The Times splash yesterday on Michael Gove’s plans to review sentencing paints a picture of an ambitious and confident Justice Secretary, willing to make tough (and potentially unpopular) decisions for the long-term good of the criminal justice system.
Having been in post nearly eight months, Gove recognises that policy tweaks from the centre will not be enough to solve the conundrum he now faces: how to meet the costs of a rising prison population (which account for the lion’s share of the MoJ’s budget), alongside the need to find an additional £600m worth of savings by 2019 – a cut of 15 per cent.
There are two possible solutions.
The first is a straightforward reduction in sentence lengths, likely to be controversial even if prisoners were to be released on electronic tags.
The second solution would be to think differently about how the criminal justice system is designed and delivered – moving from the largely centralised model we have now to one where decisions are taken locally. A further devolved system would allow for a more mature conversation about the trade-offs (financial and otherwise) between custody and the alternatives – taking some of the heat out of the debate and leading to more sensible policy.
The over-centralised Criminal Justice System stifles innovation, resulting in a lack of responsiveness to local priorities and entrenching siloed ways of working between agencies.
Current criminal justice model is not working
Despite repeated national reforms, from the creation of a ‘National Offender Management Service’ under Labour, to the introduction of ‘payment by results’ under the Coalition, reconviction rates for adult prisoners serving less than 12 months have remained stuck at around 60%: an appalling failure of public policy. Similarly, despite repeated overhauls of the prosecution service and the courts, case processing times are getting longer, rather than shorter: the average time taken from offence to completion is now at 167 days.
In other words this model of criminal justice has reached the limits of its efficacy. What is needed is a gradual, but steady, rebalancing of power and resources from the centre to local areas, which would deliver three important benefits.
First, it would create an incentive for local agencies to shift resources into prevention and early intervention, in order to avoid the costs of failure later on. Plymouth’s Early Intervention and Prevention Strategy involves the council working with schools, clinical commissioners, police and the voluntary sector, to address the gaps through which the most vulnerable children can fall: for example a new joint protocol between police and education ensures children present at domestic abuse incidents receive support at school or early years settings the next day.
Second, it would drive a more joined up justice system through the integration of working practices and agencies. Police and Crime Commissioners like Adam Simmonds in Northamptonshire, have saved millions by cutting the duplication between local agencies and by integrating back office support for emergency response.
Third, devolution would incentivise local agencies to give victims of crime a greater voice and local communities more of a say in shaping the local services that affect them. In Dorset, the local criminal justice board are experimenting with the use of a criminal justice data dashboard, which will provide agencies (and eventually members of the public) with access to clear, up to date information about where there is underperformance and increase pressure on local agencies to improve.
Devolved criminal justice system review
Crucially though, the innovations described above are happening in spite of, not because of the current system, and are not realising their full potential. For example, the savings from better prevention are too often divided between different agencies and services, with no one service experiencing a large enough reduction in demand to justify taking money out or reconfiguring. And there is a limit to what even the best PCCs can achieve if the other agencies of the CJS remain accountable to officials in Whitehall, rather than local citizens. Magistrates are bound by national sentencing guidelines, and when an offender is sent to prison their costs are picked up by central government.
That is why Governup, a think tank dedicated to public service reform, is currently undertaking a year long review of what a more devolved criminal justice system might look like. The project will look at how PCCs, city mayors and local authorities could be given greater responsibility for reducing reoffending in their areas and the tools and incentives they would need to get the job done, from taking over control of custody budgets to the ability to reconfigure local services around the needs of victims.
There is a case for reducing prisoner numbers and devolving control, but Gove will need to decide which strategy he wants to prioritise. The right decision will be key. Osborne’s “Devolution Revolution” will give local government more power; Gove’s could transform local services and drive reform.