Wednesday, 19 April 2017

What's on the criminal justice cards from a new May government?

More shocking revelations on prisons, this time from the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture who visited a range of detention facilities last year-Pentonville and Doncaster prisons and Cookham Wood YOI (as well as police stations, immigration detention centres and closed psychiatric hospitals).  The report catalogues the depressing if familiar reality of prison conditions, finding none of the three establishments safe for prisoners or staff. The CPT found that locking children alone in their cell for all but half an hour a day amounts to inhuman and degrading treatment. And they were concerned that incidents of violence was under recorded, particularly at SERCO run Doncaster.

It’s possible that the report will be the last of its kind. If Mrs May fulfils her wish to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, a new Conservative government will find itself with a BREXIT 2 to negotiate. The Council of Europe may be the smallest of beer compared to the EU but it’s the continent’s leading human rights organisation. We may find ourselves sharing observer status with Belarus. But at least we won’t have to worry about letting prisoners vote.

What else might we see from a new Conservative government on the justice and prison front? There’s quite a bit from the 2015 manifesto that hasn’t been achieved. The promise of new technology is as yet undelivered, whether to monitor offenders in the community, to bring persistent offenders to justice more quickly or allow women with small children to serve sentences in the community. Perhaps thankfully there is no sign of the new semi-custodial sentence for prolific criminals, allowing for a short, sharp spell in custody to change behaviour; nor of extensions to the scope of the unduly lenient sentence scheme. Will we see these commitments reappear in this year’s manifesto or will they be quietly shelved? What will happen to plans for increasing penalties for driving offences which result in fatalities?

At least one commentator thinks that the 2015 manifesto is the enemy Mrs May wishes to slay. If he is right, there is no guarantee that the prison reform measures contained in the Prison and Courts Bill will necessarily reappear. For those with long memories, the post 1992 Major Government rapidly undid the liberal justice reforms it inherited. The counterpoint of recent headlines about prisons no longer being places for punishment and violent crime surges could easily prompt  a harder approach on criminal justice in the new manifesto. Despite the flowing oratory of Michael Gove and process re-engineering of Liz Truss, the ghost of Michael Howard has never been far from the feast. While Mrs May is difficult to pigeonhole, I've always doubted whether  her appetite for rehabilitation and redemption will have been sharpened by six years in the Home office- famously described by Peter Hennessy as the graveyard of liberal thinking since the days of Lord Sidmouth. 


The CPT emphasised that unless determined action is taken to significantly reduce the current prison population, the regime improvements envisaged by the authorities’ reform agenda will remain unattainable. I wouldn’t put money on that. The best we can hope for is perhaps a steady state. Although if I were a betting man, I’d put a flutter on the dismantling of the Ministry of Justice.  It’s quite conceivable that prisons and probation will return to the Home Office. The Tories have always thought of the MoJ as a European construct ill- suited to our traditions. Prepare to welcome back the Lord Chancellor’s Department.   

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

I Told You So

American novelist Gore Vidal described ‘I told you so’ as ‘the four most beautiful words in our common language’. But for those of us who predicted it, there has been little pleasure in seeing the debacle of probation privatisation laid bare in front of the Justice Committee during its short inquiry into Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) that wound up this morning.  It’s a shame the Committee has not done a fuller investigation. As with the MoJ Probation review, no written evidence has been invited. Perhaps both Ministry and Committee knew the horror story they would get-and the fact that the plot had all been told in advance.

So badly botched are either the contracting or management arrangements that the private community rehabilitation companies complain simultaneously that they have too few cases and that caseloads are unmanageably high. One CRC director gave ‘a wrong kind of snow’ type explanation for this but it’s hard to have much sympathy- unless that is, the private sector was actively misled by the MoJ – (a serious allegation made today which should be investigated).  After all, one of the alleged benefits of privatisation is that it can transfer risks (such as changes in demand for services) from the government to the private sector.

But less than two years into the seven year TR programme, the contracts are having to be reviewed and presumably money found to bail out the multinational corporations that run most of the CRCs. Did anyone seriously believe that with the same overall budget, the new Probation and CRC set up could be expected to supervise and rehabilitate 25 per cent more offenders than the Probation Trusts they replaced? The result is that the through the gate supervision of short term prisoners post release – the supposed jewel in the crown of TR-  according to one witness amounts to “£46  and a leaflet” , compared to just £46 previously.

Despite that reality, a witness told the Committee today that courts are imposing more short term prison sentences than pre-TR, thinking offenders will now get punishment plus help. The Chairman of the Magistrates Association said last week that if sentencers do not have confidence in the robustness of the alternatives to custody, they may conclude that there is no alternative to custody. These adverse risks for prison numbers were well rehearsed but ignored during TR’s rushed implementation. Just as worrying was today’s evidence that CRCs are not getting breach paperwork to court in time.

