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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

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

Funding crisis for criminal justice charities

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NPC report estimates a 50% drop in the amount of grant funding received by charities in the justice sector.

One of the more alarming by-products of the ongoing crisis in our prison and probation services is that a number of charitable trusts have withdrawn grant support for voluntary sector organisations working in the justice sector.

An important new report from New Philanthropy Capital: Independent, effective, humane — The vital importance of independent funding to criminal justice charities, estimates that there was a 50% drop in independent grant funding to charities working in the criminal justice system between 2013 and 2014, from £37.1m to £18.4m. This was the first year of Transforming Rehabilitation and suggests funders may respond directly to policy upheaval—by pausing their funding. [This fall-out from TR was predicted by Dr Rebecca Marples in an article in the British Journal of Community Justice.]

The NPC report presents a mixed picture with some funders moving away from prisons because of a number of concerns:

  • That their grants are propping up a harmful prison system,
  • Because charities may struggle to access service users in prison, and
  • The risk of subsidising contracts or private sector profits.

“We have moved away from funding work in prison to work in the community with people who are at risk of offending or reoffending. When we do due diligence, charities say that our grant might subsidise government contracts. We understand how hard it is for charities—they are between a rock and a hard place—but it just isn’t acceptable to our trustees.”

By contrast, other trusts are investing more in criminal justice and prisons, precisely because of changes in the system:

“We all have great frustrations with the prison system, but there are good, well run charities often providing the only support available to people in prison and without independent funders they cannot thrive and may not even survive. And if you are trying to make an impact on any other social issue, charities in prison will be working with those most in need, so other funders should care about them too.”

NPC sets out exactly why grant funding is so important to the charitable sector working in criminal justice. Charities working primarily with people involved in the criminal justice sector are heavily reliant on grants. This is because the general public don’t often give to criminal justice charities, and because the government is increasingly funding through contracts instead of grants and in smaller amounts. As a result, a large portion of funding in the sector is restricted to specific programmes rather than core funding. Core funding is crucial in such a complex and vulnerable environment. It enables charities to build necessary relationships with staff across the prison estate, to talk about their work and their impact in policy arenas, to collaborate, develop capacity and skills, and to safeguard an institutional memory of ‘what works.’

© Andy Aitchison

The NPC report makes a strong case for trusts continuing to support charities working in the prison system. In addition to a moral case, the NPS argues that work in the criminal justice system, and particularly prisons, can be hugely impactful:

Prisons are out of sight and out of mind for most of us but they are places with high levels of vulnerability, where a range of social issues—health, homelessness, substance misuse, education and employment, human rights and social equality—are endemic. People don’t have exclusively ‘criminal justice’ or prison related needs when they go to prison. They will experience the same needs they did in the community, often exacerbated because of the nature of prison and because services are harder to access there. People also have a high chance of negative outcomes on release, but charities working in prisons can reach them before release and help them on their transition into the community, on a journey to desisting from crime. And if you are focused on a particular place, the criminal justice system will play a role in the wider social make up of that place.

The report also argues that prison-based work can have a disproportionate impact on the wider system:

If you are worried you may be complicit in a harmful system by supporting criminal justice, fund work to change the system. Charities can be very effective at influencing change, and their service delivery can also be a part of systems change by changing the way the system is experienced by people, and by preventing further harm inflicted by the prison.
Funders frustrated by the slow pace of change in government can think about investing in learning and the sharing of good practice between charities. It has always been a goal that effective models developed and tested by the sector would be scaled by government, but this has rarely materialised. But these efforts are not wasted. Even if ideas are not picked up by the state they can be shared by charities working across different areas of the prison and justice system. This collaboration requires funding in itself.
Funders can connect charities across systems with similar missions, such as anti-poverty charities, and act as a bridge between charities pulling in opposing directions. Though other organisations might have the same end goal of reducing crime—such as domestic violence charities—they might also be campaigning for longer custodial sentences in contradiction to the campaigns of criminal justice organisations funded by the same funder. Funders can bring together such organisations to think systemically about what an effective criminal justice system would look like.

Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the images in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.

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