It’s a big week for penal policy. All prison sentences of two days or more imposed for offences committed from 1st February onwards will be followed by a mandatory period of supervision after release. Although this will include what a senior NOMS official described at the CLINKS AGM last week as a “rehabilitation offer”, it’s pretty much an offer you can’t refuse. When the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) assessed the likely impact of the underpinning legal provisions, they admitted that there will be policing and court costs associated with breaches of the new supervision terms and costs of providing sanctions for those breaches.
The MoJ hope of course is that the new Community Rehabilitation Companies that start being paid next week will prove successful in bringing down the re-offending rates for this group of offenders thereby offsetting any short term increases in imprisonment. One of the companies, MTC Novo, was also represented on the podium at CLINKS. Their Chief Operating Officer apologised for not having got back to some of the voluntary organisations who have offered to work with them in London and the Thames Valley. She was admirably frank in admitting that they are still understanding the operating environment. The pressures it seems of the mobilisation phase (since contracts were signed on 19th December) mean that some fairly basic steps have been deferred to the transition phase which lasts from now until May.
I’ve never really understood how, with the same overall budget, the new CRC’s can be expected to supervise and rehabilitate 25 per cent more offenders than the Probation Trusts they've replaced. The MoJ expected the competition process to produce a significant downward pressure on unit costs, illustrating what they hoped to achieve by reference to the benchmarking process in prisons. Chris Grayling aside, everyone recognises its impact on performance as little short of disastrous. It’s possible that innovative use of technology could improve the efficiency of community supervision. But rugged tablets will not provide a miracle cure for the deep seated problems faced by offenders with complex needs who move in and out of prison.
The MoJ also identified a risk that the changes to custodial sentences of less than 12 months could lead to changes in how courts use them. By this they meant presumably that courts might be more attracted to a sentence promising not only punishment via the clang of the closing prison gate but some help when it opens again. In such circumstances one might expect the Sentencing Council to produce guidelines on how courts should reflect the increased punitive weight of short sentences in their decision-making. I’ve not seen anything yet but perhaps it is being mobilised or even in transition.
If not, the Council’s been negligent. Additional population pressures from petty offenders being recalled to custody is not what the prison service needs just now. When the Offender Rehabilitation Bill was being debated in parliament, prison numbers were projected to fall. The latest estimates, published in November, predict substantial increases. The whole Transforming Rehabilitation agenda has neglected one of the key principles of government: expect the best, plan for the worst and prepare to be surprised.