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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

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

Prisons and prevention

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New IPPR report advocates devolving responsibility for low level offenders to local authorities and City mayors. But do we need another probation service?

More calls for a rehabilitation devolution

A recent (18 January 2016) report from the IPPR Think Tank joins recent calls to devolve responsibilities for criminal justice to local areas.

Entitled: “Prisons and prevention: giving local areas the power to reduce offending”, the author, Jonathan Clifton (@jp_clifton) argues that there is an inherent flaw in our criminal justice system:

the people who could act to reduce offending have neither the financial power nor the incentive to do so. The reason for this is that many of the services and agencies that could act to reduce offending are organised and controlled at the local level, whereas the budget for prison places is held by central government. The challenge is therefore to “unfreeze” the resources that are locked up in the prison system, and ensure that local services are enabled and incentivised to use those resources to both prevent crime and develop alternatives to custody.

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Introducing payment by results

Clifton goes on to argue that currently there are no incentives for local authorities to invest in community resources to help stop people from re-offending – even though reoffending rates for community sentences are much lower than those for short term prisoners whose crimes are often broadly similar.

IPPR recommends devolving criminal justice budgets locally and making local authorities and city mayors responsible for low-level adult offenders, saying that this could lead to major improvements in tackling offending.

The central idea is to devolve budgets to cover the costs of this group of offenders to local authorities, and then charge them for each night that an offender from their area is held in prison. This payment by results approach would unlock resources for local authorities to invest in preventative services and alternatives to custody, as well as giving them a strong financial incentive to do so.

There is one example of a successful PbR scheme in West Yorkshire which resulted in the area significantly reducing the number of “custody nights” among young offenders; interestingly it also operated on the same justice reinvestment model (some of the savings were invested in better local services) which IPPR advocates.

IPPR prisons prevention cover

The devolution mechanism in more detail

IPPR sets out the mechanism for devolving these criminal justice budgets in more detail; including a back door abolition of the new private provider-led probation system introduced under the MoJ’s Transforming Rehabilitation initiative:

  • City mayors or groups of local authorities, in consortia with their police and crime commissioners (PCCs) should be allowed to bid for control of the custody budget for all offenders who come from within their area and are serving a sentence of less than two years. Ideally, the budget they are given would be set for a period of at least three to four years to facilitate proper planning.
  • In return for assuming financial control, the local authority could sign up to a headline target for reducing reoffending in their area. The custody budget they are given could take into account some modest assumptions about savings that will accrue over time, in order to ensure that reductions are made to the overall prison budget.
  • In addition to being given a custody budget, the local authority should also be allowed to apply for a small amount of ‘transformation funding’ to enable them to make upfront investments in services and alternatives to custody that will deliver savings further down the line. Central government could, however, retain a right to ‘claw back’ this funding if the anticipated savings to the custody budget are not delivered.
  • The local authority would then be charged by the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) for the cost of accommodating any of their residents who are sentenced to less than two years in prison. The running costs of a prison place would be covered by an agreed national tariff, based on the full cost of a prison place.
  • The local authority would be free to spend any money that remains in their custody budget once prison costs for their residents have been deducted. They should choose to invest these savings in preventative services and/or alternatives to custody.
  • The operational management of prisons would remain the responsibility of a central government agency (NOMS) and the funding of offenders sentenced to more than 2 years in prison would also remain at the national level, given that they are higher risk and will have less contact with local services.
  • In the longer term, central government should also devolve the funding for probation services for this group of offenders to local authorities (working in consortia with their police and crime commissioners).

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Analysis

It is this last point which for me makes the proposal an interesting concept but impractical in the near future. The split of the probation service into two different agencies – the National Probation Service and 21 CRCs – has already severely disrupted the operation of probation, to introduce a third party would merely introduce further duplication and confusion.

For me, the merit of the proposed IPPR approach would be as a replacement to Transforming Rehabilitation when the initial seven year contracts come to an end; unfortunately this doesn’t happen until 2022.

