Saturday, 25 February 2017

Youth Custody Changes : Progress or Retreat?

What’s to be made of the changes announced yesterday to the governance of youth justice in England and Wales?  The stripping from the Youth Justice Board of its role in commissioning, purchasing and monitoring of detention facilities is not altogether a surprise. The YJB’s failure to prevent the deteriorating situation in Rainsbrook and Medway Secure Training Centres in 2015 may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.  But the problem is more deep seated than that.  The Youth Custody Improvement Board (whose report on the secure estate was also published yesterday) was “astonished” that after sixteen years at the helm, the YJB considers the current arrangements not fit for the purpose of caring for or rehabilitating children and young people. Liz Truss seems to agree so youth custody will in future be hitched to her wagon of prison reform with a Youth Custody Service set up as a distinct arm of the new HM Prison and Probation Service.

Back in 1996, Prison Inspector Sir David, now Lord Ramsbotham recommended that the Prison service should relinquish responsibility for all children under the age of 18, arguing that its priorities meant it could not be expected to provide the level of care, supervision and support required by teenagers. Instead of implementing the recommendation, the Labour government hoped the YJB could transform the way the service looked after young people. Thanks to substantial investment, particularly into education within Young Offender Institutions, there were initial improvements. The Children’s Rights Alliance for England, normally a stern critic of conditions for detained juveniles, concluded in 2002 that ‘results have been great, in some cases near miraculous’

The improvements could not be sustained and despite substantial falls in the numbers in custody since 2008, Young Offender Institutions have struggled to provide safe decent environments let alone rehabilitative ones.  Last year’s Inspectorate report on Wetherby found for example that “the core day was not designed to meet the needs of the population. Time out of cell was inconsistent and unpredictable, and there were frequent cancellations and regime restrictions. Exercise was limited to 30 minutes each day, weather permitting”. In truth, the levers available to the YJB have been limited and its influence over what happens in  YOIs negligible compared to that of the Prison service.  

So will the new Youth Custody Service fare any better in bringing about change?  It’s certainly promising that a distinct cadre of specialist staff will be recruited and trained to work with young people. But they will need to be incentivised to stay in the sector. Historically, the prison service has not sufficiently recognised or rewarded work with young people despite its challenges and the skills required to do it well . There will need to be wider reforms; an agenda designed to make physical environments more suitable for teenagers and a review of the rules and procedures in YOIs most of which are primarily designed for adults.  Achieving cultural change may be the hardest obstacle.  When I was on the YJB, the POA objected for years to replacing traditional prison officer uniforms and were not exactly champions of a child centred approach.

Yet there were and no doubt are some excellent staff and good models of practice in the youth estate. When I left the YJB in 2006, I concluded that these could be very much more effective within an organisational ethos and structure dedicated to the secure care of young people. By that I meant a new service outside the prison system.    We are not getting that, so the question is whether transformation can be driven from within it. I have my doubts.

Tuesday, 14 February 2017

The Speech Liz Truss Should Have Given......

I am glad to be at the Centre for Social Justice because our prison system is anything but socially just. The use of prison inevitably imposes enormous financial, social and ethical costs.  In what everyone can now agree were reckless efforts to rein in the first of these costs, the second and third have risen to unacceptable levels.  As a former management accountant I am determined to do something about that.

In terms of the numbers of prisoners, it is shameful that we have the highest prison population rate in Western Europe and almost twice the rate of the Netherlands and Germany.   And while prison numbers have at least not risen since 2010, they should really have fallen. The numbers sentenced by the courts for indictable and either way offences has fallen from 370,000 to 280,000 in the last six years. It’ s true that there has been a marked increase in convictions for sex offences and the public rightly expect the most serious cases to receive a proper level of  punishment. But how, in a period of austerity, with prisons in crisis, are we to justify the fact that more than 27% of theft and burglary offences were punished with imprisonment last year compared to 22% in 2010? Or that the average sentence lengths for these crimes rose from 8.8 to 9.2 months?  There’s a similar pattern to drug offences and fraud. 

