Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Do we really need yet another Crime Bill?

At yesterday’s hearing of the Justice Select Committee, the question of the climate of opinion on crime came up. I hazarded a view that public were much less concerned about crime than at times in the past and this provided an opportunity for constructive policymaking. It turned out I was right on the first point. I checked MORI’s polls to find that about one in seven think crime is the most important issue facing the country less than half the proportion who did so twenty years ago  before crime started to drop.

Today’s publication of the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill shows I was sadly wrong on the second point. Any opportunity for a progressive turn in penal policy has been spurned by a ragbag of proposals which would restrict diversion from prosecution, toughen sentences for a selection of the most serious offenders   and make adult offenders pay for the costs of the court hearings which convict them. (It might have been worse. The Dutch Justice Minister is legislating for prisoners to pay for the costs of their jail time.)

There are some uncontroversial and welcome elements in the Bill , but there is a serious question about whether the proposals as a whole require yet another law and order statute before the last one has been enacted.  The Coalition partners used to mock Labour’s legislative hyperactivity in this area but have been unable to resist it themselves.

Chris Grayling is at least open about what he is doing- it’s so that “the law abiding majority know that we are making  ... changes”. Whether they are likely to be effective or even practical seems of less relevance despite his ludicrous assertion that these are the measures needed to keep us all safe.

His intentions are not quite so open about the secure colleges which will allegedly put education at the heart of youth custody.  They almost certainly mark the death knell of secure children’s homes- the small local units which provide high quality but expensive care for the most troubled young people. But we know almost nothing about these proposed new institutions other than that they’ll be larger and cheaper than what they replace. Defining institutions as educational is no guarantee of desirability let alone success as Approved Schools and Community Homes with Education proved in years gone by.

The questionable rationale for several of the measures and the uncertainty about their impact and costs suggest the bill should at the very least been published in draft and subjected to pre –legislative scrutiny. Judging by the rational and evidence based approach they showed in yesterday’s hearing, the Justice Committee would probably have made mincemeat of much of it.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Follow the Money: Changing how we pay for Prison could reduce its Unnecessary Use.

The 85,000 prisoners in England and Wales is pretty much at the same level as when the Coalition came to power almost four years ago. Projections published last week contained the welcome news that numbers could fall over the next five years – but even the most optimistic scenario – 77,300 in 2019 would represent an increase of more than 60% in 25 years. Apart from the social and ethical costs of locking up so many more fellow citizens, the last ten years has seen the financial spend on prison rose from £2 to £3 billion. With almost half of prisoners re-convicted within a year of release, something new is needed beyond the much vaunted "rehabilitation revolution".

In a new report published today by Transform Justice , I argue that structural change is needed in how we pay for prison if we are to achieve radical reductions in its use  and the development of more humane and effective alternatives.

Four years ago the House of Commons Justice Committee published an impressive blue print for Justice Reinvestment,  containing a range of measures to shift funds away from prison into locally based measures to prevent and respond to crime. Despite widespread rhetorical support for the idea, progress on concrete implementation of its key proposals has been somewhat fitful.

In youth justice, pilots have shown that financial incentives can stimulate local measures to reduce the numbers of under 18’s in custody; and making local authorities pay for under 18’s in pre-trial detention since last April seems to have made them work harder to use less costly alternatives.

What’s needed is a more thoroughgoing devolution to local level of the budgets which pay for prisons to create a greater incentive to fund new approaches.  If local government were responsible for meeting the costs of Detention and Training Orders for young offenders under 18 as well as for remands, they could over time create alternative community based, semi secure and secure options that could take the place of prison altogether. For adults, new machinery would be needed to oversee a devolved system - local authorities, Policing and Crime Commissioners and the NHS working together to commission the services most likely to reduce crime and re-offending; in London the Mayor's office could take the lead. 

As a first step, the custodial budget covering adult remands, young adults aged 18-21 and women offenders should be considered for devolution to these new regional bodies, but in the longer term they could assume responsibility for commissioning all prison places and the range of community based supervision programmes that would increasingly replace them.  The devolved custodial budget could be used not only to respond to the demands of the courts but to shape those demands ; by commissioning a wide range of custodial, semi custodial and community based measures which would meet the needs of suspects and offenders in their localities, reduce re-offending and prevent crime. The services and facilities funded through JR should be developed in consultation with the communities most affected by crime  where possible enabling disputes to be resolved through restorative measures and  suitable candidates to be diverted into health and social care.

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has talked of making the prison system not smaller but cheaper. Justice Reinvestment  could make it both smaller and cheaper – smaller by incentivising reductions in the use of imprisonment and cheaper, not by the irresponsible cutting of costs but  by sharing them more broadly among the agencies with an interest in reducing re-offending. Far from being an empty slogan, Justice Reinvestment can provide sustainable future for penal policy.