With almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners, draconian sentencing policies and grotesque racial disparities, it’s hard to see the USA as an inspiration for criminal justice reform. But just as the 19th century saw the origins of probation and the juvenile court on the other side of the Atlantic, could the 21st see a major new American initiative take root in England and Wales? A new report argues that Justice Reinvestment (JR) – the term used in the US to describe the movement of funds away from prison into locally-based measures to prevent and respond to crime – should be taken seriously by the Ministry of Justice.
Published by Transform Justice, Rehabilitation Devolution shows how more than half of US states, concerned about the unaffordable costs and diminishing crime reduction potential of rocketing prisoner numbers, have changed tack in recent years. Republican and Democrat states alike have cut sentence lengths and increased opportunities for early release, using savings to strengthen non-custodial supervision and treatment options.
Back in 2010, the UK Parliament’s Justice Committee recommended a similar approach here but did not find favour. With Mr Gove needing concrete policies to match his rhetoric of reform, could JR help to reduce the prison population and fund the education and rehabilitation measures he has promised to?
One key to JR is the idea that if local agencies are made responsible for paying the costs of incarceration, they are more likely to take steps to reduce its use – UK pilot schemes in both youth and adult justice have shown that financial incentives can stimulate local measures to reduce the numbers appearing in court and going to prison. What’s needed now is a more thorough-going devolution to local level of the budgets which pay for prisons to create a greater incentive to fund approaches which treat and educate offenders more effectively than jail.
Rehabilitation devolution proposes transferring responsibility for meeting the entire costs of custody for under 18’s to local authorities and Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs), working to identify the best ways of transferring that responsibility to a more local level for young adult and women offenders, and inviting PCCs to chair new Justice and Safety Partnerships (JSPs). Involving judges, probation, prison, local government and health, the JSPs would introduce a greater regional voice in the system and provide a body to which criminal justice budgets might be devolved over time. The report also argues that as a localisation agenda moves forward local commissioners would not simply buy what is currently provided but develop the kind of responses better able to serve their community’s needs. So rather than paying for Feltham YOI, local authorities might be able to commission a less damaging environment for their troublesome teenage boys.
While this may look like bureaucratic and possibly unwelcome organisational reform, its purpose is to incentivise the bodies best able to deal with crime and offending to do so creatively and cost effectively. George Osborne may have announced an eye-catching plan to close Holloway but modernising the prison estate apart, the Spending Review looks much like business as usual. New for old prisons may well be necessary but it is not sufficient to address our problems of penal excess.
Reducing sentence lengths is the most direct but politically riskiest strategy for reducing prison numbers – although the risks might be mitigated by intensifying regimes so a prison sentence of a certain length in the future counts for more than it does now.
Alongside this, aligning the systems for sanctioning offenders with the measures which can prevent crime and reduce offending could help bring down the numbers in court and custody. By doing so we can end up not with the near 90,000 prison population currently forecast for 2020 but something approaching the norm in western Europe- about 50,000.
Gove’s predecessor Chris Grayling talked of making the prison system not smaller but cheaper. JR could make it both smaller and cheaper – smaller by incentivising reductions in the use of imprisonment and cheaper, not by the irresponsible cutting of costs but by sharing them more broadly among the agencies with an interest in reducing re-offending. Justice Reinvestment could be Gove’s way to providing a sustainable future for penal policy.
Rob is an independent researcher and consultant and co-founder of Justice and Prisons. A former director of the International Centre for Prison Studies, Rob is currently an associate of Penal Reform International