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Can Apprenticeships Reduce Recidivism?

Amid growing concerns about worker shortages and increasing pressures on the prison system, getting more offenders into long-term, stable employment has been an item of the United Kingdom’s government agenda for many years. Despite there being no need for primary legislation to implement employment schemes for prisoners, provisions and funding cuts within the Prisons Act have created a “spaghetti of new policies”, which has made it particularly difficult to make any legislative changes.


In February 2022, to honour National Apprenticeship Week, the Ministry of Justice has announced amendments to the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, allowing prisoners to start apprenticeships whilst serving their sentence. The scheme is hoped to help cut crime and reoffending by guaranteeing employment upon release. Secretary of State for Education Nadhim Zahawi says that the new plan will:


“offer prisoners a life changing chance to gain the skills they need to secure a rewarding career, while providing more businesses with the skilled workforce they need to grow”.


Opening up apprenticeships to prisoners is a positive step towards reducing reoffending and cutting crime. A government report announcing the new scheme explains that, whilst the prison population is unable to take advantage of apprenticeships, ‘prisoners are already able to study, train and work while in jail and a further 5,000 prisoners take part in vital work in the community through release on temporary license, where they learn important skills and help shore up local labour shortages’.


However, with adult recidivism rates varying between 31.8 percent for those released from custody, and 57.5 percent for those released from custodial sentences of less than 12 months, the criminal justice system in its present state does not equip prisoners with the skills for employment after release. In fact, despite existing training opportunities, the odds of finding a job are stacked against prison leavers: the proportion of offenders in employment one year after release is just 17 percent. This is a particularly alarming statistic when reviewed alongside evidence showing that prison leavers at work are significantly less likely to re-offend.


In cutting the £18 billion cost of recidivism, the apprenticeship scheme could have significant implications for the UK’s legal system, which, particularly against a pandemic backdrop, is overcrowded and backlogged. According to the Ministry of Justice's figures, prisons in England and Wales have a maximum combined capacity of 76,332 people. The current prison population exceeds that number by 3,412 and looks to grow, with figures predicting a prison population of 98,500 by March 2026. In addition, Her Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) reported a backlog of 53,000 cases, figures compounded by the profound implications of Covid-19 on the criminal justice system, much of which has faced significant budget reductions. Funding for HMCTS had fallen significantly, with 2019/20 funding 21 percent lower than in 2010/11. With these figures in mind, cutting reoffending rates could provide much-needed relief for the saturated criminal justice system in the UK.


As it stands, prison training must be brought in touch with broader community needs. David Gauke MP notes that “there are too many low-level qualifications being delivered that reap little or no reward for prisoners and are of little relevance for employers”. One can hope that a work-based qualification will bridge the gap between skills acquired and required. Still, failure to integrate apprenticeships into broader societal demand could prove problematic for the scheme’s success and the reduction of reoffending.


We know three elements are required to cut reoffending: education, housing and employment. Media reports suggest that ‘the scheme will initially be offered to up to a hundred prisoners across England before being rolled out across the wider prison estate’, a positive step in reducing prisoner reoffending through education and employment. Amendments to the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill, the government say, will allow prisoners at open prisons across England ‘to apply for apprenticeship opportunities in vital industries, including hospitality and construction , providing direct routes into jobs with businesses in the community’.


But financial questions remain. How much will individuals in the scheme be paid? Apprenticeship wages are infamously low, with a 21-year-old in the first year of an apprenticeship being entitled to a minimum hourly rate of just £4.30. How does this translate into reducing homelessness and its increased likelihood to re-offend? Are these wages sufficient to allow ex-prisoners to provide for themselves?


In October, the Ministry of Justice announced the most significant funding increase for a decade for the criminal justice system, which will see an extra £550 million invested over the next three years. Replenishing funding cuts and investing heavily in prison education is the bedrock of improving many aspects of the UK criminal justice system. It supports efforts to rehabilitate offenders, protect the public and get ex-prisoners into work while keeping them off the streets.


The issue of reoffending highlights the interconnectedness between the problems of criminality and economic reform in the UK. New investment in the criminal justice system and apprenticeship schemes could significantly impact law and society more broadly, lowering crime rates, reducing pressure on courts and prisons, and strengthening the workforce. Yet, in a time whereby Britain’s cost of living crisis continues to worsen, can the promise of work amid the economic decline steer prisoners away from reoffending?


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