Thursday, 22 September 2016

Making Prisons Safer

  Yesterday’s Ombudsman’s report on homicides in prison is yet another indictment of the state of the prison system. Although thankfully still rare, the increase in what Nigel Newcomen calls  these chilling occurrences  -from an average of 1.6 killings  per year from 2003-12 to 4.3 per year since then- is more evidence, if it were needed, that prisons are in very urgent need of attention. Yet as with the 7 day NHS, the government has looked to be promising grandiose and expansive reforms when there are scarcely resources to do the basics properly.

The government’s response to the crisis in prison safety seems to be that there are no easy solutions.  But it is becoming increasingly obvious that there is one truth that dare not speak its name: that in many prisons, there are simply not enough staff to do the job.

It’s true that staffing may still be generous compared to many countries but following cost cutting exercises, numbers are considerably lower than 2010. To quote the UN “needless to say, management of a prison becomes more difficult with lower ratios of staff to prisoners, as the risk of incident increases.’  

In England and Wales, while this is increasingly being said –by the Howard League, the Labour Party and most recently the Samaritans, the government are reluctant to agree. Last week Justice Minister Sam Gyimah told a Parliamentary debate on Prison safety that “staffing levels are not the main problem”.  Yet on the same day Glen Parva YOI's  Governor was telling an inquest that she has too few resources to protect young prisoners from the risks of bullying, suicide and self -harm.

The Government have promised a plan in the autumn, belatedly recognising that their flagship rehabilitation reforms cannot possibly take hold when staff and prisoners are unsafe. One thing it won’t  include is Lord Harris’s recommendation that specialist Custody and Rehabilitation Officers take responsibility for the overall well-being of young adults in prison- unceremoniously rejected, presumably  on cost grounds. But what should it say?

First it should commit to re-doing the benchmarking that has led to inadequate staff numbers. Just as  the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) were asked after the Mid Staffs Hospital disaster to look at safe staffing for nursing in adult inpatient wards in acute hospitals, an independent body should do so in respect of prisons. With an advisory board comprising personnel at all levels and ex prisoners, it should look seriously at how many staff are required to meet the expectations set by Prison Inspectors and the various recommendations made by them and the Ombudsman. Newcomen's latest report for example called for the careful management of prisoners known to be at risk from others and rigorous cell searching to minimise the availability of weapons. Whatever Gyimiah thinks, both need staff.  Benchmarking Two should be completed by Easter.

Second, some of the capital resources intended to build new prisons should be converted to revenue to pay for the more staff that will be undoubtedly be required. There is growing scepticism that the £1.3 billion secured from the Treasury for new prisons is capable of being spent by 2020. Some of it should be used to repair the current arrangements rather than establishing new ones .

Third, to provide a breathing space for the prison service, a range of measures should be introduced to cut numbers in prison. How about a stronger presumption that sentences of up to 2 years should be suspended? Or relaxing criteria for temporary release and cracking on with plans to pilot tagging and problem solving courts?

Only with a short term plan like this, will the prison service be in a position to approach the reform agenda promised by the last government and half-heartedly at least confirmed by the current one.   I was recently told of a Governing Governor in a local prison having to come in over the weekend to ensure that prisoners received their meals. Good for him for putting his shoulder to the wheel. Somehow,  I don’t think it’s what Governor autonomy is supposed to add up to.  

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. 

Saturday, 3 September 2016

A Few Questions for the New Justice Secretary

On Tuesday, Justice Secretary Liz Truss and her new team face oral questions in the House of Commons and the following day Ms Truss is due to answer questions from the Justice Committee about her priorities in the new post.  Here are four criminal justice topics that MPs should ask about.

First, does Ms Truss still believe, as she did in 2011, that prisons should be tough, unpleasant and uncomfortable places? Philip Davies MP will hope so but other MP’s will expect a more constructive tone from the minister leading (what was at least) the Government’s flagship policy of prison reform. When can we expect a White paper/Draft Bill and what will it cover? In the meantime what is Ms Truss planning to do to increase safety and reduce violence in prisons and ensure they are adequately staffed? The committee should also probe on the plans for separate units for jihadi prisoners due to start in 4 category A prisons next year, and her thinking on tariff expired IPP cases.  

