Sunday, 20 March 2016

Is Osborne rather than Gove the real Prison Reformer?

When the history of prison policy comes to be written, last Wednesday 16 March could prove to be a significant date.

That won’t be because of anything that the new Chief Inspector of Prisons said in his first speech, at the Howard League Penal Reform conference in Oxford- although his closing remark that “a prison is more than a school with a wall around it” seemed designed to inject a shot of realism into the sometimes over-idealistic rhetoric emerging from Mr Gove and his advisers.

Nor is the appearance by Gove himself before the Justice Select Committee likely to be long remembered. He did not reveal enough detail about his reform proposals to make a judgment about their merits. His reported consultations with leading academics, his promises to use evidence rigorously and announcement of a review of security categorisation augur reasonably well.  But Gove’s wish not to fixate about prison numbers or seek to alter them “artificially” – as if they were somehow a natural phenomenon- continue to cast doubt on the feasibility of his grand vision of turning prisoners from liabilities into assets. His White Paper due “in the spring” will be the time to make a measured assessment of the proposals as a whole.

Surprisingly perhaps, the potentially more momentous announcements came in George Osborne’s budget. A fortnight before Greater Manchester takes over control of the £6 billion spent on the health and social care of its residents each year, the Chancellor proposed to start a process of devolving responsibilities for the criminal justice system in the region. His budget also contained an agreement that regional authorities will be playing an increased role in arranging services for Greater Lincolnshire offenders serving short sentences. While this may look like bureaucratic musical chairs or a way for the Ministry of Justice to wash its hands of struggling services, as I argued in a recent report for Transform Justice, the localisation of criminal justice offers a chance for fundamental reform of the penal system.
Yes the regions, particularly Manchester, will be expected to give effect to new Ministry of Justice initiatives -to set up problem solving courts, to link up learning in prison with education facilities outside, to pilot satellite tracking of offenders’ whereabouts and to establish Charlie Taylor’s new secure schools. But the shift in organisational and financial responsibility provide the chance for a region to analyse what’s really needed to address its crime problems, to develop home grown responses and, if they are successful, to invest savings from fewer court cases into public services which benefit local people. Greater Lincolnshire’s aim is “to create a whole system approach to criminal justice, which includes out of court disposals, restorative justice, community and custodial rehabilitation, with a truly effective re-integration policy to tackle social exclusion by supporting and encouraging people into work and productive lives.”

The Manchester Evening News reported that the new devolved responsibilities will lead to the construction of a new prison, but the new arrangements should instead provide a motor to reduce the use of custody over time. The Chancellor promised to consider options to devolve the custody budgets for female offenders, young offenders and those sentenced to less than 2 years. If this happens , Manchester’s elected representatives will be able to use the funds not simply to buy prison places but to fund a wide range of alternative measures which could bring down the need for so many of them.  Increasing housing, work and education opportunities in the neighbourhoods from which most young prisoners are drawn, offering treatment and therapy and intensive support for the many women who serve repeated short sentences and improving the community supervision of people on probation and  parole should reduce re-offending and breach rates and hence demand for prison places. 

If the new measures are developed in close cooperation with magistrates and judges, they are likely to prove more attractive as alternatives to short prison sentences than what’s currently available as well as being more effective in reducing re-offending and making reparation. Far from building a new prison, the devolution could lead to closing parts of existing ones.  
This kind of Justice Reinvestment is having an impact on prison numbers in more than half of US states. While the challenges in England and Wales are somewhat different, George Osborne’s rehabilitation devolution offers great opportunities- to local areas to improve their public safety and balance sheets; and to Michael Gove to make a reality of his rhetoric.     

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