Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Residential Assessment

When I stepped down as a member of the Youth Justice Board in 2006, I published a paper suggesting a wide programme reforms that would improve the way we prevent and respond to youth offending. Amongst the proposals was shifting responsibility for youth justice to the Education Department and looking at how residential provision within children’s services, education and health settings could, in appropriate cases, be made more widely available to young people in conflict with the law.

I was interested to see that the DfE review of residential care announced today includes not only children’s homes (both open and secure) but the full gamut of settings in which young people can find themselves living. These include “hostels and supported lodgings, residential special schools, care homes, NHS provision, family centres or mother and baby units, and young offenders institutions or prison”. The review will explore “when and for which children residential care settings of all types should be used”. It’s an ambitious, overdue and important agenda – as a 2003 study noted “historically whether the problem child has been cared for, punished, educated or treated has often been a matter of chance, depending upon which individuals in which agency happened to pick up his or her case.”

There are however two oddities about the review. The first is that a review of youth justice is already underway, announced in September by Justice Secretary Michael Gove. This will be considering inter alia “the delivery models for detaining young people remanded or sentenced to custody and for supervising and rehabilitating young offenders in the community… and the interaction with wider services for children and young people”. These are precisely the services which the DfE review will be looking at.  The centres of gravity of the two reviews are different of course but there is substantial overlap. Let’s hope there is scope for some joint activities between the two reviews as they consider the kind of residential options which might work best for young offenders living away from home .

The other oddity concerns the leadership of these reviews. The MoJ’s youth justice review is being led by a former head teacher, Charlie Taylor and the DfE residential care inquiry is headed up by former prisons chief Martin Narey, (who now sits on the MoJ board). Perhaps this apparent paradox will help ensure that the pieces of work are complementary in scope and consistent in message; or at least avoid the kind of departmental turf wars that  used to characterise policy on the care of troubled and troublesome children.

Martin has plenty of child care experience running Barnardo’s and subsequently advising the Government on adoption and on social work.  I'd like to have seen more transparency in the review documentation about the work he has done in the past for private security giant G4S.    After all the firm runs children’s homes as well as a secure training centre, and presumably stand to gain or lose depending on the outcome of the review. For the avoidance of doubt, Martin and the DfE should make it clear that he has severed his links with the organisation.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Brave New World or False Dawn? The Tory Agenda on Prison Reform

I haven’t checked but I’d guess that prison policy has seldom made it into a Prime Minister’s Tory party conference speech. On the face of it, David Cameron’s promise that “this is going to be a big area of social reform in the next five years” should be hugely welcomed by those of us who want to see radical improvements in the way we punish people in conflict with the law.

There’s no denying the Conservatives have come a long way since I (and Cameron as it happens) worked in the Home Office twenty years ago. When then Home Secretary Michael Howard (for whom Cameron worked as special adviser) announced in 1993 that prison works, he invited a victim of rape to address the conference. Yesterday Michael Gove was preceded by an ex offender made good and went on to say that “the best criminal justice policies are good welfare, social work and child protection policies”.

So are we about to enter a golden age of change in which offences are decriminalised, vulnerable people diverted away from the courts, greater use made of community based sentences and shorter prison terms served in genuinely rehabilitative facilities?  

Three big question marks hang over the reform policy. First of course is the strength of the political will behind it. Gove may have complained yesterday that those sent to prison spend their sentences in enforced idleness but he was quoting almost word for word what Kenneth Clarke had told the conference five years ago. Despite Coalition with a party with a track record of commitment to penal  reform , prison policy and practice was something of a disaster between 2010 and 2015. Partly this was because Clarke did not last -and there must be long odds on Gove staying the course. One wonders how widely his reforming zeal is shared- presumably not by Mrs May.

The cynic may wonder too if the PM’s apparent conversion to the cause may be in part to prepare his troops for a climb-down on votes for prisoners.  Once Cameron has taken his anti-emetic, bowed to the inevitable need to allow some prisoners at least to vote,  perhaps the party will return to a more familiar stance – particularly if by then he has  lost Gove  his “the great Conservative Reformer”.

The second problem is the money.  Gove’s laudable desire for more education and help for prisoners to address the often catastrophic life experiences which have led them into jail does not come cheap. Even training prisons for young offenders – the highest priority in a sensible system- have been pared back so that almost half of prisoners are kept in their cells all day. On the day Gove made his speech, the Prison Inspectorate was describing Aylesbury YOI as having a very poor regime that fosters inactivity and indolence. The reason? Chronic staff shortages.