One ray of light in an otherwise gloomy landscape looks to be in the North East where the Durham and Tees Valley CRC seems to be avoiding most of the pitfalls. It’s no coincidence perhaps that it’s a single not for profit organisation run by a consortium of local organisations where staff have designed the operating model. Unlike elsewhere morale is good. But looked at in the round it’s hard to see how the Justice Committee can find TR so far anything but a major failure of public administration.



What is to be done? The reality is that with some crutches from the MoJ review, the arrangements are likely to limp on until 2021 but unless there’s a drastic improvement, something different will be needed then if not before. In London, the Mayor’s Office wants to join the oversight arrangements of the CRC “with the intention of devolving the full contract and commissioning responsibilities  once the current contract ends”. If performance in the capital does not improve, maybe that should happen sooner. A more genuinely local approach rooted in Justice Reinvestment is surely the next chapter for probation after this tale of woe.  

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Prison : Tide Going out or Calm before the Storm ?


Two reports out this week might give cause for guarded optimism about the use of imprisonment throughout the world. The Council of Europe reported that the number of people held in European prisons decreased by almost 7% from 2014 to 2015, finding reductions all over the continent from Denmark to Greece and Lithuania to Northern Ireland. There are countries who have gone the other way too, notably Turkey- and others where prison numbers have stayed fairly stable such as England and Wales. Perhaps the most striking statistic is the difference in incarceration rates between former Soviet states on the one hand where more than 200 per 100,000 of the general population are behind bars and Nordic countries where the level of imprisonment is closer to 50.  But even Russia, by some distance Europe’s leading jailer at more than 400 per 100,000, reported earlier this week that the population in its penitentiary system is the lowest for 25 years.

The use and over use of prison – and its miserable and sometimes deadly human consequences - have been examined in more detail by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research (ICPR) in an analysis of the recent experience of ten countries across five continents. Good news comes from the Netherlands – after a tripling of its prison numbers in the 90's it's back down at the Nordic level  and renting out its empty cells- and some promising trends in South Africa and the USA where sky high prison populations are at least falling. There are a number of “could do betters”- particularly where prisons are overfilled with pre- trial detainees (India, Kenya); and a worrying punitive turn in Australia. But a particularly ugly picture is painted in Brazil and Thailand where the war on drugs has fuelled astonishing rises in the use of prison which now make them 4th and 6th respectively in the global league table of prison populations

ICPR do their best to draw lessons from the vastly differing histories, cultures and legal systems they describe, arguing that there is nothing inevitable about prison population growth. It's certainly not a simple correlate of crime rates with a host of factors inside and beyond criminal justice interacting to determine the numbers locked up at any particular time and place. Brazil and Thailand notwithstanding, the report optimistically notes a growing recognition of the harms and ineffectiveness of tough law enforcement approaches to drug misuse with other strategies gaining ground.

Equally of course, despite the financial, social and ethical costs of prison, there is nothing inevitable about the reduction in its use. Politicisation of sentencing is one of the villains identified in the report and the populist politicians currently in the ascendant make unlikely penal reformers. ICPR raise doubts about the impact of deterrence and incapacitation despite their popular appeal. The report may be right too that the penal objective of denunciation is achieved by sanctions other than incarceration, such as fines or unpaid work – potentially with much less collateral damage. But that’s a hard political sell in the best of times. And we are not in the best of times.  

Even if state responsibility for most American imprisonment means that it may not matter too much what Trump thinks about mass incarceration, the rise of the authoritarian right elsewhere threatens to stop reform in its tracks.  ICPR describe the harsh penal measures introduced by FIDESZ in Hungary. Even out of power, populism and anti immigrant rhetoric can exercise a baleful influence on the policies of more moderate parties in a penal race to the bottom. Will the Netherlands be able to retain its parsimonious use of prison over the next five years? 

What's certain is that many countries will need the workable strategies to curb the resort to imprisonment which ICPR promise to develop as a follow up to their very useful evidence report.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Youth Custody Changes : Progress or Retreat?

What’s to be made of the changes announced yesterday to the governance of youth justice in England and Wales?  The stripping from the Youth Justice Board of its role in commissioning, purchasing and monitoring of detention facilities is not altogether a surprise. The YJB’s failure to prevent the deteriorating situation in Rainsbrook and Medway Secure Training Centres in 2015 may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.  But the problem is more deep seated than that.  The Youth Custody Improvement Board (whose report on the secure estate was also published yesterday) was “astonished” that after sixteen years at the helm, the YJB considers the current arrangements not fit for the purpose of caring for or rehabilitating children and young people. Liz Truss seems to agree so youth custody will in future be hitched to her wagon of prison reform with a Youth Custody Service set up as a distinct arm of the new HM Prison and Probation Service.

