Gareth Malone’s The Choir, staged this season with some of Britain’s most persistent young offenders, has got the nation talking about prison. It’s a debate that treads predictable lines. But the commonality of conviction rarely enters the fray.
It’s an extraordinary yet little known statistic about life in Britain today: if you are a man in the UK, you have a one in three chance of being convicted of a criminal offence by your early fifties. There is a 85% chance that this conviction will occur before your thirtieth birthday. You will also be prey to a damning paradox: if you are ‘short-sentenced’ prisoner – whose crime earns you less than a year behind bars – it’s more than likely this is the start of a lifetime in and out of prison. There’s a 60% chance you will reoffend within the year of release. And once you reoffend, on average, you’ll go on to reoffend five more times within the year.
Overall, 11 million people in the UK currently live with a criminal conviction. For those with safety nets – home, family, funds – the lifetime impact for this staggeringly large group can be minor. Convictions disappear after a ‘spent’ amount of time, a blip in an otherwise steady path. For the vast majority without, whose crimes are also a symptom of complex vulnerabilities – poverty, addiction, poor mental health, domestic violence, poor education – it’s likely to be catastrophic. Sent back into the world with £46, minimal support and worse prospects, it’s no surprise that prison is a revolving door, not the road to redemption. Recidivism currently costs the UK £18bn – a healthy chunk of the total cost of serious and organised crime.
Those who avoid re-offending find options are bleak. ‘Unspent’ convictions, or those longer than 4 years, remain a permanent, visible stain on any professional application. There are currently around 735,000 ‘unspent’ convictions disrupting lives and prospects; accounting for one third of all jobseekers’ allowance claims and a quarter of all out of work benefits.
We’re well versed with the personal and societal costs of crime. We debate the morality of punishment, the purpose of prison, the efficacy of rehabilitation. We speak very rarely about the corrosive impact of 11 million Britons with temporarily disrupted or permanently limited opportunities to earn and contribute to our communities and economy, at a moment when UK inequality is soaring, social safety nets are floundering and businesses are suffering an acute skills crisis in the face of shrinking numbers of young people and a lack of high quality specialised training. (Chefs were the most in-demand role of 2018. The hospitality industry was in overall most desperate need, with construction and health and social work not far behind).
Tackling this issue needs a multi-layered approach. It’s not enough to deliver skills without opportunity, or opportunity without mental resilience, or resilience without a place to call home. But one thing is plain. To crack recidivism is to crack a whole host of social ills. And the Impact investment community has a huge role to play.
Peterborough’s Social Impact Bond was the world’s first bond specifically focused on reducing reoffending in short-sentenced prisoners. Social Finance raised £5m from trusts and foundations to launch the One Service: an umbrella organisation designed to respond to complex needs and break the cycle of reoffending. It bought together training, health support services, mentoring, housing and businesses to support 2000 individuals for the year after their release. It reduced re-offending by 9% (exceeding its 7.5% target), and the investors recouped their initial capital plus 3% return.
Whatever your politics of punishment, criminal rehabilitation is a win-win for society. Social impact bonds, and the wider family of impact investment tools, offer a truly innovative way to break the cycle and create mutual value.