Wednesday, 21 June 2017

Prison Break

Why has the government junked the prison bit of the Prison and Courts Bill? There seem to be three main possibilities.  

The first is that with big issues like the purpose of prisons and the role of the Secretary of State in running them due to be determined, ministers didn’t fancy depending on mavericks like Philip Davies MP let alone the DUP to get their way. The Tory party has always had its Michael Howards as well as Douglas Hurds and the risk of being held to ransom by hardliners – and having to rely on Labour votes to get their way- simply wasn’t worth the candle.  Besides, the key to sorting out prisons-so this theory goes- doesn’t lie in a new legal frameworks but putting staff boots back on the ground as the new Justice Secretary told us in his open letter today.   

Theory two is that when Theresa May and her people asked what was in the bill, they were told that inspectors would get greater powers and ministers would have to respond to their criticisms. To which came the reply why on earth are we making another rod for our own backs? More transparency and accountability are the last thing we need just now.

Option three is that Mrs May is simply no prison reformer or at least not in the grandiose Cameron/Gove mould which gave shape to the thinking behind the Bill. She may be an instinctive hardliner herself but her record on social issues defies that simple characterisation.  More likely in her weakened state she has realised that as far as the public is concerned, there are no, or few votes in prisons.  With crime rising once again and what maybe a growing threat and reality of terrorist violence, reform and rehabilitation of prisoners is unlikely to help her government’s popularity in the country.

Whatever the reason- and it may be a bit of all three- within 18 months prison reform has been marched to the top of the hill and back down again. Mr Lidington’s letter promises that the work of making prisons places of safety and rehabilitation goes on. Maybe that is better done away from parliamentary and public gaze. But it feels, as the Chief  Inspector of Prisons  has said, a missed opportunity.    

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

The History Boy

New Justice Secretary David Lidington has strong links with the past. For one thing, he gained a PhD by studying the enforcement of  penal statutes in the 16th Century. More recently, he worked as a special adviser to Douglas Hurd in the Home Office from 1987, in the days when the Home Secretary was responsible for penal policy and for the prison and probation services which gave practical effect to it. Hurd is remembered as a liberal although preferred to describe himself as pragmatic. While Hurd paved the way for the 1991 Criminal Justice Act which sought to limit custody, it was his successor David Waddington whose White Paper included the famous (though surely flawed) axiom that imprisonment can be an expensive way of making bad people worse.

As Hurd’s SPAD, Lidington will have been familiar with many a prison crisis. Almost thirty years ago, Hurd had to tell the Commons that prison numbers had risen by 4000 in twelve months pushing the population more than 9,000 above its uncrowded capacity. With 600 prisoners in police cells, Hurd had to announce a range of short and long term measures to avert disaster;  a series of disturbances the previous year prompted  Hurd to tell MP’s "of the delicate balance between order and disorder in our prisons.”

I don’t know what if any part Lidington played in putting together the remedial plan which emerged. It included an accelerated building programme, the introduction of the private sector and the opening of an army camp. There was also action to reduce demand for prison places- a more generous regime of early release pending a wide ranging review of parole, remission and post release supervision to be undertaken by Mark Carlisle QC. 

The package provided short term relief but three years on the Strangeways riot showed it to have been a sticking plaster at best.

As Lidington takes up the reins, he will want to avoid history repeating itself. He already has a building programme in place, so it’s demand rather than supply he needs to look at. While the prison population has been stable for the last seven years, prisons are still overcrowded. He and Hurd managed to get the numbers down from 51,000 to 45,000. Could Lidington achieve a 10% reduction and bring an end to overcrowding?


Back in 1987, one reason for the sharp rise in numbers was an increase in the average length of custodial sentences passed by the Crown court.   Sentence lengths have risen recently too.  One lever that’s now available is the Sentencing Council. Lidington should ask the Chair how he plans to reduce sentence inflation. He should also find some long grass into which to kick the manifesto plan to extend the unduly lenient sentence scheme. 

More positively, Lidington should look seriously at the pledge to devolve criminal justice responsibilities to metro mayors and Police and Crime Commissioners.   Building local incentives to reduce the need for imprisonment should be a long term aim. He will probably have to stick with (and invest into) the reformed probation landscape in the short term. But planning a stronger and more stable set of arrangements for the future should be an important priority.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Come What May

In February,Theresa May quipped that when she was at the Home Office she used to say of Justice Secretary Ken Clarke “I locked ’em up and he let ’em out”.  Fears of a tougher approach to criminal policy in the Conservative manifesto have largely been allayed- continuity is the order of the day. While that may be a relief, it’s disappointing to see retained the policy of extending the scope of the Unduly Lenient Sentence Scheme “so a wider range of sentences can be challenged”.  Given recent increases in sentence lengths, reviewing the work of the Sentencing Council would have been a better way forward.