Back in 1996, Prison Inspector Sir David, now Lord Ramsbotham recommended that the Prison service should relinquish responsibility for all children under the age of 18, arguing that its priorities meant it could not be expected to provide the level of care, supervision and support required by teenagers. Instead of implementing the recommendation, the Labour government hoped the YJB could transform the way the service looked after young people. Thanks to substantial investment, particularly into education within Young Offender Institutions, there were initial improvements. The Children’s Rights Alliance for England, normally a stern critic of conditions for detained juveniles, concluded in 2002 that ‘results have been great, in some cases near miraculous’

The improvements could not be sustained and despite substantial falls in the numbers in custody since 2008, Young Offender Institutions have struggled to provide safe decent environments let alone rehabilitative ones.  Last year’s Inspectorate report on Wetherby found for example that “the core day was not designed to meet the needs of the population. Time out of cell was inconsistent and unpredictable, and there were frequent cancellations and regime restrictions. Exercise was limited to 30 minutes each day, weather permitting”. In truth, the levers available to the YJB have been limited and its influence over what happens in  YOIs negligible compared to that of the Prison service.  

So will the new Youth Custody Service fare any better in bringing about change?  It’s certainly promising that a distinct cadre of specialist staff will be recruited and trained to work with young people. But they will need to be incentivised to stay in the sector. Historically, the prison service has not sufficiently recognised or rewarded work with young people despite its challenges and the skills required to do it well . There will need to be wider reforms; an agenda designed to make physical environments more suitable for teenagers and a review of the rules and procedures in YOIs most of which are primarily designed for adults.  Achieving cultural change may be the hardest obstacle.  When I was on the YJB, the POA objected for years to replacing traditional prison officer uniforms and were not exactly champions of a child centred approach.

Yet there were and no doubt are some excellent staff and good models of practice in the youth estate. When I left the YJB in 2006, I concluded that these could be very much more effective within an organisational ethos and structure dedicated to the secure care of young people. By that I meant a new service outside the prison system.    We are not getting that, so the question is whether transformation can be driven from within it. I have my doubts.


Tuesday, 14 February 2017

The Speech Liz Truss Should Have Given......

I am glad to be at the Centre for Social Justice because our prison system is anything but socially just. The use of prison inevitably imposes enormous financial, social and ethical costs.  In what everyone can now agree were reckless efforts to rein in the first of these costs, the second and third have risen to unacceptable levels.  As a former management accountant I am determined to do something about that.

In terms of the numbers of prisoners, it is shameful that we have the highest prison population rate in Western Europe and almost twice the rate of the Netherlands and Germany.   And while prison numbers have at least not risen since 2010, they should really have fallen. The numbers sentenced by the courts for indictable and either way offences has fallen from 370,000 to 280,000 in the last six years. It’ s true that there has been a marked increase in convictions for sex offences and the public rightly expect the most serious cases to receive a proper level of  punishment. But how, in a period of austerity, with prisons in crisis, are we to justify the fact that more than 27% of theft and burglary offences were punished with imprisonment last year compared to 22% in 2010? Or that the average sentence lengths for these crimes rose from 8.8 to 9.2 months?  There’s a similar pattern to drug offences and fraud. 

I would like to see prison reserved for the most serious offenders and sentence lengths brought into line with Western European norms.  I am instructing the Sentencing Council to revise its guidelines to give effect to that. We should aim to reduce our prison population by ensuring that the upper limits of the revised sentencing guidelines are not exceeded by the courts and by encouraging alternative problem solving approaches and restorative justice wherever that is justified. In many cases this might involve a more lenient approach than some might like but we desperately need a more varied and effective approach to the complexity of crime so that victims, offenders and the public get better results.

In drawing up guidelines, the Council must look at the cost and effectiveness of sentences. I have to say on those criteria, I am not convinced that all of the people that currently go to prison need to be there, or be there so long. Of the 77,000 people sentenced to prison for the more serious offences last year, 28,000 were sentenced for theft and burglary. More than 30,000 of the 77,000 were sentenced to 6 months or less. I’m pleased that the number of short sentences has been falling but it has a long way to go. After my review of Probation reports next month, I will be looking at ways that the service can contribute to diverting many more of these short term offenders from jail.  I am also interested in exploring how elements of a prison sentence can be converted into a community based sanction. If prisoners agree to undertake a period of unpaid work in the community for example they could be released earlier from custody than they otherwise might have been.

