Public support for alternatives to prison
Posted on 19, August 2010
According to the results of an online YouGov poll, released today by Together, six out of ten (64%) of people in Great Britain believe that people with mental health issues, (who pose no threat to the public, but have committed a crime for which they could receive a short-term prison sentence of less than 12 months) should be punished outside of prison whilst at the same time receiving help with their mental health problems.
Together, which works with hundreds of offenders with mental health problems every month through its court liaison and diversion schemes, is calling upon the Government to ensure that public spending cuts don’t affect community services, so that offenders diverted away from prison sentences are properly supported to break their cycle of offending.
The Together research follows figures released earlier this year that of the 60,000 adults who receive short-term prison sentences of less than 12 months annually, around 60% in England and Wales will re-offend within one year of release. A problem highlighted in July by Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, whilst announcing the Government’s current sentencing review.
One in six British adults (17%) experience at least one diagnosable mental health problem at any given time. Shockingly, within the total prison population, more than 70% suffer from two or more mental health disorders.
In Together’s poll, the vast majority of those questioned were unaware of the scale of the problem, with just 4% of respondents estimating correctly that mental health problems are common in more than 70% of the prison population.
Breaking the cycle
Together commissioned the research to demonstrate that when it comes to offenders with mental health issues, there is public support for alternatives to short-term prison sentences that address those problems; an approach that Together believes can prevent re-offending among the most vulnerable people in contact with the criminal justice system.
Liz Felton, CEO of Together, says: ““It’s very encouraging to see that the majority of people we asked supported steering people with mental health problems away from prison. Together has been working with offenders in the community for more than 17 years, and has witnessed first-hand what can be achieved. It’s a viable, cost-effective and humane alternative that turns people’s lives around, and benefits both the offender and society as a whole.
“However, we need to see a commitment from the Government to ensure that liaison and diversion schemes are properly resourced and widely available across the UK. Crucially, there also needs to be significant continued investment in community services, as this is key to providing credible alternatives to prison.”
Making alternatives work
Together runs a number of diversion services in London, each staffed by experienced and qualified mental health practitioners, including five who work within magistrates’ courts in the city.
At court, each practitioner works to identify defendants who have mental health problems. After assessing them, they write a short report for the magistrates or District Judge, so they have all the available information they need about a person’s mental health when sentencing. Where appropriate and safe to do so, the report might recommend diversion away from prison and advise a community sentence, which will include a comprehensive plan to address the offender’s mental health and social care needs.
The same Together team also work with Offender Managers in 12 London boroughs to support offenders with mental health problems to comply with community sentences. Together’s unique model was cited as an example of good practice in a landmark report last year.
Ben from London, who received counselling support from Together after being diverted away from prison says: “Being supported to confront my mental health problems instead of going to prison changed my life. I dread to think what might have happened if I had got custody.
“Some of the people I’ve been around in my life deserve to be in prison for the things they’ve done – no doubt about it. But there are also loads who are committing petty crimes and prison is achieving nothing – either in acting as a deterrent, a punishment or in tackling the reasons why they commit crime in the first place.”
Ross Baker, who worked as a Prison Custody Officer and transported prisoners to and from police stations and prisons to magistrates’ courts all over London says: “It was a sad state of affairs. I’d say that most of the people I picked up had mental health issues and I often had to restrain people from self-harming and injuring themselves.
“I’d see a lot of the same people over and over again. I remember one guy that was clearly mentally ill who was being held on remand for stealing a packet of sweets. Completely ridiculous. There must be a better solution.”
For more information or interview requests please email Claire Monger or call her on 0207 780 7366 / 0789 419 4010.
Notes to Editors
All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 2111 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 23rd -26th July 2010. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).
Together is a mental health charity and service provider. We work with around 4,000 adults a month who have complex and recurring mental health issues, in more than 100 different locations. The Forensic Mental Health Practitioner (FMHP) service is just one of the services we provide. We also run a wide range of services for non-offenders who have mental health problems.