The prison reform legislation interrupted by the election looks set to continue with an additional much needed plan to reform the entry requirements, training, management and career paths of prison officers. Alongside efforts to attract graduates to work in prisons, this suggest a welcome recognition of the need to invest much more in prison staff. Figures out today show a large increase in prison officers leaving their jobs; almost a quarter today have less than two years’ experience in the work.  The pledge to reduce the disproportionate use of force against Black, Asian and ethnic minority people in prison, young offender institutions and secure mental health units represents an overdue commitment to address racial injustice inside prison as well as outside. There's a good idea to encourage employers to take on ex offenders via a 12 month National Insurance break.

As for non-custodial measures, there are promises to create a “national community sentencing framework” and introduce “dedicated provision” for women offenders- whatever they might entail. The drafters of this section seem to have taken on board Churchill’s view that manifestos should be a lighthouse not a shop window.  

There is a bit more clarity about increasing the role of police and crime commissioners. They will sit on local health and wellbeing boards, enabling better co-ordination of crime prevention with local drug and alcohol and mental health services. There’s the prospect too of “greater devolution of criminal justice responsibility and budgets to local commissioners”. With Mayors in London and Manchester keen to extend their responsibilities we could see important changes in governance
   
The Conservatives have not been averse to promising changes to police structures- bringing the Serious Fraud Office into the National Crime Agency and creating an Infrastructure Policing body combining Transport, Nuclear and Defence police forces. There will also be a new domestic violence and abuse commissioner.

I wouldn’t rule out further changes when, as seems likely, Mrs May forms the new government.  I still think we could see prisons moved back to the Home Office. Then the Home Secretary would be in charge of locking up and letting out.  

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Liberal Order

One of many recent disappointments for prison reformers was how little the Liberal Democrats were able to influence criminal justice policy during their time in government. Almost none of their 2010 manifesto pledges on justice – such as a presumption against short term prison sentences - made it into the Coalition agreement. They might pray in aid a modest expansion in restorative justice. But the Lib Dems share of responsibility both for the disastrous underinvestment in prisons and rushed privatisation of probation weigh heavily on the debit side as does the absurd and thankfully abandoned Secure College for young offenders.  What are they offering to the electorate this time round?

Despite their electoral meltdown two years ago, the 2017 Lib Dem manifesto creditably retains many of the proposals from previous campaigns; the presumption against short prison terms, an extension of the role of the Youth Justice Board to young adults, and a new Women’s Justice Board. They continue to want to see Community Justice Panels and other local schemes designed to resolve conflicts and reduce harm.

As in 2015, the Lib Dems would replace the elected Police and Crime Commissioners (whom they helped to introduce) with local boards and introduce a Victim’s Bill of Rights. This would include a right for victims “to request restorative justice rather than a prison sentence” (whatever that exactly means).

The radicalism comes in the drugs field. Previous manifestos have pledged an end to imprisonment for possession for personal use, but policy on legalisation has gone no further than looking at evidence from abroad. The party is presumably satisfied that the impact on public health and crime of legalisation initiatives in the US and Uruguay are such that they can go further and so now promise a legal, regulated market for cannabis. They’d repeal the Psychoactive Substances Act and move responsibility for policy from the Home Office to Department of Health.

The ambition on the drugs front is not quite matched on prisons. Yes the plan is to transform prisons into places of rehabilitation, recovery, learning, and work, with suitable treatment, education or work available to all prisoners. Trans prisoners would be placed in prisons that reflect their gender identity, rather than their birth gender. And the overrepresentation of individuals from a BAME background reduced at every stage of the criminal justice system, taking into account the upcoming recommendations of the Lammy Review.

But unlike in previous manifestos, there’s nothing about stopping or scaling back prison building. Two years ago the party believed “that a large prison population is a sign of failure to rehabilitate, not a sign of success. So our aim is to significantly reduce the prison population by using more effective alternative punishments and correcting offending behaviour".  In 2017 they look a bit more cautious.

It’s Plaid Cymru whose manifesto has a hint of reductionism. They would block the development of the Port Talbot super prison. But it’s only a hint. Instead they would provide “much-needed” prison spaces for women and youth offenders in Wales.

More Hard Labour?


