Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Youth Justice: Future Directions

How should courts decide what to do with children in trouble? Sir James Munby the President of the Family Division told a seminar held by the National Association for Youth Justice (NAYJ) that he has some ideas. He’d like to see a one stop shop which would make decisions currently determined in the separate jurisdictions of the youth courts, immigration tribunals and family courts.  The new court would adopt an approach which grappled with the wide range of personal, family and social difficulties which lie behind delinquency and other childhood problems.

Such a problem-solving approach has been shown to work well with in the Family Drug and Alcohol court where evaluation has shown that for every pound spent £2.30 is saved. He’d also like courts given powers to require authorities to provide the services they judge are needed for individual children.  Munby recognised the challenge this posed to existing doctrine on the separation of powers but felt these would be outweighed by real world benefits.  Making the kind of stand he did in the Re X case- warning that society would have blood on its hands unless a secure clinical placement was found for a highly distressed young woman – was not a sustainable way to run the system.

A new court would need guiding principles combining the family court’s emphasis on the best interests of the child with the wider requirements of criminal justice. It could do worse than adopt those developed by Anna- Christina Jones in the different context of her action research with young people in Manchester. Meaningful participation is key along with an approach which aims to understand why children have behaved in the way they have and acknowledges their often limited chances. Working with children to help them solve their problems, find better options for the future and develop their ambitions – while as far as possible avoiding threats and sanctions -are surely the right way forward for youth justice workers. Should they not help guide Munby’s new court too? 

A reformed system could not work without a reliable range of services available locally to meet the needs of young people. Shadow Policing Minister Louise Haigh MP argued for much greater expansion of mental health services for both adults and children and for the latter a professional approach which recognises adverse childhood experiences including trauma. Labour is still working up its policy but their “children first, offenders second” philosophy seems a welcome distance from Tony Blair and Jack Straw's “No More Excuses”. For all age groups, we can expect much greater emphasis on diversion from the courts combined with evidence-based interventions.

A children first approach has implications across the system.  Joanne Cecil pointed to some rays of light in the culture of the Crown Court where children no longer always sit in a dock, and increasingly benefit from specially trained advocates. The new Chief Justice has made constructive judgements recognising the developing maturity of young people, even those above the age of 18.  

How to make it happen? Munby would exclude serious violent offences from his new scheme despite the evidence that many of the young people involved have themselves been victims of abuse and neglect and would benefit from a therapeutic approach. The reason? To make it more palatable. Public attitudes look like a huge roadblock although as Penelope Gibbs has shown, problem solving resonates well.

Money is tight of course. Shockingly Munby admitted that despite his efforts children seldom attend family proceedings with various central and local agencies bickering about who should meet the transport costs. If those modest sums can’t be agreed it seems fanciful to imagine a system in which courts can order more costly interventions to be provided.   

Maybe the answer lies in more local devolution. Labour are looking to devolve more- including Probation- to the PCC’s and mayors – as well as cutting the number of police forces.   Is the future direction of youth justice a local one?

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Youth Custody - On the Mend?

Judged last year to be “on the edge of coping with the young people it was charged with holding,” the youth custodial estate was placed under new management. Whether as a result or not,  Inspection reports on two of the most challenging institutions suggest that the crisis that has engulfed detention of young people may be easing.

Chief Inspector of Prisons Peter Clarke found that “overall, there had been excellent progress made at Feltham since the last inspection” with the west London Young Offender Institution achieving dramatic reductions in violence and improvements in child protection, safeguarding and governance of the use of force.  Medway Secure Training Centre was also judged by OFSTED, HMIP and the Care Quality Commission to have “improved in all areas since the last inspection”.

In both cases, progress has been from a low base and clearly there is very much more to do. Medway is still rated as requiring improvement and while Feltham is now judged reasonably good on safety, respect and resettlement, it’s still not sufficiently good on purposeful activity.  Clarke is of course right to say that “the progress could easily prove to be fragile if investment falls away or leadership loses its focus.” After all, Medway was judged good with outstanding features in September 2014, less than 18 months before Panorama revealed “targeted bullying of vulnerable boys by a small number of staff, conditioning of new staff and a larger group who must have been aware of unacceptable practice by colleagues. 

