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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

What the MoJ doesn’t know about prison and probation

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The MoJ acknowledges strategic evidence gaps and asks the research community to help address them.

Research gaps

Last week (17 May 2018), the MoJ published an interesting document setting out its areas of research interest. The document highlights the Ministry of Justice’s strategic evidence gaps with a focus on long-term and cross-cutting gaps in our understanding. It was published in the light of Sir Paul Nurse’s review of research councils which made clear the need for government departments to communicate clearly about where their long-term research interests lie, to ensure that:

the UK continues to support world-leading science and invests public money in the best possible way. 

The document sets out its research gaps under four themes:

  1. Deliver a modern courts and justice system 
  2. Create a prison and probation service that reforms offenders 
  3. Promote Global Britain and protect the rule of law 
  4. Create a transformed department that delivers excellent services
In this post, I focus on the second theme – how the prison and probation services can promote desistance and reduce reoffending.

What research the MoJ wants

The prisons and probation section highlights four main themes which are discussed in turn below.

1: How do we reduce the number of young people offending and entering the youth justice system?

A recently published Ministry of Justice international review outlines approaches that can be effective in managing young people in the youth justice system. While the evidence base is growing, most of the high quality published studies are international. Therefore, there is a lack of robust evidence on what works for whom at the various stages in our youth justice system. Comparable information on cost-effective interventions is also limited. Key questions highlighted by the MoJ include:

  • Which interventions are most effective in preventing ‘at risk’ children and young people from offending?
  • Which interventions are effective in reducing reoffending (and improving other outcomes such as education; training and employment; health and accommodation) for children and young people at various stages of the youth justice system?
  • What works to increase compliance among children and young people with the various youth justice disposals and supervision?
  • What type of interventions reduce reoffending among children and young people who are being supervised in the community or in custody?
  • What are the outcomes for children and young people post-release from custody (for example education, training and employment, health and accommodation)?
  • What are the factors predicting transition into the adult criminal justice system and do these vary by ethnicity or gender?

2: Does diversion to alternative disposals work and for whom?

The criminal court and youth justice system delivers justice through the decision making of magistrates, judges and other key stakeholders. It is a complex and expensive system to run. Diverting more offenders, where it is appropriate to do so, to alternative disposals or support has potential to deliver efficiencies, swifter justice and better outcomes. This includes triage, health and liaison to divert low level youth offenders and/or those with health issues away from the formal justice system to more appropriate support. For the wider offender population, initiatives include Restorative Justice and Community Resolutions. The MoJ wants to know:

  • How effective are different interventions aimed at dealing with the underlying causes of offending? At what point in the justice process or pre-justice process are they most effective? Who are they most effective for? What is the best approach to commissioning and delivering these interventions?
  • How effective are alternative disposals and diversionary methods in reducing subsequent offending? How does this vary across offence and offender type, and how can we make sure diversion is targeted where most effective? Where do costs and benefits fall?
  • What incentives and behavioural levers are more effective in encouraging the use of alternative disposals and diversionary methods among front line stakeholders?
  • What are the attitudes of victims, witnesses and the wider public, as well as key partner organisations such as the police and judiciary, towards alternative disposals, diversionary methods and community supervision? Is there confidence in these measures delivering justice?

3: What interventions are most cost-effective in reducing adult reoffending, and what works for whom?

There is good evidence on what factors are associated with reoffending – for example, impulsivity and poor self-regulation, drug misuse, lack of employment or lack of stable accommodation. However, our understanding of what works to reduce reoffending tends to be high level, with less understanding of what approaches might work best with different types of offender. In terms of sanctions, there are, for example, questions about the optimal approach to rehabilitating vulnerable offenders. In terms of interventions, there is good evidence on some (for example drug misuse) but for others there are gaps (for example accommodation). Evidence on the costs and benefits of interventions (and on which part of the system the costs and benefits fall) is also lacking, as is a more in-depth understanding of what works with whom, and how. Better quality evidence in this area would help to improve practice and design more effective interventions for offenders, be they delivered in a custodial or community setting. This is the largest section in the document and you can see the hand of the Probation Inspectorate. I reproduce some of the MoJ’s highlighted areas below:

  • Are certain sanctions more appropriate for some offenders than others, and how do we create the right conditions in custody and community for this rehabilitation? What is the best way to rehabilitate vulnerable offenders – for example those with mental health problems or learning disabilities, or those who have experienced domestic abuse?
  • What role does the workforce have in achieving effective rehabilitation? How can we develop a rehabilitative culture across the prison and probation workforce?
  • How can local services be best engaged to support and sustain desistance during the sentence and beyond? How can providers of services collaborate and work in partnership with prisons and probation to support offenders?
  • At what point of an offenders’ journey through the criminal justice system can we best intervene to support their rehabilitation?
  • What is the relationship between different sentences (custodial versus community, length of sentence, and delivery of sentence such as use of electronic tags) and reducing reoffending or promoting positive outcomes (for example reduced drug use)? What factors account for the relationship, and are there lessons to suggest different sentences are more effective in reducing reoffending in different circumstances?
  • What works to increase compliance among offenders with their court orders and licence conditions?
  • Which non-accredited interventions are effective in reducing reoffending and supporting desistance?
  • How effective are new forms of technology in engaging service users and supporting their desistance (for example, electronic monitoring and in-cell technology)?
  • What are the links between the different operating models implemented by prison and probation providers and key outcomes for service users? How effective are community hubs in helping engage probation service users and supporting their desistance?

4: How do we best create custodial and community based environments that keep people safe and reduce levels of violence and self-harm?

Improving and sustaining safety in prisons is a high and urgent priority for the department. Providing a safer environment for those in prison and returning people to the community in a better condition than on their entry to custody is an essential role of the prison service. We have reasonable information on levels of violence and self-harm within prisons as well as some of the risk factors (for example, assaults are strongly associated with younger age prisoners as well as those with low self-control). Existing evidence also shows that the prison environment, and the relationships within it, play a considerable role in how prisoners behave: for example, physically poor conditions, highly controlling regimes, or circumstances in which rules are unevenly applied or not adhered to, heighten tensions and induce stresses, giving rise to conflict and assault. Available staff with appropriate skills and minimising the illicit economy in prisons are also important in reducing risk. Further research, particularly involving quantified outcomes, is needed. The key questions where the MoJ is inviting research are:

  • What approaches are effective in reducing incidents in prison such as assaults, self-harm or drug use?
  • What are the drivers of violence and self-harm in custody and how can we better predict emerging risks? How does this vary by prison type and offender groups?
  • What are effective ways of stopping illicit items entering custody?
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