I would like to see prison reserved for the most serious offenders and sentence lengths brought into line with Western European norms.  I am instructing the Sentencing Council to revise its guidelines to give effect to that. We should aim to reduce our prison population by ensuring that the upper limits of the revised sentencing guidelines are not exceeded by the courts and by encouraging alternative problem solving approaches and restorative justice wherever that is justified. In many cases this might involve a more lenient approach than some might like but we desperately need a more varied and effective approach to the complexity of crime so that victims, offenders and the public get better results.

In drawing up guidelines, the Council must look at the cost and effectiveness of sentences. I have to say on those criteria, I am not convinced that all of the people that currently go to prison need to be there, or be there so long. Of the 77,000 people sentenced to prison for the more serious offences last year, 28,000 were sentenced for theft and burglary. More than 30,000 of the 77,000 were sentenced to 6 months or less. I’m pleased that the number of short sentences has been falling but it has a long way to go. After my review of Probation reports next month, I will be looking at ways that the service can contribute to diverting many more of these short term offenders from jail.  I am also interested in exploring how elements of a prison sentence can be converted into a community based sanction. If prisoners agree to undertake a period of unpaid work in the community for example they could be released earlier from custody than they otherwise might have been.

This will help  with overcrowding which I now realise is the key problem that needs to be solved before we can regain control of our prisons and start to make them the rehabilitative institutions we have been promising.  To provide immediate respite, there will be a presumption that all sentences of up to 2 years will be suspended.  I am also taking executive action to release IPP prisoners who have now served longer than the maximum current sentence for their offence and for all post tariff cases, I will be taking to steps to ensure that prisoners only continue to be detained if there is evidence they remain a danger to the public.

I hope that these measures might give the prison system the breather it needs. I might be accused of a quick fix but I believe I am taking the necessary urgent action to address what is an emergency while laying the groundwork for a sustainable future.  To inform longer term plans I have established a Justice Reinvestment Task Force which will report by the summer on how to establish direct financial incentives for local agencies to spend money in ways which would reduce prison numbers. I am not convinced that the costs of imprisonment should continue to be borne at national level.  At the end of the day, prison is only a small part of the answer to crime.    

Thursday, 9 February 2017

NOMS to HMPPS: Rebadging or Real Reform ?

So the National Offender Management Service is no more, to be replaced by Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service. Is it a rebadging of what is perceived as an unloved and unlovely bureaucratic monster with a more transparent and comforting title? Or a more significant shift in responsibilities which will lead to real change?

There are undoubtedly highly positive elements in in the Truss reforms; long overdue investment in staff not only of resources but professional training and status. There will be a greater focus on women in the criminal justice system- much needed although we’ll have to see whether adding the responsibility to an existing role will bring about the far reaching reforms that are urgently required.

For some in the probation world, the hope of a quickie divorce from their forced marriage to prisons has been dashed although the new arrangements could lead to a conscious uncoupling in due course. Much depends on the review of the reformed system which will report in the spring.

But what of prisons? The Prison Safety and Reform White Paper makes no mention of replacing NOMS. It’s in the design of the reformed prison system in paragraph 68. HMPPS will be an Executive Agency like NOMS. It will continue with the core of its business – managing prisons -but be stripped of its role in commissioning services, making policy and it seems monitoring performance.  From April these functions will move to the Ministry of Justice.  Agreements between individual prisons and the MoJ will also come into play although in an unpromising start, the Prison Governors Association have advised their members not to sign them. Despite the White Paper’s promise of negotiation, there apparently hasn’t been any.

Although the new arrangements promise clarity, there are still many questions. Is it sensible to split commissioning and contract management between the MoJ and HMPPS?  Where will Electronic monitoring fit? And where will the line on policy development be drawn? The Prison service instructions introduced last year included guidance on preventing corruption, the interception of communications, faith and pastoral care for prisoners, searching of cells and the care of transgender prisoners. We have been promised a bonfire of these instructions although almost all look important and most essential. Some may be better informed by policy wonks in the Ministry of Justice but most need experienced operational input. 

One of NOMS biggest critics argued it was “dangerously out of touch with its operational heartland”. In that respect the new arrangements could make things worse not better.