One of the most valuable elements of all inspection reports are the surveys which ask a sample of prisoners about their experiences and attitudes. The results enable comparison both with those of prisoners at the last inspection and at similar establishments.  It’s surprising perhaps, that despite its progress, boys at Feltham rate a worse experience in 17 areas and a better one in 9. Not all the areas should be given equal weight of course. But they merit a pause for thought.

Safety is fundamental and therefore it's highly  encouraging that fewer than one in ten boys felt unsafe this time compared to one in five last year. It's important too that many fewer boys think shouting through the windows is a problem. But the “dramatic” improvement in safety has left the numbers of boys who say they’ve been victimised by staff or young people at roughly the same level as before- just under a quarter.

In accounting for improvements, the inspectors are probably right to point to a better privileges scheme which has placed more than a third of boys on the top level compared to 12% last time- and which, contrary to the BBC’s frivolous reporting amounts to more than handing out sweets.   

But it's troubling that fewer boys can shower or make a phone call every day, find it easy to see the nurse, make an application or have a visit which starts on time. And while more have a remand, training or sentence plan fewer have a caseworker.  These are all areas which managers need to address in the coming year alongside those where previous findings have been ignored.

Most notable of these is the recommendation that under 18s should not be segregated in the Unit in the prison's young adult side. Clarke is right that progress depends on his recommendations being implemented. By my calculation, of the 80 made last time, 32 were fully achieved, 18 partially achieved and 30 not achieved. 

Such a calculation is not so easy to do in the case of Medway STC where the compliance with recommendations is not logged. Last time for example, inspectors said staff should be aware of young people with health conditions so modified holds can be used if physical restraint is needed. Now, "handling plans" are in place, but some staff did not know why, "undermining its purpose in ensuring that only safe holds are used for certain children". This recommendation has been partially achieved at best. But there is no summary of compliance.

The Medway report shows continuing wider issues with what is the widespread use of physical restraint of young people. During some episodes of physical restraint, “children felt pain even though techniques intended to cause pain were not used". Injury warning signs were identified eight times in the previous 6 months, most because children said that they could not breathe.

Just as troubling is the fact that 71% of children said in the survey that  they had been restrained while at the Centre, though records showed it was about half.  Indeed, the survey responses give a number of causes for concern. 29% of children said they'd felt threatened or intimidated by staff (vs 6% last time). More also experienced insulting remarks and physical abuse by staff. While, the changes may not be statistically significant, they look hard to square with the inspection’s conclusion that the STC has got better in all areas.  

Wednesday, 25 April 2018

More Council of Despair ?

All’s not well at the Sentencing Council. Chairman Lord Justice Treacy has had to remind judges and magistrates to use suspended prison sentences only in the most serious cases which would otherwise result in custody – and not simply as a way of giving lower level community penalties more teeth.

Treacy – and no doubt the Ministry of Justice- fear that if courts continue to ignore last year’s guideline on the imposition of custody but do pay heed to a forthcoming one on breach, the result will be “a high volume of activated suspended sentences”.  That means more pressure on the beleaguered prison system which has reported record levels of violence and self-harm in 2017.

More than one in ten suspended sentences are terminated early for a failure to comply with requirements and 18% for a further offence. While it’s not known how many of these cases currently go to jail, the new guideline is expected to urge activation of the custodial sentence unless it would be unjust in all the circumstances. The draft of the breach guideline tells courts to remember “that the court imposing the original sentence determined that a custodial sentence was appropriate in the original case”.  The problem is that in many cases they haven’t and it wasn’t.

The Council and Probation service have cooked up a plan to stop suspended sentences being recommended in Pre-Sentence Reports.(PSRs)  They’re proposed in about a third of PSRs and courts  accept two thirds of the proposals. What will happen now?  While the hope is that most suspended sentences will be replaced by community orders, there’s a risk that some additional custody may be imposed or even proposed.    

