Charlotte Pickles is Deputy Director and Head of Research at the Reform think tank.
In 2006, in one of his earliest speeches as leader, David Cameron set out a vision of Britain as “a nation of the second chance”. He said:
“I want to build a nation that never writes any one off. A nation that says that it’s never ever too late to start again. Never too late to realise those dreams you once had.”
It was this focus on social justice that established a new Conservative approach to poverty and deprivation – one that recognised that someone’s start in life could have a profound impact on their future path, and that whilst redistribution through cash transfers alone was not the answer, compassionate interventions were.
A decade on, the Queen’s Speech echoed those early words. The prison reforms that formed the centrepiece of the Government’s plans for the next parliamentary session are aimed at giving “individuals a second chance.”
Statistics on the life experiences of those in prison are well rehearsed – though no less shocking for it. A quarter of prisoners were in care as children compared to just 2 per cent of the general population. 42 per cent were expelled or excluded from school. Almost half have no qualifications, three times that of the working-age population. Almost half of female and a fifth of male prisoners have attempted suicide, compared to 6 per cent of the general population. Prisoners are disproportionately damaged individuals.
To end up in prison these individuals have also damaged others, and are rightly being punished for doing so. Their troubled lives cannot excuse their crimes. But it provides a vital context for their behaviour – and exposes the failure of others who should have done better.
As the Prime Minister said in his landmark speech in February, “in a compassionate country, we should help those who’ve made mistakes to find their way back onto the right path.” “In short”, he argued, “we need a prison system that doesn’t see prisoners as simply liabilities to be managed, but instead as potential assets to be harnessed.”
It is to this end that the Government is committed to giving prison governors greater autonomy. Few could argue that Whitehall officials know better than governors themselves what works for their prison populations. By letting frontline professionals decide the best interventions to deliver and commission the best providers, the Government also hopes to drive innovation. This idea will be tested through the creation of six “reform prisons” later this year.
The aim is lower reoffending rates. Currently 46 per cent of people leaving custody reoffend within a year – and that is just those who get caught. This figure has barely changed in over a decade, hovering between 45 per cent and 50 per cent.
That one in two inmates return to criminality on release is indeed a shocking indictment of the failure of our prison system to rehabilitate. But it is just one half of the offender management story, probation is the other.
Hence, whilst the reforms are welcome, they are far from sufficient if a step change in reoffending is to be achieved. Evidence clearly shows that offender interventions need to be delivered in the right place at the right time, and continuity of case management is key. The more activities are split across different case managers or services, the less engaged offenders are likely to be, and thus the less effective the contact.
This is the premise behind the “through the gate” approach which was at the heart of the Coalition Government’s Transforming Rehabilitation strategy. An inmate may participate in addiction treatment and training courses, but if he walks out of the prison gate without sustainable accommodation to go to, or support to help him find work and rebuild family relationships, that good work may be not be enough. The transition from prison to probation must be seamless.
The current fragmented offender management system, weighed down with onerous central diktats, is therefore acting as a barrier to effective resettlement. If the Government wants a rehabilitation revolution it must change this.
A new Reform paper out today, written by a former prison governor and senior Ministry of Justice official, provides a blueprint for change. It argues that to make a real difference in the reoffending figures, all prison and probation services should be fully devolved and commissioned by Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs).
This means scrapping the National Probation Service and outsourcing the management of high-risk offenders to third and private sector companies – who already manage low- and medium-risk offenders. It also means ditching the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) which currently manages prisons and probation – and whose workforce and budget have increased in the last couple of years. Unlike NOMS, PCCs have a democratic mandate to change criminal justice services in order to reduce crime, and are therefore better placed to ensure locally relevant, properly integrated services.
The prize for delivering an effective offender management system is great – less reoffending and lives transformed. It also means fewer victims and reduced cost to the taxpayer. The Government sees this. But “reform prisons” must be just the first step in a much more radical agenda.