18 May 2016

The government’s new prison reforms don’t go far enough

By Jonathan Clifton

There is a danger that reforms to probation, local authorities and the NHS will ultimately undermine today’s positive move on prisons

David Cameron has put prison reform at the centre of today’s Queen’s speech. He is right to shine a light on this issue. Our prisons are overflowing and dangerous – every week there are around 600 incidents of self-harm, 1 suicide, and 350 assaults. They are also very bad at rehabilitating offenders and protecting the public – as nearly half of offenders go on to commit another crime within a year of being released.

Prison reform is notoriously difficult for politicians and it requires courageous leadership. It appears that the Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, has learned from his Republican counterparts in the US on how to win the argument for prison reform based on principles of a smaller state and redemption for those who are prepared to turn their lives around. He should be applauded for doing so.

The centre piece of today’s announcement was the decision to give prison governors more autonomy over how their institutions are run. This is a welcome move, as it will mean prison governors can tailor the services they provide to offenders to help their rehabilitation – for example by making sure that education, training and mental health services are more effective.

But as a pilot programme involving six prisons, it hardly amounts to ‘the biggest shake-up of the prison system since the Victorian era’, as the government is claiming. To deserve that mantle, the government will need to be much more ambitious.

If the government is really serious about reducing reoffending, it will have to focus on what happens beyond the prison gates. We know that a lot of low level crime is affected by context – housing, jobs, family relationships, and health services to treat drug misuse and mental health problems are all important for reducing offending. The trouble is that too many offenders fall between the cracks of these services when they are released back into the community.

Reforms introduced in the last parliament to outsource probation to large private companies, along with funding cuts to local community services and the ongoing calamity of NHS commissioning, appear to have made the situation worse. The latest inspection of Wormwood Scrubs, for example, shows that the proportion of prisoners who had accommodation on release fell from 95% in April 2015 to 59% in October 2015. If 41% of prisoners are released straight into homelessness, is it any surprise they end up back inside within a year? Meanwhile many adults are released from prison and increasingly struggle to access mental health treatment and drugs services in the community, increasing the chance they will re-offend.

So there is a real danger that reforms to probation, local authorities and the NHS will ultimately undermine today’s positive move on prisons.

The challenge for the government is to think about the whole of the criminal justice system – including what goes on beyond the prison gates. The taxpayer spends an average of £36,000 a year for every prisoner that ends up in prison. What if some these resources could be re-invested in community services that help to keep people out of prison in the first place?

That is why IPPR have been arguing for the prison and probation budget to be devolved from Whitehall to City Mayors. Mayors in Manchester and London already have oversight of many of the levers that can help to reduce offending – including housing, skills, health and policing. Giving them control of the prisons and probation budget would give them a financial incentive to invest in these services and stop people committing crimes. This idea has already been trialled very effectively in places like Ohio and New York. In Ohio, the number of young people being incarcerated by the state fell from more than 2,600 in 1992 when the programme was introduced, to less than 510 in 2013. It is time for a similarly bold plan for England.

Jonathan Clifton is Associate Director for Public Services at IPPR. Follow him @jp_clifton