Such unintended consequences would be nothing new for the Council. An independent review of its work by eminent criminologist Sir Anthony Bottoms has confirmed that two major guidelines – on assaults and burglary - have led to unexpected increases in the severity of sentencing,  "which is bound to create anxiety among civil liberties groups”. The review is also critical of the Council’s failure, when drafting guidelines, to consider the relative cost and effectiveness of prison and other sentences in reducing re-offending.

The review makes largely technical recommendations about how the Council should both undertake and communicate its work in the future. There are good ideas here - a greater emphasis on personal mitigation in the guidelines, and a requirement that courts ask themselves "is custody unavoidable?" because sentencers may forget to do so. 

Not surprisingly the Council has rejected the idea of opening itself up to a television documentary but it has promised to foster better links with academics, review research on the effectiveness of sentencing and engage more with stakeholders other than sentencers. An external agency will be appointed to examine issues of public confidence in sentencing. 

Bottoms echoes several of the findings in the report I wrote for Transform Justice in 2016 -The Sentencing Council for England and Wales- Brake or Accelerator on the Use of Prison. He argues that a preoccupation with the prison population has blunted the impact of the Transform Justice report because “the current reality is that it would be politically very difficult for the Council, even if it wished to do so, to argue for a step change in the use of prison.” That may be true but does not excuse the fact that a body which could have curbed the unnecessary use of prison has largely failed to do so. 

Actually, noises coming from the Ministry of Justice are more promising than for some time. Prisons minister Rory Stewart told Parliament this week that he will be looking at what more the Government  can do to emphasise that a custodial sentence in the short term should be a final resort. He accepted there is a lot to learn from Scotland which has introduced a presumption against short prison sentences. Maybe the tide is finally turning?

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Deja Vu : Can the serious violence strategy learn from the past?

Back in 2002, when I was member of the Youth Justice Board, then Chair Lord Warner opened one of our meetings by saying he expected we were all considering resigning. The Prime Minister had called for young offenders to be taken – it might have been swept - off the streets in order to tackle an upsurge in mobile phone robberies. Our advice hadn’t been sought and Tony Blair’s approach didn’t sit well with our efforts to reduce the use of custody for young people. Warner persuaded us not to resign- every crisis is an opportunity was the line I think. We were vindicated in part by the fact that the Street Crime Initiative- developed in a series of COBRA meetings normally reserved for national emergencies – turned out to include prevention and treatment measures alongside enforcement. But at the outset and at its heart, was tough on crime rather than on the causes. Even Lord Woolf, the normally liberal Chief Justice was moved to issue a draconian guideline judgement on street robbery in its wake.   
Perhaps my experience back then, accounts for an initially positive reaction on my part to Amber Rudd’s Serious Violence Strategy. Much of the analysis of the problem which has come into tragic focus in recent weeks is basically sound. The Home Office may be a graveyard of liberal thinking, but this Home Secretary agrees with academics that “big shifts in crime trends tend to be driven by factors outside of the police’s control – like drug trends and markets, changes in housing and vehicle security.” Her approach to serious violence “is not solely focused on law enforcement, very important as that is, but depends on partnerships across a number of sectors such as education, health, social services, housing, youth services, and victim services.” So far so good.

The strategy recognises that key areas for reducing violence include “socio-economic improvements, strengthening ties to family, school and non-violent norms.” And for young people, early interventions are effective in reducing violent behaviour and “punitive activity is less effective than preventative support”. In reducing re-offending for all ages “Interventions focused on the establishment of cognitive or character-based skills and/or non-violent norms seem to be more effective than punitive interventions.” The strategy confirms too that “changes in the level of stop and search have only minimal effects – at best – on trends in violent crime, even when measured at the local level”. All this seems sensible and consistent with evidence. Ms Rudd even plans to hold an International Violent Crime Symposium to hear from international experts (yes experts) if she’s on the right track.

