Knocking offenders into shape won’t reduce reoffending rates, says Paul Cavadino.

There is nothing wrong with hard physical exercise or with military-style drills, parades and inspections. But nor is there any evidence that they make young offenders less likely to reoffend. On their own, they are just as likely to produce fitter delinquents who can run faster away from the scene of their crimes.

Experience has brought home this lesson time and time again. In the Eighties, amid enormous publicity, tough “short sharp shock” regimes were tried out at four detention centres. Education, vocational training and work opportunities were reduced and replaced with more physical education and drill.

They were thoroughly evaluated by Home Office researchers who concluded that the tougher regimes had no discernible effect on the reconviction rates of young people released from the centres. The experiment was one of the most clear-cut failures of modern penal policy.

Similar lessons have emerged from the United States’ “boot camps”. The National Institute of Justice recently sponsored research into boot camps in eight states which discovered that their reoffending rates were no better than those for similar offenders leaving other prisons or put on probation. The camps with the highest levels of reconviction — far higher than for any other form of sentence — were those in Georgia, which were entirely militaristic with no provision for education, drug treatment or counselling.

States such as New York whose camps devoted most time to rehabilitation programmes had lower reoffending figures than those where the regimes were undiluted militarism. The researchers concluded that the core components of boot camps (military atmosphere, drill, hard labour, physical training) did not reduce offending, but that education, counselling and help with drug problems did.

In short, international experience tells us two things. First, making inmates march up and down parade grounds and move from one physical task to another at the double does nothing to steer them away from crime. Secondly, the approach with the best prospect of cutting reoffending involves high-quality programmes of education, training, drug treatment and focused work to change attitudes to crime and tackle offending behaviour.

This week our admirable Chief Inspector of Prisons, Sir David Ramsbotham, reported in glowing terms on the high-intensity training regime at Thorn Cross Young Offenders Centre. The previous government introduced this regime to the accompaniment of punitive rhetoric and references to “boot camps”. It includes tough physical training, drills, parades and inspections. But by far the largest part of prisoners’ time is spent in education, vocational training, community work, preparation for employment, mentoring and work to change offending behaviour. The result is a thoroughly constructive regime. As Sir David’s report says: “Any suggestion that Thorn Cross resembles media hype about ‘boot camps’ is very wide of the actual mark.”

Reconviction results for the Thorn Cross regime are not yet available. If these show success, this will be due to the positive rehabilitation programmes that constitute the biggest part of the regime rather than to the headline-hitting small element of physically tough activities. The lesson is not that physical toughness is the answer to youth crime but that positive regimes produce positive results.

Paul Cavadino is director of policy at the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders (Nacro).

©1999 Newspaper Publishing P.L.C.


The Daily Telegraph, London, 22 January 1999

School that believes in beating to close

By Sally Pook

AN independent primary school is to close rather than be denied the right to use corporal punishment on its pupils.

Governors of The Cedar School, in east London, which uses the slipper and smacks on the hand with parental approval, voted for closure last month after campaigning against new legislation that would ban the use of corporal punishment in independent schools from this September.

The school, which has 30 pupils who pay about £800 a term, is proud of its disciplinary record. It believes it will not be able to maintain its high standards if it cannot use corporal punishment and is expected to close in July.