Tuesday, 22 December 2015

2015 End of Term Criminal Justice Report: Some Signs of Promise but Must do Better

What should we make of 2015 as far as penal policy is concerned?  The new government has promised radical reforms at the heart of their agenda, but eye catching announcements like the closure of Holloway notwithstanding, we’ve yet to see much in the way of new policy or practice. As is always the case, there has been as much continuity as there has been change.

The controversial Transforming Rehabilitation reforms that placed 70% of probation work into the private sector got underway in earnest in February since when almost all prison sentences, however short, have been followed by a mandatory period of supervision after release. Inspection reports in May and November found the new arrangements presented a mixed picture noting continuing mistakes in allocating cases between the Probation Service and Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs), and variation in the quality of offender assessments. December’s revelation of serious failures by South Yorkshire CRC run by Sodexo confirms the impossible position faced by Paul McDowell who quit as Chief Inspector in February after it  had become known that he is married to the head of the company’s criminal justice operation.

Paul’s permanent replacement Glenys Stacey is due to start in the New Year and may wish to revisit the Inspectorate’s plan to discontinue monitoring the implementation of TR after March 2016- particularly if Sodexo fail to take remedial action and lose their contract in South Yorkshire. The National Audit Office plan to publish a report on value for money in the spring of 2016 but this looks too soon to be informative.  Proper scrutiny will be  essential   for a programme which NOMS former Director of Competition has recently described as untried, over complex and highly risky: “It is like watching people doing their best to organise the perfect train crash” he wrote in his book "Competition for Prisons Public or private?".

April saw reports that Sodexo were planning to replace CRC staff with automated kiosks and December saw Working Links reported to be planning large scale job cuts in their CRC's  in Wales and the West country, in part because numbers of cases are lower than forecast. In the context of these commercial woes it seems particularly unwise for the Magistrates Association to be relying on Working Links to help fill a hole in their budget- a conflict of interest that first came to light in May.

On prisons, new Justice Secretary Michael Gove surprised many with an impressive series of speeches promising progressive reforms, with backing from the very top of the Government. So far outline plans have emerged to replace old prisons with new and give Governors more freedoms but much of the detail must wait until next year. Gove won plaudits from reformers for reversing a series of his predecessor’s policies including the ban on books for prisoners, the secure college for young offenders and the criminal courts charge as well as a proposed prison training project in Saudi Arabia.

But at year end, there are signs the honeymoon may be over. Gove rejected almost a third of the recommendations made in Lord Harris’s review of self-inflicted deaths of young adults and has established a series of further reviews – on education and youth justice- which may not report until the summer of 2016. Nor will the new for old prisons plan deliver speedy change. Speeches aside, the new MoJ has not exactly hit the ground running.

The need for urgent action was made clear when outgoing prison Inspector Nick Hardwick reported on the worst outcomes for 10 years and more recent data suggest prisons are continuing to struggle with safety, violence and drugs - most recently it has emerged that the deployment of the National Tactical Response Group (NTRG) to deal with disturbances, has risen by more than 50 per cent in a year.  The prison population is projected to rise slightly less sharply over the next five years than was estimated last year, and Gove appears to have ruled out further reductions in staff numbers. But genuinely increasing education and rehabilitation opportunities will surely require a fall in prisoner numbers. While increased use of electronic tagging, greater opportunities for earned release and more aggressive repatriation of foreign nationals have been floated as options an overall strategy – such as justice reinvestment- is still lacking.

On the personnel front, Gove has brought ex NOMS supremo Sir Martin Narey onto the MoJ board to advise on prisons along with Sir Michael Barber who ran Tony Blair’s delivery unit. Narey’s intervention following the damning  independent inspection report on Rainsbrook STC can best be described as unwise while Barber found the space in his memoirs a few years back  to decry as absurd magistrates who avoided making custodial sentences because of their concern about the size of the prison population. Former counter terrorism police chief Peter Clarke will fill Nick Hardwick’s shoes inspecting prisons.

Elsewhere the House of Commons Justice Committee chaired by Bob Neill has started an interesting portfolio of work on young adults, the courts and restorative justice. The Committee is showing a promising critical spirit, censuring Gove for tapping up the successful candidates for the independent prison and probation inspection posts and calling for the criminal courts charge to be scrapped; ironically Neill was part of the standing committee  which voted down Labour amendments on the charge in the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill in the last parliament.

 Relatively little has been heard on criminal justice from Labour since the election but that is likely to change once Gove shows more of his hand. Whether they support constructive reforms or seek, as they did with Kenneth Clarke, to portray him as soft on crime will be one of the interesting political dimensions next year.