Where the strategy stops short of course is in putting in place the measures needed to meet the problems it identifies.

Take drugs. The strategy points out that drugs can drive up serious violence “indirectly, either by fuelling robberies to service drug dependence, or through violent competition between drug sellers. Grievances in illicit drug markets cannot be settled through legal channels, so participants may settle them violently. This can lead to escalation as dealers seek to portray themselves as excessively violent, and carry weapons, so as not to be cheated in the market.”  Is there the slightest hint of finding different ways of regulating at least some drugs so that at least some disputes might be more peacefully resolved? No.

As for the much praised early intervention, a series of small scale targeted funding schemes hardly begin to compensate for the under resourcing of mainstream provision – whether mental health treatment or youth clubs, inflicted in the name of austerity. The strategy promotes diversion of various kinds but to what? The small beer offered here will continue to leave thousands of young people at risk of becoming victims or perpetrators of violence.

Police numbers are of course the strategy’s missing link. Like it or not the Street Crime Initiative did appear to show that “increased police resources do in fact lead to lower crime”. This strategy extols the virtues of hot spot policing but shifting onto PCCs responsibility for providing officers to do it, is simply bad faith.

On courts, probation and prisons, the strategy only goes so far.  We can count ourselves fortunate that tougher sentencing for once takes a back seat. Given the state of the prison system, presumably the MoJ put their foot down about that. It’s good that violence in prison merits a place in the strategy and among the alphabet soup of initiatives to reduce it, the idea of trauma informed approaches looks a particularly good one.

But given that much serious violence is carried out by persistent offenders, why no mention of the cross-government group of senior Ministers, announced last month, which will work across all relevant departments to reduce re-offending. Presumably because it’s a MOJ rather than Home Office initiative. The latter will drive this strategy through a new Serious Violence Taskforce. But there will surely be benefits in David Gauke’s approach of targeting “prisoners and ex-offenders with the support they need to find a job, a home, to get help with debt, or to get treatment for a drug addiction or, a mental health issue”. Proper resettlement should be more central to what’s being proposed.

Thursday, 29 March 2018

Hard Case, Bad Law? Puzzles about Worboys

The Divisional Court Judgment on the Worboys case raises a number of puzzles. The Court ruled that the Parole Board’s decision to release the serial sex offender was not irrational on the information it considered but the Board was irrational not to have sought more. To a non lawyer , that looks like a distinction without a difference. As Nick Hardwick put it in his resignation letter “we were wrong”. The two women who brought the case deserve great credit for doing so, although I am not so sure about the Mayor of London.

What surprised me most was the fact that the Parole Board decided to release Worboys while he remained a Category A prisoner. The Prison Service must have considered him a person “whose escape would be highly dangerous to the public or the police or the security of the State and for whom the aim must beto make escape impossible”. The court heard that direct release is ordered on Cat A prisoners a handful of times a year.  Shouldn’t it be prohibited altogether?

There also a mystery about why more of the complaints against Mr Worboys were not prosecuted. Was it because they did not reach the evidential threshold as the CPS claimed earlier this year. Or was it that the CPS thought a small sample of offences would be enough to reflect the overall criminality and result in an appropriate sentence.

The Code for Crown Prosecutors says that Prosecutors should select charges which: a) reflect the seriousness and extent of the offending supported by the evidence; b) give the court adequate powers to sentence and impose appropriate post-conviction orders; and c) enable the case to be presented in a clear and simple way. One of the prosecutors reportedly told victims that “there are dangers in putting too many charges on an indictment as the trial can be too long and complicated.” Had more cases against Worboys been proved, the IPP tariff would have been higher and his release would not have been an issue until much later. IPP may have gone but the fundamental issue is still present.  Should the Code be amended to make this clear?  

As for sentencing, the Divisional Court was critical of the fact that the Parole Board did not consider the judge’s remarks made when Worboys was sentenced in 2009. I haven’t seen these but wonder how much weight they should be given. Parole Board decisions are about future risks and are predicated on the idea that people can change. How relevant are remarks made many years in the past? 