In the midst of Jeremy Corbyn’s radical plans to transform Britain, it’s perhaps surprising to learn that Labour is still “tough on crime and the causes of crime”. That most Blairite of slogans- albeit one thought up by Gordon Brown- shaped the New Labour government’s approach to criminal justice policy over 13 years from 1997. Over this period, harsher sentencing – in particular for repeat offenders, caused prison numbers to rise from 60,000 to 85,000.  Had Brown won the 2010 election, we were promised a total of 96,000 places by 2014 plus an outlandish plan to use the tax system to claw back from higher-earning offenders a proportion of the costs of prison.

How then to square Labour’s retention of the tough on crime mantra in their 2017 manifesto with a welcome vision of prison as a last resort, "the state’s most severe sanction for serious offences"?  It’s partly no doubt a matter of what the Americans call "optics"- how the policy will look, whatever it actually does. It also reflects divisions within the party about the direction of penal policy which came to a head last year when calls for an end to the penal arms race were met with scorn by the Blairite old guard. For them, the slogan will provide a welcome continuity with the past.

But for Labour’s new vanguard there are attractions too. A 2017 Labour government would of course be aiming to attack the causes of crime by the raft of measures designed to relieve social deprivation and reduce inequality.But what about dealing with people in conflict with the law? 

The manifesto’s recognition that prison is too often a dumping ground for people needing treatment rather than punishment opens up the idea that a determined and durable crime policy does not have to mean an ever increasing custodial population. A programme to expand residential and community based options for people with mental health and drug problems could provide a more effective and no less rigorous way forward.  Expansion of restorative justice –promised in Ed Miliband’s 2015 manifesto and now repeated two years on-could also offer demanding alternatives to prosecution and prison.


On prisons themselves, the 2017 manifesto promises an end to future prison privatisation and a review of Community Rehabilitation Companies but not an immediate return to public ownership of prisons or probation bodies currently run for profit. More and better trained prison staff, personal rehabilitation plans for all prisoners and a review of mental health services in prisons are proposed as ways of reversing the woeful deterioration of conditions in recent years. Sensible of course but radical enough? After all we have heard before that “the prison service now faces serious financial problems. We will audit the resources available … and seek to ensure that prison regimes are constructive and require inmates to face up to their offending behaviour”. That was New Labour in 1997, not so different from today.

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Manifesto Destiny. Criminal Justice Ideas for the 2017 Election

Chances are we won’t get much about criminal justice in any of the manifestos. But Labour’s surprisingly Blairite promise of 10,000 more police officers suggests that domestic policy may not be entirely absent from the parties’ offerings to the electorate.  It’s a reminder too of how strongly received wisdom shapes policy development in the field, even in a radical party committed to transforming the country. Would not 10,000 mental health workers do more to address the crisis of well being which brings so many into conflict with the law – and free up police time to prevent and respond to more serious harm?    

Here are five criminal justice priorities I’d like to see featured:

1) Sensible Sentences

The prison population has been fairly stable since 2010 at about 85,000, but with a 25% fall in the numbers sentenced for serious crimes over that period, we should really have seen prison numbers go down. The reason they haven’t is that the proportion of cases being sentenced to prison has risen – from 22% to 27% -as have average sentence lengths for almost all types of crime from 16 to 19 months. Sentences have got longer not only for violent and sexual offences but for theft and drug offences too. Further sentence inflation is neither desirable nor manageable. We will introduce a strong presumption against short prison terms and require the Sentencing Council to produce a wider range of guidelines, based on fuller consideration of the cost and effectiveness of different sentences. Stronger limits will be placed on courts preventing them from exceeding guideline levels and new pilot problem solving courts will be encouraged to impose less severe punishments when it is in the interests of rehabilitation to do so.

2) Developing Youth Justice

Youth justice has offered a ray of light in penal policy, with big reductions in numbers in court and in custody in the last ten years. Now’s the time to extend the successful leadership of the Youth Justice Board and the multi-agency approach of Youth Offending Teams to the young adult age group of 18-21 year olds. For the under 18’s, it’s time too to phase out Young Offender Institutions and Secure Training Centres  and expand the number of small secure children’s homes – the only model that has proved consistently able to offer appropriate and constructive regimes for young people in custody. Responsibility for meeting the entire costs of custody for under 18's will be transferred to local authorities and Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs). In due course local bodies will be able to commission secure and other accommodation for under 18’s rather than simply purchasing what is currently available

3) Promoting Probation

Half of the £1.3 billion being used to build four new prisons, will be used to invest in community based alternatives to custody for the 50,000 people a year given short prison sentences – through more investment in supervision provided by probation, Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRC’s) and other organisations; by improved dialogue with judges and magistrates and better links with the public. Priority will be given to keeping women and people with mental health problems out of prison environments and strengthening the availability of community and residential treatment services instead. We will conduct a genuine and wide ranging review of Transforming Rehabilitation to ensure that when current CRC contracts end, a suitable model is in place for a reinvigorated probation service.

