Monday, 31 October 2016

Why we need more short prison sentences not fewer

Yesterday’s Observer rightly called for sentencing reform in order to solve the deepening crisis in the prisons in England and Wales. But as so often their proposals do not go nearly far enough. Their solution is to reduce the number of people serving short sentences for minor crimes. Of course that’s a good idea but at the end of last month fewer than 7,000 out of the 85,000 people in prison were serving sentences of less than a year.  Take the lot out tomorrow and we’d still be left with a prison population well in excess of the system’s 75,000 capacity.

It’s true that over half of those admitted to prison are serving short sentences so cutting numbers would take the strain off  local prisons as well as sparing some of the 50,000 petty offenders a year the indignities of doing time in them. Whether the controversial probation reforms have made it more likely that such offenders can be effectively supervised in the community instead seems increasingly open to doubt.

But the real requirement for a manageable prison population are reductions in the lengths of sentences being imposed. Since 2010, the average length of prison sentences went up from 16.2 months to 19 months.  Jail terms  have got longer not only for violent and sexual crimes but for theft and drug offences too. It is prisoners facing longer terms- particularly but not exclusively those with indeterminate sentences-  who are bearing the adverse consequences of the reckless staff reductions in prisons.

So yes to sentencing reform but it needs to focus not simply on bringing about  fewer short sentences but, in a sense on producing more of them - but at the expense of the longer terms that are  increasingly being imposed by courts. 

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Turning the Heat on the Ministry of Justice?

It used to be one of Whitehall and Westminster’s little secrets that witnesses appearing before Select Committees are told what they’re going to be asked. Nothing could be put in writing but in my day a committee clerk would phone a civil servant a few days before a minister or senior official appeared and run through the topics. Sensible to allow them to get briefed some might say and the MP’s are anyway free to ask questions in their own way – or even go off script. But the whole thing used to be a lot more managed than it seemed.

I’m not sure whether the Ministry of Justice top brass know what they are going to be asked this morning at the Justice Committee but the business is last year’s  MoJ's Annual Report “and related matters”. Are we likely to learn much?

After Liz Truss suggested to them last month that prison reform plans might be on hold, the Committee will want confirmation that this is not the case and ideally tease out a timetable for a plan, white paper or legislation. These will be met with a straight bat. On criminal justice, I hope the Committee has a go at three other topics.

First is the state of probation. The foreword to the Annual report says that Transforming Rehabilitation   “is still bedding in, but it is already showing innovation in how offenders are supervised and supported”. The recent Probation Inspectorate report on Through the Gate schemes found “there was little evidence of the anticipated creativity or innovation in the new services being delivered by the Community Rehabilitation Companies.” Permanent Secretary Richard Heaton told the Public Accounts committee in the summer that he was not 100% confident about the programme. When pressed he said he was 60%. What’s the percentage today he might be asked? His department has reviewed the whole programme and the Committee will want to know what they found and what they’re doing about it.

Second there’s electronic monitoring. As the MOJ’s earlier efforts to get satellite tracking off the ground were rated unachievable by the Infrastructure Agency and subsequently scrapped, the Committee will want to know if the plans for new pilots (shared with them in June) are faring better.

Third, there are two matters inherited from the ancient regime. What has happened to the Youth Justice review? And where are we with problem solving courts?  Mr Heaton may be sent out to beat the retreat on one or both- but will probably resort to the straight bat.

 If all that gets too exciting, the Committee could ask something about the governance of the department. Much has changed since the Department’s Single Departmental Plan was published and appointments made to its Board. Are both the plan and the Board still fit for purpose? Or does a new Ministerial team mean they will be up for a refresh.   

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Where are we now on Prison Reform?

I couldn’t follow Liz Truss’s speech to the Tory Conference this morning as I was visiting a prison where I’m doing a piece of work. When I arrived there, I was told the Governors were all in a debrief after a death in custody- yet another wasted life to reinforce the urgency of what the new ministerial team at Justice have to do.

From time to time, Tory party conferences have signalled important changes in prison policy. In 1979 William Whitelaw assured the faithful that short sharp shock detention centres would “be no holiday camps”. In 1993 Michael Howard gave them his 27 point Prison Works package, (funds for which had only been secured hours earlier in a Blackpool hotel room showdown with Chief Secretary Michael Portillo). Last year, Michael Gove won his audience round to redemption by introducing a charismatic ex- offender who now works to rehabilitate others. What of Liz Truss today?

There will be a welcome dollop of cash to stem the wounds inflicted by an ill- judged benchmarking exercise, which has seen prison staff cut by a fifth since 2010 and the loss of many experienced officers on whom stability in prison often depends. Of course prisons can use 400 new boots on the landings but a sustainable future surely needs proper long term resourcing not midyear handouts squeezed from the Treasury.

Recruiting personnel with a military background looks like an effort to recreate the past rather than the modern service we’ve been promised. Indeed the policy offers more than a nod to UKIP’s 2015 manifesto guarantee of a job offer in the police, prisons or border force for anyone who has served in the Armed Forces for a minimum of 12 years.  Unlike Howard, who illustrated his priorities by inviting a victim of a serious crime to address the 1993 conference or Gove with his ex-offender, Ms Truss at least resisted the temptation to surround herself with soldiers.

After mixed signals from the MoJ, prison reform is, it seems, back on. We will have to wait a few weeks for a plan with the promise of legislation in the New Year. These will announce a “vision for prison reform to 2020 and beyond” and “a blueprint for the biggest overhaul of our prisons in a generation”.  But haven’t we had enough visions and blueprints? It's eight months since David Cameron promised the biggest shake-up in the way our prisons are run since the Victorian times, let alone a generation.

The White Paper will surely need to be a bit more – I think the civil service word is- granular. More plainly, what exactly will be done to solve the crisis in our prisons in the short, medium and long term?

Ms Truss used to favour contracting out all prisons to the private sector on a payment by results basis but today’s damning criticisms of Community Rehabilitation Companies by the Probation Inspectorate makes no case at all for further privatisation. But who knows?  In a Through the Gate scheme that does work, one of the companies, Interserve,  announced today they have recruited Ian Mulholland the former Director of Public Prisons. Mulholland is apparently looking forward to helping grow the business: “The CRCs are our foothold in justice, if we are seen as the best provider we will strengthen our chances of winning more business”. Setting aside the supposed limitations on that particular revolving door, perhaps he knows something we don’t?