Breaking bad habits

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 April, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 April, 2000, 12:00am

IT is disturbing to learn that half of prisoners are likely to commit another crime and end up back in jail within three years of serving a jail sentence. This is a preliminary finding from a large-scale study of recidivism among Hong Kong criminals, which we report on Page 3 today.

The rate seems worryingly high. If one out of every two prisoners is sent to jail again within three years of having walked out the front gate, questions must be asked about the rehabilitation methods used both within prisons and after sentences have been served.

The Correctional Services Department is a professionally run organisation that helps the SAR claim its place among the ranks of advanced societies that seek to rehabilitate offenders. It does not just lock up prisoners, feed them and then unlock their cells at the end of the sentence. Inmates have a chance to work (although most jobs do seem routine and mundane); some choose to improve themselves through study and there are programmes to help develop job-seeking skills. Nevertheless, a group of inmates did complain last year that the prisons system was purely punitive and failed to encourage them to reform.

Criminologists say more analysis is needed before any meaningful comparison of the rate for repeat offenders can be drawn with other modern societies. Even if a comparable rate of recidivism is recorded overseas, it will not be enough for officials just to shrug their shoulders and accept that it might be in the nature of criminals to re-offend. Whatever the outcome, a further investigation of the effectiveness of rehabilitation programmes would be welcome.

It does seem the Government could do more to ease the transition of convicts back into society once they have served their time. For example, there have been suggestions that the lack of temporary accommodation for recently released prisoners forces them on to the streets where they are more easily tempted back into bad habits.

What is heartening, though, is that prison authorities are interested enough in improving the effectiveness of rehabilitation programmes to commission the study. The way a society treats its convicted criminals is a measure of the value it attaches to human rights.

This is not a matter of failing to properly punish offenders or of being too soft: it is a question of contributing to the health of society and reducing the social burden of coping with repeat offenders.