This will help  with overcrowding which I now realise is the key problem that needs to be solved before we can regain control of our prisons and start to make them the rehabilitative institutions we have been promising.  To provide immediate respite, there will be a presumption that all sentences of up to 2 years will be suspended.  I am also taking executive action to release IPP prisoners who have now served longer than the maximum current sentence for their offence and for all post tariff cases, I will be taking to steps to ensure that prisoners only continue to be detained if there is evidence they remain a danger to the public.

I hope that these measures might give the prison system the breather it needs. I might be accused of a quick fix but I believe I am taking the necessary urgent action to address what is an emergency while laying the groundwork for a sustainable future.  To inform longer term plans I have established a Justice Reinvestment Task Force which will report by the summer on how to establish direct financial incentives for local agencies to spend money in ways which would reduce prison numbers. I am not convinced that the costs of imprisonment should continue to be borne at national level.  At the end of the day, prison is only a small part of the answer to crime.    


Thursday, 9 February 2017

NOMS to HMPPS: Rebadging or Real Reform ?

So the National Offender Management Service is no more, to be replaced by Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service. Is it a rebadging of what is perceived as an unloved and unlovely bureaucratic monster with a more transparent and comforting title? Or a more significant shift in responsibilities which will lead to real change?

There are undoubtedly highly positive elements in in the Truss reforms; long overdue investment in staff not only of resources but professional training and status. There will be a greater focus on women in the criminal justice system- much needed although we’ll have to see whether adding the responsibility to an existing role will bring about the far reaching reforms that are urgently required.

For some in the probation world, the hope of a quickie divorce from their forced marriage to prisons has been dashed although the new arrangements could lead to a conscious uncoupling in due course. Much depends on the review of the reformed system which will report in the spring.

But what of prisons? The Prison Safety and Reform White Paper makes no mention of replacing NOMS. It’s in the design of the reformed prison system in paragraph 68. HMPPS will be an Executive Agency like NOMS. It will continue with the core of its business – managing prisons -but be stripped of its role in commissioning services, making policy and it seems monitoring performance.  From April these functions will move to the Ministry of Justice.  Agreements between individual prisons and the MoJ will also come into play although in an unpromising start, the Prison Governors Association have advised their members not to sign them. Despite the White Paper’s promise of negotiation, there apparently hasn’t been any.

Although the new arrangements promise clarity, there are still many questions. Is it sensible to split commissioning and contract management between the MoJ and HMPPS?  Where will Electronic monitoring fit? And where will the line on policy development be drawn? The Prison service instructions introduced last year included guidance on preventing corruption, the interception of communications, faith and pastoral care for prisoners, searching of cells and the care of transgender prisoners. We have been promised a bonfire of these instructions although almost all look important and most essential. Some may be better informed by policy wonks in the Ministry of Justice but most need experienced operational input. 

One of NOMS biggest critics argued it was “dangerously out of touch with its operational heartland”. In that respect the new arrangements could make things worse not better.  

Thursday, 29 December 2016

A Year in Prisons


A year that opened with David Cameron championing prison reform as a great progressive cause in British politics ended with a record number of deaths, a high profile escape, staff walking out and Tornado teams quelling a series of major disturbances. The first six months saw Michael Gove promising the earth but delivering almost nothing; the second Liz Truss scrambling for funds and ideas to repair the damage inflicted on the prison service by her predecessors.


Her White Paper may not have lived up to its hype, but she quickly recognised that getting more staff onto the landings is a prerequisite for anything more ambitious. Having previously argued that prisons should be tough unpleasant and uncomfortable places, she makes an unlikely reformer but deserves the chance to fix the mess she inherited.

Truss baulked at Charlie Taylor’s extravagant plans to reconfigure youth justice and has so far resisted proposals to reduce the numbers of adults in prison- not surprisingly for a proponent of longer and tougher sentences. Ken Clarke, Nick Clegg and Jacqui Smith joined the list of politicians prescribing radical policies once they cease to have the power to implement them. Their call to halve the prison population received some support from Labour but they have form in calling for - and reneging on - a halt to the arms race on punishment. Michael Howard thinks it gravely irresponsible to slash prison numbers.  But even he says there might be room for modest reform.

Measures beneath the radar are probably the best we can hope for in 2017.The Sentencing Council could play a greater role in stabilising sentence lengths but problem solving courts seem to be on hold. It’s not clear how far the devolution agenda has to run in justice.

Probation could normally be expected to play a greater role in replacing prison but its reckless privatisation has left it struggling to cope with existing work let alone take on more. We will find out early next year if a review leads to contracts being torn up – or more likely tinkered with.

We are due a progress report too, on the 10,000 new prison places due to be built in  9 new prisons by 2020.  Don’t be surprised if these have been delayed. NOMS Chief Michael Spurr told the Justice Committee last month that it will be 2025 at least before prison cells hold only the number of prisoners for which  they were designed.   Prison reform may just about still be a great progressive cause -but it's a long term one.