With at least 25% further cuts to come, Gove will have to explain sooner or later how he will do more with less. He may have been able to conjure up a standing ovation by calling for better prisons but he’ll need to magic up some serious funds to create them. Selling off inner city jails may help but there are sequencing problems in that strategy - developers won’t take kindly to Gove’s brand of sitting tenants.    The cynic may wonder too whether Gove’s plan to give Governors greater responsibilities may be a way of sloughing off his own. Without enough staff, the most able governors will struggle to cope let alone innovate.

There is of course a way of solving the money problem which is to lock up fewer people for shorter periods.  But this is the third and biggest problem. Cameron urged us to “get away from the sterile lock-em-up or let-em-out debate, and get smart about this”. The reference may be to the "Smart on Crime" movement in the US, but there, behind the neutral sounding slogan is some pretty serious “let em out”. Indeed the Justice Department is about to release 6,000 drug offenders serving terms now considered way too harsh.

Yet sentencing reform does not seem on the agenda here at all and restrictions being introduced on cautioning fly in the face of the first smart on crime principle which is to prioritise prosecutions on the most serious cases.

It may be that the government will be able to pursue alternatives to prison for low level non- violent crimes; Cameron suggested that “where it makes sense, let’s use electronic tags to help keep us safe and help people go clean”. But let’s remember David Blunkett was heralding tags as Prisons without Bars a decade ago and they have delivered considerably less in the meantime. And diverting short term prisoners away from custody doesn't save you much in the great scheme of things.

Where the Coalition government has taken action is in trying to improve re-entry to curb repeat offences. But the results of the introduction of post release supervision for all prisoners (let alone the impact of the wholesale re-organisation of the probation service deemed necessary to fund it) are not yet known.

Lack of evidence about success may not stand in the away of a similar regime change in the prison system. Cameron’s description of prisons as “a service run by the state that all too often fails and entrenches poverty” suggests radical change may be on the way. Whether it will bring with it radical improvement must be open to doubt.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Jailed for Watching Daytime TV: the Need for Prison Reform in Africa

In a recent report on over incarceration and overcrowding, the UN Commissioner for Human Rights has argued that that custodial sentences should be imposed as measures of last resort and applied proportionately to meet a pressing societal need.   A recent visit to East Africa illustrated that much more needs to be done if that is to be achieved in the region.

One 22 year old Tanzanian explained that he had been sentenced for watching television during the day- his offence seemed to be one of “idleness”.  Although his punishment was community service, this had only been imposed after he’d spent four days in prison. Throughout Africa prison appears regularly used to punish these kind of colonial era offences or for failures to comply with contemporary government regulations whether about conducting business, (such as operating a club without a licence) or obtaining fuel (such as making charcoal in the forest).

Most of the Kenyan cases we heard about involved illicit alcohol- brewing it, selling it, getting drunk on it even carrying it.  A presidential decree in July urged a crackdown on so called secondary alcohol and this is being vigorously enforced by local administrators. The country has a serious problem with drinks known as Changaa or Mugacho which, when adulterated have led to deaths by poisoning, blindness and what was described to us as a failure by men to carry out their husbandly duties.  But some at least of the drinks play a role in traditional customs at weddings, parties and other gatherings.  

Evidence outside a Kenyan Court

More than a third of the 300 women (and their 50 babies) we saw in Meru prison had been committed for a failure to pay large fines imposed for alcohol related offences of one sort or another.  While many are likely to see their sentences commuted to community service through a High Court “Decongestion Programme”, using criminal justice to crack down on the problem has created additional hardships on those who make their living by producing it and put considerable pressure on an already overstretched prison system. 

That system still suffers from the persistent problem of excessive pre- trial detention; almost 800 of the 1200 men locked up at Meru were awaiting trial. Some were charged with serious and non bailable crimes but more than half, according to the Superintendent, were facing charges for petty offences. One barrier to their release is that magistrates worry about being thought corrupt if they free a defendant. Another is that, if they do so, the police are unwilling to pursue him should he flee. The result is unaffordable bail and routine remands in custody, sometimes for longer than any likely sentence.

Some defendants choose to bear the miserable conditions rather than change their plea, either through determination to maintain their innocence, fear of mob justice in the community or to benefit from the limited food and shelter unavailable to them outside. Judicial reform and performance management initiatives in both Kenya and Tanzania look so far to have failed to tackle some of the underlying dysfunction in the countries’ criminal justice processes. Indeed it may have made things worse. One magistrate told us his target of completing 250 cases a year provided a disincentive to adjourn cases for a report on an offender’s suitability for an alternative sanction.         

There look to be some relatively easy prison reform wins; Kenya has no remission or parole, and Tanzania does not even subtract time spent on remand from the length of prison sentences.  Taking action on these are the kind of steps the UN Commissioner wants states to take to prison  overcrowding so that they "comply with their international obligations, and  guarantee detainees the dignity inherent to every human being"