Editorial: Moral Panics, and Knee Jerk Reactions: Pitfalls to a Positive Approach to Resettlement and Reintegration

Published 17/12/2014
Type Editorial Comment
Author(s) Paul Senior
Corresponding Authors Paul Senior, Hallam Centre for Community Justice, Sheffield Hallam University

In May and June 2014 the escape of the offender known in the press as the “skull cracker” Wheatley, and other high-profile failures of the temporary release schemes produced an immediate backlash by government, imposing restrictions on the use of temporary release and questions, at the extreme end of the commentary, about the utility of this process at all. I arrived in New Zealand towards the end of October 2014 at a time when a notorious New Zealand prisoner called Philip Smith had been released on a temporary licence but had fled to Brazil via Chile and also precipitated an immediate suspension of the temporary release programme for all prisoners there.

Both examples illustrate perfectly the problems of maintaining a positive approach to resettlement and reintegration when such cases, no matter how exceptional, drive policy down a route which is counter-intuitive to good resettlement practice in the system. In western neoliberal democracies the anxiety about the ‘other’ always produces this kind of overreaction. It is important to try and resist taking precipitate action on such incidents and rather make decisions based on good practice not such exceptional cases.

In England and Wales the process of temporary release, by any measure, is successful. The latest figures available in the UK follow the year 2012 (MoJ, Statistical Notice, Releases on temporary licence, 2012). This shows that there were 485,000 instances of release involving a total of 11,400 individual prisoners and that less than 1%, a total of 428, were recorded as fails on the administrative systems. Of these only 26 recorded a failure due to an arrest for a suspected offence. Whatever else we can draw from the statistics it is difficult to argue this is a function which carries a high level of risk. Temporary release by its nature is a system with inherent risk but clearly it performs remarkably well and it is arguable that if there were no instances of failure then the bar would have been set too high, producing ‘false positives’ where individuals are denied temporary release because of the fear of failure but who would not have failed. Subsequent calls for the introduction of electronic monitoring for all temporary release prisoners seems both unnecessary and a costly solution to a minor problem.

Temporary release is part of the process of reintegration which is particularly important for prisoners serving long sentence jail terms. Having been in the prison system without exposure to the outside world it is vital if the public is to be protected and the individual assisted to successfully resist any temptations getting in the way of reintegration then a graduated system of release back into the community makes sense. If someone has served a prison sentence of five years and certainly for those serving sentences in excess of 15 years they will need time to adapt to the world as it is now. In addition if they are to manage the transition well then preparation for employment and for coping with the society they meet is vital as it will have changed beyond measure in their absence in prison.

Prisoners comply with temporary release because it is part of the process of preparation for their eventual release. Any sign that they might put at risk that process, which would result in either an extension of the prison sentence or a denial of further temporary release, which will mean that they will be ill-prepared when their release date comes, warns against such action. In many ways the actions of Wheatley in the UK and Smith in New Zealand should be seen to confirm that the boundaries of risk taking by the executive authorities have been reasonable. Certainly any temporary release that goes wrong should result in investigation so the practice can be improved. You have to ask how Smith could obtain a passport through legitimate means and not be picked up in the system. But it is doubtful that the expense of electronic monitoring can be justified for huge numbers that make this transition so successfully.

This of course is a rational, evidence-based solution not popular with our current government thinking. Whilst on the surface committed to reducing reoffending that commitment does not extend to a programme of work that would improve its chances of success. Instead the instinct to treat the ‘other’ as a folk devil and create a moral panic satisfies the political imperative to remain tough on crime. Occasionally the weaknesses in this approach are exposed as in the decision to overturn the ban on books for prisoners as a result of a high profile campaign by the Howard League. But the remorseless assault on prisoners’ dignity and self-worth from both the changes in the privileges system, resulting in more unrest and the reduction in education classes because of cuts in staffing numbers puts the prisons just short of the tipping point for unrest and riots. This is an unsafe and knee jerk response to systems which are seeking to reduce risk, and ease the chances for successful reintegration and we should stop and look at the evidence base. But I fear this government lingers only briefly at the logic of resettlement practices preferring to garner moral panic amongst its followers to justify harsher policies. I fear disaster in the prison system may not be far away.

The articles in this edition range over an interesting set of topics. Hopkins Burke in the first of two articles on the theme of communitarianism explores the possibilities of the development of a radical moral communitarianism. He sets this in the context of the failure of recent governments, notably New Labour, to achieve this agenda against the backcloth of neoliberal efforts to control problematic social groups. The paper proposes a radical moral communitarianism founded on notions of consensual interdependency with an appropriate negotiated balance between proper rights and responsibilities for all citizens.

Thomas and Thompson explore two new civil orders brought in by the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 to combat sexually harmful behaviour in the community. The new orders have lower evidential thresholds and they argue should be easier to obtain and involve less work for the police. They raise a number of difficulties in terms of human rights and the article examines the contested arena of balancing public protection with human rights.

Following the death of Jimmy Savile in 2011, a number of high profile British celebrities have been questioned about or arrested and charged with sexual offences. The Madoc Jones, Gorden, Dubberley and Hughes article explores whether the high profile and thematic framing of sex crimes will challenge how that form of crime, victim and offender is examined. The argument is made that a focus on the ‘extra-ordinary’ that celebrity sex offending encourages will deflect attention away from the family root of most sexual abuse.

De Angelis addresses the lack of women’s voices in the trafficking discourse. The research which supports this paper interviewed trafficked women about their experiences of being trafficked and also professionals about their work with victims. The use of women’s voices highlights the limitations of current policies and practices, emphasising a continuation of exploitation through restrictive policy and practices.

Heap explores substantial changes to anti-social behaviour (ASB) legislation driven by the Coalition Government focusing on the proposed impact of these changes by considering the turbulent development of their replacement: the Injunction. ASBO reforms are subsequently analysed with specific reference to the Transforming Rehabilitation agenda and the probation service. The familiar concerns of a lack of evidence-based policy; rushed changes, payment incentives and marketisation are revealed.

Wilson in her thought piece considers the legislative journey toward equality through an examination of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act 2013 giving lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people (LGBT) almost parity with heterosexuals before the law. It makes a challenging and interesting read.