Last month at Liverpool Crown Court, in another dreadful case, the judge sentencing paedophile football coach Barry Bennell described him as “the devil incarnate”. What will the Parole Board- if it still exists- make of that when they consider his case in 2033 or thereabouts?

Finally, there’s the vexed question of the extent the Parole Board should take account of offending behaviour alleged but not proven. In their summary of the case, Matrix Chambers say that “should there be…attempts to deploy before the Parole Board extensive sub-conviction information, then they will likely be met by an argument that this case {ie Worboys} should be distinguished. The material in this case was readily available, the Board had been told of its existence, and it was particularly powerful. Those circumstances are quite unique”. But are they? Justice Secretary David Gauke told Parliament yesterday that in response to the judgement  “all relevant evidence of past offending should be included in the dossiers submitted to the Parole Board, including possibly police evidence, so that it can be robustly tested in each Parole Board hearing”.Presumably this includes “sub-conviction” information. And what about offences of which people have been acquitted?  Reasonable doubt may prevent a conviction but doesn’t always extinguish risk.   

There are no easy answers here but I wonder whether the future lies in handing these complex decisions over to the courts. The abolition of Rule 25 prohibiting information about parole proceedings being made public could well be a game changer. It will have a chilling effect on the Board and could lead to an upsurge in litigation one way and another.  Maybe it’s better to have these release decisions made by judges sooner rather than later.

Monday, 26 March 2018

Is Justice Reinvestment Finally Coming to Town?

For those of us who have spent years  promoting the policy of Justice Reinvestment (JR), today’s Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Ministry of Justice, London Councils and the Mayor is an important moment. It remains to be seen of course whether it leads, as David Gauke told Parliament, to fundamental change in responsibilities for criminal justice and offender management in London. But it certainly promises greater local influence in the capital’s victim and witness services, probation system, electronic monitoring arrangements and justice measures for young adults and women.  It goes some way towards meeting one of the three key elements of JR- that is the “devolution of responsibility for criminal justice to a more local level, where a range of relevant organisations can devise the most appropriate approaches to reducing crime, incorporating the views of people most affected by it”.

But what about the other two prerequisites for JR? These are first, an overarching and explicit policy goal of reducing the numbers of people being prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned; and second a method of financing criminal justice institutions and processes which incentivises the transfer of resources away from prison places, and into community based measures for rehabilitating offenders and preventing crime.  The MoU takes us less far and more tentatively in these directions.

It’s true that it commits to exploring the scope for greater use of police diversion and credible alternatives to custody for women; and to reducing the numbers of young Londoners from being incarcerated in unsafe or distant institutions. But alongside these lukewarm diversionary ambitions sit proposals for a community prison for women and a secure school for children. The MOU talks about reviewing “the use of custody (both police and secure estate) for young people to develop recommendations to support more effective custodial solutions”. I thought this must be a typo (with a missing non-), but am not so sure.

More positively perhaps, the parties commit to working to explore the feasibility and practicality of justice reinvestment “with the aim of reducing the number of low risk offenders sentenced to custody and enabling the sharing of savings to support better community interventions. This will include a particular focus on female offenders and 18-25 year old offenders”.

The document’s glossary defines JR as “a model where investment is given to a local area in response to a reduction in demand on the offender management / criminal justice system”.  It acknowledges the possibility of upfront funding with the ability to claw back payments if demand is not reduced.  The MoU incorrectly states that this has not been tested. The Youth Justice Reinvestment Custody Pathfinder which ran from 2011-2013 did just that. While two of the four pilot sites activated a break clause after a year, the two that stayed the course exceeded their targets for reducing the custodial places required for their young people.  It worked.  

How far this all goes and when will depend on the energy and vision of the London Justice Devolution Board which will drive the agenda forward. The timetable for action is a bit opaque. The first task of the Board “will be to agree a detailed implementation plan to operationalise all of the commitments in this MoU no later than March 2019. The implementation plan will be developed prior to the first London Justice Devolution Board”. 

