Wednesday, 12 June 2013

What does ‘rehabilitation’ actually mean to today’s politicians?

By Andrew Henley, PhD student and Graduate Teaching Assistant in Criminology

In the 1994 film The Shawshank Redemption an exchange between ‘Red’ played by Morgan Freeman and a member the panel at his umpteenth parole hearing perhaps sums up the political construction of ‘rehabilitation’ in criminal justice:

1967 Parole Hearings Man: Ellis Boyd Redding, your files say you've served 40 years of a life sentence. Do you feel you've been rehabilitated?
Red: Rehabilitated? Well, now let me see. You know, I don't have any idea what that means.
1967 Parole Hearings Man: Well, it means that you're ready to rejoin society...
Red: I know what you think it means, sonny. To me it's just a made up word. A politician's word, so young fellas like yourself can wear a suit and a tie, and have a job.

Recent developments at the Ministry of Justice really do seem to reveal that the meaning of ‘rehabilitation’ has become somewhat muddled and may indeed, as ‘Red’ puts it, have become nothing more than a ‘politician’s word’. 

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has recently announced that anybody released from prison will be subject to a minimum period of supervision of at least twelve months.  This minimum supervision period will apply to anyone serving a sentence of up to two years imprisonment.  Previously only those sentenced to more than a year in prison would have been subject to supervision by the probation service but the introduction of these supervision periods forms part of the Ministry of Justice’s 'Offender Rehabilitation Bill'.   This paves the way for a ‘rehabilitation revolution’ in which a range of private, charity and voluntary sector providers will take over responsibility for helping people to ‘go straight’.  Under the proposals in the bill:

256AA (4) “The supervision period” is the period which—
(a) begins on the expiry of the sentence, and
(b) ends on the expiry of the period of 12 months beginning immediately after the offender has served the requisite custodial period (as defined in section 244(3)) [of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 - basically release from prison at the halfway point of a determinate sentence].
(5) The purpose of the supervision period is the rehabilitation of the offender.

So – according to the MOJ - 'offenders' will supposedly be 'rehabilitated' during this 12 month period.  But, and here’s the rub, one wonders exactly that will mean for a person who has been subjected to this supervision but who still has to disclose the fact that they have a criminal record once they have left the clutches of the criminal justice system.  Under the provisions of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 (section 1):

after the end of the rehabilitation period...that individual shall for the purposes of this Act be treated as a rehabilitated person…and [their] conviction shall for those purposes be treated as spent.

The ROA 1974 was intended to protect people with previous convictions from discrimination after a period of time free from any further offending.  It aims to protect former lawbreakers from having to disclose their old convictions when applying for employment (although many occupations are exempt), insurance and other financial services.  The ‘rehabilitation periods’ were amended for the first time by the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012 and come in the form of a 'buffer period' which follows the sentence expiry date.  These amendments, due for implementation in November this year, will mean that many reformed people with old convictions should no longer have to disclose their criminal past in most circumstances.  The good work of UNLOCK, Lord Dholakia and others in campaigning on this issue is to be commended.

But my question is this: what is the government's position on the legal and civic status of a person after the new 'supervision period' ends (remember ‘the purpose of the supervision period is the rehabilitation of the offender’) and before they are considered a 'rehabilitated person' under the revised provisions of the ROA 1974?  Examine the table below (in particular the last column):

Sources: Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974; Criminal Justice Act 2003; Legal Aid Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012; Offender Rehabilitation Bill 2013

I have calculated that the absolute minimum gap between a person finishing their 'supervision period' and being considered legally 'rehabilitated' is at least 12.5 months up to maximum of four years (48 months) with regards to someone sentenced to two years imprisonment.  If, as the government are claiming, people will be 'rehabilitated' during the new 'supervision period' - what exactly is the purpose of this gap?  It seems to me to represent a period of ‘civic purgatory’ in which the criminal justice system may have dispensed with a person, but they are not regarded as a full citizen despite having served the sentence handed down by the judiciary.  This leaves them open to potential discrimination when searching for employment – know to be one of the most important factors in successful desistance from crime.

We should also remember that despite the amendments to the ROA 1974, no-one sentenced to more than four years imprisonment can ever be legally considered a ‘rehabilitated person’ under the Act, regardless of their good deeds or conduct.  So if the government is serious about its ‘rehabilitation revolution’, it may have to have a serious re-think about what rehabilitation actually means for those who are subjected to it.  As Professor Pat Carlen remarked last year, a key question concerning 'rehabilitation' remains - 'who exactly is being rehabilitated to what?'