4)  Safeguarding Prisons

We will redraft the Prisons Bill with much stronger duties on the authorities to provide decent conditions, avoid overcrowding, and treat prisoners with humanity, fairness and respect for their dignity. Prisons will be required to ensure proper staffing ratios based on 2010 levels and a task force established to drive developments in education, vocational training and work in prisons. Mental health services will be strengthened and a programme to develop life coaching for prisoners expanded across the estate.


 5) Rehabilitation Devolution

We will develop a Justice Reinvestment Taskforce to identify  the best ways of transferring responsibilities for justice services to a more local level, with a view to devolving budgets by the end of the parliament.  Police and Crime Commissioners will be invited  to chair new Justice and Safety Partnerships with CRC’s, local government, health and judicial participation which would give a greater regional voice in the system and create a commissioning vehicle to which criminal justice budgets might be devolved. Pathfinder initiatives will be agreed with Mayors in London and Manchester through which savings resulting from reductions in prison numbers will be reinvested in prevention and rehabilitation programmes.

There is a lot more that a new government should do- not least committing to take seriously David Lammy's recommendations on race equality in criminal justice; expanding the availability of Restorative Justice and considering a new approach to illegal drugs. But action on these five might help bring to an end what has been an increasingly unhappy period for criminal justice in England and Wales.    

Wednesday, 19 April 2017

What's on the criminal justice cards from a new May government?

More shocking revelations on prisons, this time from the Council of Europe’s Committee for the Prevention of Torture who visited a range of detention facilities last year-Pentonville and Doncaster prisons and Cookham Wood YOI (as well as police stations, immigration detention centres and closed psychiatric hospitals).  The report catalogues the depressing if familiar reality of prison conditions, finding none of the three establishments safe for prisoners or staff. The CPT found that locking children alone in their cell for all but half an hour a day amounts to inhuman and degrading treatment. And they were concerned that incidents of violence was under recorded, particularly at SERCO run Doncaster.

It’s possible that the report will be the last of its kind. If Mrs May fulfils her wish to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights, a new Conservative government will find itself with a BREXIT 2 to negotiate. The Council of Europe may be the smallest of beer compared to the EU but it’s the continent’s leading human rights organisation. We may find ourselves sharing observer status with Belarus. But at least we won’t have to worry about letting prisoners vote.

What else might we see from a new Conservative government on the justice and prison front? There’s quite a bit from the 2015 manifesto that hasn’t been achieved. The promise of new technology is as yet undelivered, whether to monitor offenders in the community, to bring persistent offenders to justice more quickly or allow women with small children to serve sentences in the community. Perhaps thankfully there is no sign of the new semi-custodial sentence for prolific criminals, allowing for a short, sharp spell in custody to change behaviour; nor of extensions to the scope of the unduly lenient sentence scheme. Will we see these commitments reappear in this year’s manifesto or will they be quietly shelved? What will happen to plans for increasing penalties for driving offences which result in fatalities?

At least one commentator thinks that the 2015 manifesto is the enemy Mrs May wishes to slay. If he is right, there is no guarantee that the prison reform measures contained in the Prison and Courts Bill will necessarily reappear. For those with long memories, the post 1992 Major Government rapidly undid the liberal justice reforms it inherited. The counterpoint of recent headlines about prisons no longer being places for punishment and violent crime surges could easily prompt  a harder approach on criminal justice in the new manifesto. Despite the flowing oratory of Michael Gove and process re-engineering of Liz Truss, the ghost of Michael Howard has never been far from the feast. While Mrs May is difficult to pigeonhole, I've always doubted whether  her appetite for rehabilitation and redemption will have been sharpened by six years in the Home office- famously described by Peter Hennessy as the graveyard of liberal thinking since the days of Lord Sidmouth. 


The CPT emphasised that unless determined action is taken to significantly reduce the current prison population, the regime improvements envisaged by the authorities’ reform agenda will remain unattainable. I wouldn’t put money on that. The best we can hope for is perhaps a steady state. Although if I were a betting man, I’d put a flutter on the dismantling of the Ministry of Justice.  It’s quite conceivable that prisons and probation will return to the Home Office. The Tories have always thought of the MoJ as a European construct ill- suited to our traditions. Prepare to welcome back the Lord Chancellor’s Department.