Back in 2015 I recommended that a JR initiative on women “combining up front money and reward payments should be started”. Rather than yet more time exploring, considering and scoping, the partners should crack on with this at the very least. 

Judging Prisons

Some rare good news about prisons last week. HMP Altcourse – the G4S local prison in Liverpool was found by the Inspectorate, in November last year, to be providing “fundamentally decent treatment and conditions despite facing the same challenges as other local prisons.” The contrast is particularly stark with the city’s Walton jail where two months earlier the inspectors had found an abject failure … to offer a safe, decent and purposeful environment.” There’s likely to be  a good deal to learn about how Altcourse has managed to reduce violence and self-harm year on year, and to bring about a considerable decline in the use of new psychoactive substances by prisoners.  This is certainly the line that G4S are pushing- pleased no doubt that one of their establishments is in the headlines for the right reasons. Staff and managers certainly deserve credit for taking positive initiatives to try to deal with poor behaviour and drug misuse among a demanding population of prisoners.   

But in identifying lessons for broader application in the prison system, it will be important to look closely at the inspectors’ findings at Altcourse and, perhaps as importantly, at what prisoners themselves have had to say about their care, conditions and experience.

Commendably, inspections always include a comprehensive survey of prisoners’ views on a variety of matters, using a large enough sample to produce a reliable representation of the population as a whole. The data from surveys is used to compare what prisoners say about conditions in a particular establishment from one inspection to the next; and how prisoners’ experiences match up in different jails of the same type. The survey questionnaires have recently been revised making these comparisons more difficult than in the past. But setting the 2017 Altcourse results beside those from the last inspection there in 2014, raises some puzzling questions.  

Take safety. Four years ago, 12% of prisoners said they felt unsafe at the time of the inspection. In November it was up to 21%. That’s still a lower level than most local prisons – the proportion was 34% at Walton- but the direction of travel at Altcourse doesn’t look good. In 2014, 10% of prisoners said they’d been hit, kicked or assaulted by other prisoners. In 2017 18% said they had been physically assaulted. The percentage of prisoners saying they’d been assaulted by staff doubled from 3 to 7%. While not all of these trends are statistically significant, there seems a clear finding that more prisoners at Altcourse experienced physical or verbal abuse from other prisoners in 2017 than at other local prisons or at the same prison in 2014. In the light of this, it’s surprising perhaps that Inspectors ranked safety outcomes reasonably good this time – they weren’t sufficiently good four years ago. 

What about drugs? In 2014 a third of prisoners reported that it was easy or very easy to get illegal drugs. Last year 47% of those who had a drug problem – a sub set of the sample - said this was the case. Comparison is tricky but what does seem clear is that between the inspections, the proportion of prisoners reporting that they had developed a problem with illicit drugs since being in the prison more than doubled from 8% to 17%.  That doesn't look like much of an improvement. 

Finally in terms of regime, the number of prisoners who said they spent 10 hours a day outside their cell on weekdays was much higher in 2014 (34%) than last year (16%).  This jars a bit with the inspectors claim that there were sufficient activity places to occupy all men, with most in full-time activities involving nine to 10 hours out of their cells, sometimes more.

There may well be good reasons why the “clear signs of improvement” identified by the inspectors are not always reflected in the views of prisoners. But where there are inconsistencies the challenge must be for the prison to explain them. David Lammy’s mantra “explain or reform” could have value in using data to inform prison improvement as it might in reducing racial disparities in criminal justice. 

There’s a challenge too for the inspectorate to show more their workings more carefully- how they integrate the various sources of information and observation into a set of judgements about an institution.  And what the thresholds are for different ratings on their healthy prison tests. At Altcourse  a quarter of prisoners say  they have been prevented from making a complaint and  fewer than half of those who make a complaint think its dealt with fairly. That may be a better score than other prisons -but is it really a reasonably good outcome?