Northern Ireland's criminal justice system needs 'a more targeted strategic approach' to significantly reduce levels of adult re-offending, according a new Audit Office report.
It found that 16% adult criminals went on to re-offend within one year.
It also found that 77% of offenders who were handed a sentence in Northern Ireland receive short-term prison sentences of 12 months or less. The likelihood of short-term prisoners re-offending was described as being around 52%.
While the report acknowledges the challenges the Department of Justice faces, notably budgetary pressures, it is calling for a 'better-defined strategic approach' which takes account of an approach that looks at the challenges associated with rehabilitating short-term and remand prisoners.
It suggested that viable alternatives to remand are in place in other jurisdictions, however none of them have been implemented in Northern Ireland.
It observed that short sentences limit the scope for rehabilitation services to be provided but they can still result in the loss of housing, employment and family contact which can often increase the likelihood of reoffending.
It went on to say that while the introduction of the Enhancement Combination Orders has been positive, the budget pressures prevent it from being more widely applied therefore reducing its overall effectiveness.
According to the report, Northern Ireland currently has the largest population of prisoners who are on remand at 37%, compared to 25% in Scotland and 17% in England and Wales. It found that because prisoners on remand had not been convicted of a crime, more effort was placed on their case defence rather than rehabilitation and resettlement prospects.
Northern Ireland's Comptroller and Auditor General, Dorinnia Carville said: "Many factors that can prevent re-offending, such as good physical and mental health, accommodation, education and employment, sit outside the scope of the justice system
"In addition, the Department of Justice and other key statutory stakeholders are facing major financial pressures.
"We note there is a strong commitment to tackling this issue, but increased cross government working is now required, along with a more clearly defined strategic direction that identifies the key actions, targets and expected outcomes required
"A number of initiatives have been brought forward in recent years which appear to have had a positive impact, but these have generally been stand-alone pilots limited to specific regions.
"More generally, a lack of robust outcome measurement has made it difficult to measure real progress and offer clarity on which initiatives are achieving the greatest impact."
She added: "Better data collection, analysis and benchmarking is required to inform future plans, and deliver cost-effective initiatives, particularly in targeting a remaining cohort of prolific offenders. Importantly, this should include steps to reduce the numbers and improve the rehabilitation of short-term and remand prisoners."
A Department of Justice spokesperson welcomed the report and said it "acknowledges the considerable work undertaken by justice partners to improve outcomes in this extremely challenging area".
The Prisons Service says it's committed to further reducing the rate of reoffending.
Ronnie Armour, director of reducing offending, said: "Some individuals coming into the prison system have many requirements and issues that need addressed.
"These include physical and mental health problems; difficulties with educational attainment; provision of safe, secure accommodation; and unemployment. If we are to truly tackle levels of reoffending we need a system-wide approach with a key focus on these factors.
"Over the last 10 years, there has been a downward trend in the number of adults released from custody or receiving non-custodial disposals, as well as a corresponding reduction in the number who reoffend. Of those who do reoffend, almost half do so within the first three months.
"Many reoffenders live chaotic lifestyles and whilst the prison service is committed to offering them the very best chance of a fresh start, we need to equip them with the ability to desist from their offending behaviour. We need to address the fundamental environmental factors that lead them to reoffend."
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