Second, Ms Truss has reportedly been less than keen on problem solving courts (but was more positive on the Today Programme on 22 August). MPs should ask if and when pilots will start, where they will take place and what exactly they will be piloting.   They should also try to find out if, like Mr Gove, she sees these are a vehicle for reducing imprisonment, particularly for women. Back in 2011, Ms Truss wanted to reverse the tide of soft justice. But, as a judge might put it “tempora mutantur". 

Third, has Ms Truss made any assessment of the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms? Her Permanent Secretary told the Public Accounts Committee in July he was only 60% confident that they were working. What sort of figure would she put on it? And what more can she say about the various electronic tagging pilots that are due to get off the ground in the autumn.  One of the areas Gove’s team were exploring is where electronic monitoring might enable offenders to be given a community sentence where at present they would be sent to custody. Is this still on the cards along with the greater use of electronically monitored release on temporary licence?

Finally on youth justice, what’s happened to Charlie Taylor’s review? Can Ms Truss be drawn on the likelihood of the new generation of secure schools outlined in February’s interim report or changes to courts and sentencing which Taylor’s been looking at since? Is the YJB, as is widely expected, heading for the exit door and what’s the latest on the sale of G4S’s Secure Training Centres?

There's lots more of course but preparing for these topics should give Ms Truss a busy enough weekend.  


Friday, 2 September 2016

From YJB to RJB?

This week's’ Justice Committee report on Restorative Justice (RJ) has a familiar ring to it. It’s positive about the impact which RJ can have both on people who suffer from criminal harm and those who cause it. It’s cautiously optimistic too about RJ’s cost effectiveness, while rightly recognising the need for investment in properly trained facilitators, particularly for work with more serious and difficult cases.

Yet, as the Criminal Justice Alliance tweeted yesterday, the report is something of a fudge.  The Committee’s conclusion - that it is too soon to introduce a legislative right to access restorative justice services but such a goal is laudable and should be actively worked towards- is hardly a call to storm the winter palace of conventional criminal justice and bring about a restorative revolution. It looks set to maintain RJ’s place at the margins rather than propel it to the heart of responses to lawbreaking.

Yes, there has been some growth in the availability of RJ in recent years although the whole area is something of a data free zone. How many cases are dealt with restoratively each year? Hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands? We simply don’t know and while there are all sorts of definitional problems making measurement difficult, getting a handle on what’s happening calls for some stronger national leadership.  This should build on the good work of the Restorative Justice Council, who have at least sought to map the organisations offering RJ.  With the Youth Justice Board seemingly on the way out, is it time for a Restorative Justice Board to drive RJ forward nationally for adults and children?

Locally some clearer decisions should be made about who is responsible for commissioning and providing RJ. Is it primarily a voluntary sector activity or should police, probation and prisons be expected to offer it ?  A study of European jurisdictions found that RJ options are used by prosecutors and by courts in a wide variety of cases. In Germany prosecutors can dismiss charges if the accused makes a serious attempt to reach a mediated agreement with the aggrieved person by trying to make reparation for his offence, in full or in part. Courts can mitigate or even dispense with punishment if the perpetrator has in an effort to achieve mediation with the aggrieved party, completely or substantially made restitution for his act or earnestly strived to make restitution. About half of victim offender mediation cases in Germany relate to a violent offence.

Back in 2012, the Ministry of Justice though committed to making more use of RJ did not want to do so in a way that was over prescriptive or places unnecessary restrictions or burdens upon the system. While a series of Action Plans and funding for PCC's  have helped to grow RJ since then, the goals of making restorative justice available to victims at every stage of the criminal justice system and in every location will never be achieved without a stronger approach.

There may be opportunities for a step change in RJ in the coming months- in problem solving courts, reform prisons or a new youth justice system (if the Taylor report sees the light of day). But they won’t be taken if its business as usual.