 

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2 Responses

  1. Thanks Russell for intriguing post

    I am sceptical about PBR in general, for various reasons, not least the absence of good evidence that they work, consistently, to scale and at a useful rate – but this particular version seems especially improbable:
    1) The council gets a financial incentive not to reduce reoffending rates or even the crime rate generally, but the use of custody by the courts. That is something they cannot, and should not, control. We know use of custody by the courts is the major determinant of prison population and has operated historically entirely independently of the crime rate. Nor for that matter is there evidence that council can control the crime rate, which goes up and down very steeply for reasons we do not understand. The connections between cause and effect are just not there!
    2) Lots of scope for perverse incentives. E.g. insofar as the council has an incentive, it might be to ensure offenders don’t get to court, or are encouraged to go and live elsewhere. We know people will always ‘game’ payement systems
    3) It is doubtful whether actual savings would result from marginal changes in prison numbers. If you have 50 more or fewer prisons in a jail you save pretty much loose change on food, clothing etc. You only save big bucks if you close the jail. Not likely to happen through this means. So the financial mechanisms simply do not work as imagined
    4) Jails do not relate to a council but to groups of councils over a large area, and for specialised groups – women, juveniles, max security, sex offenders – the system is national.
    5) What happens in jail numbers go up not down through this system? Do council tax payers get stiffed for the extra?
    6) Many of the agencies whose work affects risk of reconviction are outwith this structure e.g. NHS, schools, DWP
    7) Costs of prison will rise and fall, for example, as overcrowding increases or not (which may effect risk of reconviction) or decision what programmes to run inside jail. Are these determined by every council up and down the country operating independently? In which case you don’t have a national prison system? Who then is accountable for what goes on in prisons under this scheme? Which is actually a pretty big issue as Derek Lewis could tell you…
    8) What is certain is that the idea requires a big increases in spending up front to prime the pump

    It seems to me a curse of our age to believe that a) professionals won’t do the best for the guy in front of them unless they seem specific payoff to them for doing so – do the wonks who come up with this not know that if they have a heart attack or are cornered by a knife wielding islamacist, they are relying on professionals to do their very best for no reason other than because its their job so to do? And b) proposing ever more elaborate reworking of the world to align it with this pretty contestable theory of human behaviour, come what may and be the cost what it may. Yet there is remarkably little evidence that PBR produces significant widespread improvements.

    Might it not be better to eschew such wild theories and focus on what’s undeniably in front of us: such as
    -why do we send so many more people to prison than any European country? How can we kick that habit?
    -we’ve invested huge amounts in reducing reoffending in prison and probation since 1997: what can we learn from the impact or not that that has had (and if you look at the figures it HAS had an impact, though everyone would seemingly prefer it hadnt)
    -how much do we know about what reduces reoffending and could we find out more?
    -how do you run prisons well whether in public or private sector and can we make that more general across the system?

    And so on. But such mundane management tasks hold no interest for the policy wonks and no wonder as they by and large have no experience whatsoever of managing anything, or doing anything, in the real world, which they reimagine incessantly as if it were a private lego set. But those who have been in it know that managing complex services consistently well is a huge challenge and the one that brings results – and that whatever the payment system, it’s the task that actually matters. So why not talk about that instead and see if we cant do it better? And put all the wonkish panaceas and associated total restructuring of everything on ice for a while?

    BTW one merit of privately run prisons is that they do NOT rely on this theory of behaviour nor require elaborate reorganisation.

  2. Hi Julian
    Thanks for your (comprehensive!) comment. I agree with many of the points although I can see the rationale in IPPR wanting to make local authorities responsible for offending – LAs have more control over the range of services needed to promote desistance (now including drug & alcohol treatment) than any other body.
    In terms of PbR, final version of my new literature review is out next week – would be interested in your views.

    Best Wishes

    Russell

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