Wednesday, 7 September 2016

Don't Despair on Prison Reform ...Just Yet

On 19th July, five days after her appointment, Justice Secretary Liz Truss said she was clear that the vital work of prison reform will continue "at pace". Seven weeks in, the Guardian’s take on her evidence to the Justice Committee this morning is that the prison reform plans are on hold.

The headline exaggerates a bit because as Ms Truss admitted there is no plan to put on hold. For all his rhetorical flourish, Michael Gove appears to have neglected to create much in the way of concrete proposals for improving prisons let alone a timetable for implementing them. Beyond slogans about giving governors’ more freedom there is no legacy. If we didn’t realise it already we now know that on prison reform (and much else besides), we’ve been conned.

Enter Ms Truss, whose business background may have alerted her antennae to grandiose and ideological schemes floating free from reality. Her instinct, much on display before the Justice Committee is that of the management accountant she was, a profession who, says Wikipedia, “use the provisions of accounting information in order to better inform themselves before they decide matters within their organizations, which aids their management and performance of control functions”. It’s a world away from Gove’s talk of redemption. But it might actually do something.

For what Ms Truss will have realised is that the prison system is in the midst of an operational crisis, while her predecessor did not acknowledge it was a system let alone one  in crisis. Given the urgency of the problems, her approach might be what’s needed; risking another analogy , something closer to a plumber rather than architect. Rightly she said to the committee that making prisons safer is her most pressing priority. If prisoners and staff are afraid or threatened by violence, talk of reform means little.

Where she disappointed was in her unwillingness to countenance a role in reducing the numbers in prison. While ruling out arbitrary reductions, she might well be attracted by rational, planned and evidence based reductions if they can be shown to bring about the outcomes she wants .What we’ll need from her is a bit of creative accountancy so that demand for prison places falls. She will find levers in the system to help her with that if she wants, not least in a revisiting of the probation system which, like much else, she is currently looking at.  So don’t despair. .. just yet. 

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