Tuesday, 28 March 2017

I Told You So

American novelist Gore Vidal described ‘I told you so’ as ‘the four most beautiful words in our common language’. But for those of us who predicted it, there has been little pleasure in seeing the debacle of probation privatisation laid bare in front of the Justice Committee during its short inquiry into Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) that wound up this morning.  It’s a shame the Committee has not done a fuller investigation. As with the MoJ Probation review, no written evidence has been invited. Perhaps both Ministry and Committee knew the horror story they would get-and the fact that the plot had all been told in advance.

So badly botched are either the contracting or management arrangements that the private community rehabilitation companies complain simultaneously that they have too few cases and that caseloads are unmanageably high. One CRC director gave ‘a wrong kind of snow’ type explanation for this but it’s hard to have much sympathy- unless that is, the private sector was actively misled by the MoJ – (a serious allegation made today which should be investigated).  After all, one of the alleged benefits of privatisation is that it can transfer risks (such as changes in demand for services) from the government to the private sector.

But less than two years into the seven year TR programme, the contracts are having to be reviewed and presumably money found to bail out the multinational corporations that run most of the CRCs. Did anyone seriously believe that with the same overall budget, the new Probation and CRC set up could be expected to supervise and rehabilitate 25 per cent more offenders than the Probation Trusts they replaced? The result is that the through the gate supervision of short term prisoners post release – the supposed jewel in the crown of TR-  according to one witness amounts to “£46  and a leaflet” , compared to just £46 previously.

Despite that reality, a witness told the Committee today that courts are imposing more short term prison sentences than pre-TR, thinking offenders will now get punishment plus help. The Chairman of the Magistrates Association said last week that if sentencers do not have confidence in the robustness of the alternatives to custody, they may conclude that there is no alternative to custody. These adverse risks for prison numbers were well rehearsed but ignored during TR’s rushed implementation. Just as worrying was today’s evidence that CRCs are not getting breach paperwork to court in time.

One ray of light in an otherwise gloomy landscape looks to be in the North East where the Durham and Tees Valley CRC seems to be avoiding most of the pitfalls. It’s no coincidence perhaps that it’s a single not for profit organisation run by a consortium of local organisations where staff have designed the operating model. Unlike elsewhere morale is good. But looked at in the round it’s hard to see how the Justice Committee can find TR so far anything but a major failure of public administration.

What is to be done? The reality is that with some crutches from the MoJ review, the arrangements are likely to limp on until 2021 but unless there’s a drastic improvement, something different will be needed then if not before. In London, the Mayor’s Office wants to join the oversight arrangements of the CRC “with the intention of devolving the full contract and commissioning responsibilities  once the current contract ends”. If performance in the capital does not improve, maybe that should happen sooner. A more genuinely local approach rooted in Justice Reinvestment is surely the next chapter for probation after this tale of woe.  

Thursday, 16 March 2017

Prison : Tide Going out or Calm before the Storm ?

Two reports out this week might give cause for guarded optimism about the use of imprisonment throughout the world. The Council of Europe reported that the number of people held in European prisons decreased by almost 7% from 2014 to 2015, finding reductions all over the continent from Denmark to Greece and Lithuania to Northern Ireland. There are countries who have gone the other way too, notably Turkey- and others where prison numbers have stayed fairly stable such as England and Wales. Perhaps the most striking statistic is the difference in incarceration rates between former Soviet states on the one hand where more than 200 per 100,000 of the general population are behind bars and Nordic countries where the level of imprisonment is closer to 50.  But even Russia, by some distance Europe’s leading jailer at more than 400 per 100,000, reported earlier this week that the population in its penitentiary system is the lowest for 25 years.

The use and over use of prison – and its miserable and sometimes deadly human consequences - have been examined in more detail by the Institute for Criminal Policy Research (ICPR) in an analysis of the recent experience of ten countries across five continents. Good news comes from the Netherlands – after a tripling of its prison numbers in the 90's it's back down at the Nordic level  and renting out its empty cells- and some promising trends in South Africa and the USA where sky high prison populations are at least falling. There are a number of “could do betters”- particularly where prisons are overfilled with pre- trial detainees (India, Kenya); and a worrying punitive turn in Australia. But a particularly ugly picture is painted in Brazil and Thailand where the war on drugs has fuelled astonishing rises in the use of prison which now make them 4th and 6th respectively in the global league table of prison populations

ICPR do their best to draw lessons from the vastly differing histories, cultures and legal systems they describe, arguing that there is nothing inevitable about prison population growth. It's certainly not a simple correlate of crime rates with a host of factors inside and beyond criminal justice interacting to determine the numbers locked up at any particular time and place. Brazil and Thailand notwithstanding, the report optimistically notes a growing recognition of the harms and ineffectiveness of tough law enforcement approaches to drug misuse with other strategies gaining ground.

Equally of course, despite the financial, social and ethical costs of prison, there is nothing inevitable about the reduction in its use. Politicisation of sentencing is one of the villains identified in the report and the populist politicians currently in the ascendant make unlikely penal reformers. ICPR raise doubts about the impact of deterrence and incapacitation despite their popular appeal. The report may be right too that the penal objective of denunciation is achieved by sanctions other than incarceration, such as fines or unpaid work – potentially with much less collateral damage. But that’s a hard political sell in the best of times. And we are not in the best of times.  

Even if state responsibility for most American imprisonment means that it may not matter too much what Trump thinks about mass incarceration, the rise of the authoritarian right elsewhere threatens to stop reform in its tracks.  ICPR describe the harsh penal measures introduced by FIDESZ in Hungary. Even out of power, populism and anti immigrant rhetoric can exercise a baleful influence on the policies of more moderate parties in a penal race to the bottom. Will the Netherlands be able to retain its parsimonious use of prison over the next five years? 

What's certain is that many countries will need the workable strategies to curb the resort to imprisonment which ICPR promise to develop as a follow up to their very useful evidence report.