Thursday, 22 August 2013

Governing Through Crime (Commissioners)

Power Down, Policy Exchange’s Report on Police and Crime Commissioners has the sub title “A plan for a cheaper, more effective justice system” but it might as well   have been “We Expand or We Die”.  There are no detailed costings to stand up the cost argument and no real evidence to support the effectiveness claim. Rather it it places PCC’s at the head of a localism crusade to take control of the Whitehall dominated citadels that rule the criminal justice world.  

While  not  going as far as last year’s Reform report which argued that PCC’s should take over the budgets and responsibility for pretty much all of the criminal justice agencies, in one sense it goes further suggesting that in ten years PCC’s might morph into public safety commissioners or even local mayors.  Sooner than that , the report envisages PCC’s as  ministers for the local  criminal justice system with “the political power to set the agenda, hold agencies within his/her purview to account for performance and enact reforms to ensure a more efficient and effective system at the local level.”

There’s much to be said in the arguments for improved coordination, co-terminosity between agencies and pooled budgets. As the Howard League Commission on prisons said in 2010 “the current criminal justice system not only wastes money but it is overly centralised and driven by misleading and often meaningless targets.” It argued that the National Offender Management Service should be broken up and “replaced by an agenda rooted in localism and in engaging with communities to seek meaningful outcomes”.

On the face of it such an agenda could be driven by the PCC’s as Policy Exchange propose. But there are other ways that this could be done. Outside London the democratic mandate, and breadth of competence is simply too thin to carry forward such a wide ranging agenda. Governing through crime is not the best way forward.

An alternative model could build on local authorities, developing perhaps a hybrid body to commission services to prevent crime, implement sanctions and rehabilitate offenders. This is a direction of travel proposed by the Local Government Information Unit in their 2009 report Primary Justice. Such a model would build in incentives to reduce costly and unproductive imprisonment and invest instead in the kind of targeted measures which reduce crime and demand on the criminal justice system.

Such an approach would show that that the answers to crime and public safety lie not with the police but with the social agencies. It is a model that should prove more attractive to the Labour party.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Through the gate to a short sharp shock

Almost everyone who works in criminal justice thinks it daft that short term prisoners get almost no support when released. But many are equally concerned that introducing a breachable requirement to comply with supervision could lead to a swift return inside for many offenders.
That concern was not allayed by Justice Minister Damien Green who chose to emphasise in a speech today that  the government  are  “tackling stubbornly high reoffending rates with proposed new powers for magistrates to impose a ‘short sharp’ two week return to custody for any offender who breaches their new supervision period, following a sentence of less than 12 months in prison.”
He was jumping the gun in that the provisions in the Offender Rehabilitation Bill are still  before Parliament and are not uncontroversial . But his emphasis on the stick of custodial remedies rather than the carrot of through the gate mentoring was unnecessarily punitive and also foolish.

The last government called off the implementation of the similar Custody Plus scheme when they realised the additional prison places which would be needed. Serious questions remain about the affordability of this governments plan. There are the costs of supervising prisoners on release and of imprisoning those who fail to comply. But magistrates are likely to find the clang of the prison gate plus some help on release a highly attractive proposition. The number of short term sentences they impose could easily increase at the expense of community penalties the future supervision of which is mired in uncertainty. Green would have been better advised to emphasise that once breachable supervision is added to a short term prison sentence, its punitive weight is much increased. Courts should be looking to reduce the lengths of the custodial component of these short sentences to reflect the new threat of re-imprisonment which they contain.

Green’s plans for Magistrates to scrutinise police cautions also look to be ill judged. According to ACPO, a full review of how police forces use cautions has been carried out involving the police, the Ministry of the Justice, the Home Office, the Crown Prosecution Service and victims’ organisations. “The review has found that in the vast majority of cases officers are using the guidance available to them, applying cautions appropriately and proportionately and this process is being properly supervised and managed.”  Is a layer of scrutiny therefore needed? Even if it is , should the judicial branch be getting involved in what are administrative decisions by the police? Not without a good deal more thought than has apparently so far been given.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Jail Break: Time to Get Juveniles Out of Prison Service Custody

At the end of June, there were 1,237 children under 18 in custodial establishments in England and Wales, representing a 60% fall over five years and a national total somewhat lower than the number of pupils at Eton College. Two thirds are held in Young Offender Institutions run by the prison service, where recent inspections have found often horrifying levels of violence, inadequate regimes and dismal outcomes. With the government due to set out their plans for the juvenile secure estate, the historically low numbers in custody provide a once in a generation opportunity to end the incarceration of juveniles in prison department establishments.

There are of course juveniles whose liberty needs to be restricted. About one in five of the current population are serving long sentences for grave crimes and many of these will transfer to other establishments at 18. A further fifth are on remand awaiting trial but legislative restrictions and the transfer of costs to local government could see these numbers fall further through the development of better alternatives.

But what of the three fifths of juveniles in custody who are serving a Detention and Training Order (DTO), a fixed term sentence of between four months and two years  served half in custody and half in the community? Many of these are young men – there are only about 50 girls under 18 in custody- whose prospects of giving up crime are hardly helped by a spell behind bars. In prison establishments in particular, unsuitable physical conditions, inappropriate rules and procedures and insufficient staff can combine to do more harm than good.

Some at least of these young people could be supervised on conventional alternative sentences but many -perhaps the majority -will have struggled to comply with the terms of previous orders. For them perhaps a short period in custody is unavoidable- but not for the two months that the DTO requires as a minimum. The period in custody should be measured in days and used  for community based agencies to put together a comprehensive plan of action to deal effectively with the young person’s needs without locking them up. Mostly this will involve a package of support for them (and their families) to get them learning and earning, off drugs and out of gangs.   Sometimes it may involve a specialist residential placement, an option currently permitted under the provisions of the DTO but never in fact applied.

Reshaping the DTO so that very short detention is followed by longer training in the community could perhaps halve the number of custodial places currently required. It would better meet the requirement of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child that “the arrest, detention or imprisonment of a child   shall be used only as a measure of last resort and for the shortest appropriate period of time”.