with his mother, and missed an appointment with his probation worker because his bike broke down. However, the sentences do not seem to reflect the situations, leading the Howard League to label recall as ‘the most bureaucratic form of imprisonment’.

Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: ‘On the day when the nation decides, the Howard League is preparing to present a plan of action to the new government to help solve the prison crisis. At the top of the list will be an absolute necessity to deal with the out-of-control system of recalls.’

The Howard League recommends that the Secretary of State for Justice should retain a residual power to recall a person to custody, to be used only in exceptional circumstances. The charity further argues that the reasons for recall do not warrant custodial punishment, especially as these behaviours would not warrant any intervention from the police or probation services if not for the supervision. They propose that these cases could be better dealt with in the community and are often linked to services failing to support people properly on release.

Profile photo of Eleanor Sheerin About Eleanor Sheerin
Eleanor is an aspiring barrister and currently a legal intern with Global Rights Compliance, an organisation committed to enhancing compliance with international human rights standards

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