Army of mentors 'could slash reoffending rates'

Published on Wednesday, 23 April 2014 11:00
Written by Govtoday staff

Ambitious plans to slash the £11bn-a-year cost of reoffending by recruiting an army of mentors to work with ex-prisoners have been outlined in a major new report from a leading thinktank.

The report from the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) says mentoring should be crucial to the government's Transforming Rehabilitation strategy, which will see 21 new community rehabilitation companies (CRCs) set up to support low and medium risk offenders.

It has been written by CSJ fellow Jonathan Aitken, the former Conservative MP and cabinet minister who served seven months in HMP Belmarsh in 1999/2000 and who has since successfully mentored a dozen offenders.

The Ministry of Justice estimates that some 53,000 low and medium risk ex-prisoners will be looked after by the new CRCs. Based on evidence from mentoring organisations, Aitken estimates that 15,000 professional and voluntary mentors could be recruited over the next five years to help them and tackle reoffending.

This would be paid for out of the £450m annual budget that the government has allocated for its Transforming Rehabilitation strategy. The report says that such a workforce is necessary to cut high rates of reoffending - currently 58% of prisoners sentenced to less than 12 months in jail reoffend within a year of release.

It says mentoring should begin before prisoners are released from jail and continue beyond the prison gates. Aitken writes that a mentoring relationship is "intensely personal" and that flexibility will be essential. "Mentoring is not a box-ticking exercise. It is a human engagement of trust, encouragement, guidance and hope," he says.

"We know that the mentoring of offenders is challenging. We know it works in an impressive swathe of individual cases, small though the present numbers are. The fact that these cases have never properly been counted, measured or expanded on a wider scale is a fault line in the present criminal justice system. The Transforming Rehabilitation strategy is a courageous attempt to correct such past faults.

"Its emphasis on the wide-scale mentoring of offenders creates a new game-changer that can massively increase the chances of making the strategy succeed."

The report reveals that mentoring has fallen out of favour over the last 50 years. At one time it was an integral part of the work of the Probation Service, though known then as "befriending" and "caring" and frequently delivered by volunteers. But such people were "pushed aside by jobsworths, whose bureaucratic expansionism made them determined to suppress the work done with offenders by anyone not on the official payroll," Aitken adds.

The report reveals that there is a surplus of potential mentors willing to volunteer. Their recruitment is being held back by the low number of referrals coming from the prison and probation services.

In recent years, mentoring has come back into fashion on a small and informal scale. A large proportion of the work is being done by just 40-50 charities, mostly paid for by non-government sources. Currently there are only around 3,000 mentors in England and Wales, of whom roughly 90 per cent are part-time volunteers.

Christian Guy, director of the CSJ, said: "Our reoffending rates in England and Wales are shameful: more than half of prisoners sentenced to less than 12 months reoffend within a year of release. We pay a heavy social and economic price for this failure.

"All political parties should become more ambitious in helping offenders turn their lives around. This isn't about pandering to those who have done wrong – it is about dealing with the root causes of crime to protect us all."

The report profiles a number of small charities with impressive results in reducing reoffending rates. These include:

  • Pecan Moving On, which works with women offenders at several London prisons, has a reoffending rate of only 16%.
  • The Clink Charity, which trains offenders to work in prison restaurants, has a reoffending rate of 6%.
  • Blue Sky, which has a reoffending rate of 15%, employs 800 released prisoners on labouring jobs with local councils.

Source: Centre for Social Justice

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