Wednesday, 23 November 2016

Prison Reform

I notice Rob Allen, in his latest blog posts, outlines how the prison reform debate is increasingly becoming one that highlights the need for sentencing reform as well. Here's the first:-

From Prison Reform to Sentencing Reform?

Will last week’s events prove a defining moment in the history of prisons in England and Wales? The Sun thinks so, yesterday proclaiming that jails have become little more than a war-zone as the level of rioting, violence and drug-abuse reaches a tipping point. Tuesday’s action by prison staff certainly represented a very a serious breakdown in industrial relations and whether these have been repaired remains to be seen. With the ink barely dry on a Prison White Paper claiming to be the biggest overhaul of our prisons in a generation, it looks as if those who work in prisons are unconvinced that the measures it contains will secure their safety and that of the people in their custody.

Unsurprisingly, more radical measures are now being suggested. Former Governor Ian Acheson who reported on radicalisation in prisons earlier this year called in the Telegraph, for the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) to be scrapped. NOMS - Nightmare on Marsham Street, as it was known when under the Home Office - was intended to break down the silos of prison and probation and ensure a better focus on managing offenders. Acheson argued that it has become “an unloved, unlovely bureaucratic monster, dangerously out of touch with its operational heartland”.

NOMS first Chief Executive, Sir Martin Narey widened the focus still further in the Times by arguing for sentence lengths to be reduced, giving support to Michael Gove‘s argument in his Longford Lecture that “we need to work, over time and pragmatically, to reduce our prison population”. This is something Gove resisted when as Justice Secretary he could have done something about it. Narey is still a non-executive board member at the Ministry of Justice so perhaps could persuade Gove’s successor to do something on prison numbers. But what?

I was out of the country last week speaking for Penal Reform International at two events in Central Asia. Kazakhstan has halved its prison population over the last fifteen years through a comprehensive package of reforms- decriminalising and reclassifying offences, diversion of minor cases, reducing remand time, shortening sentence lengths, earlier release, a new probation system and community sentences. The country developed and implemented a plan - “Ten steps to reduce the number of inmates”. True the prison population is still pro rata higher than the UK’s – 250 per 100,000 population compared to 150 – but the direction of travel adopted in Astana is now sorely needed in Westminster.

Of course, the technical elements of any Ten Steps in England and Wales will be somewhat different to Kazakhstan’s. Next month, Transform Justice will be publishing a report I’ve drafted which will argue that the Sentencing Council which produces guidelines for courts should play a much stronger role in reversing sentence inflation. Earlier Transform Justice reports have argued for a justice reinvestment approach which devolves custodial budgets to regions to incentivise local bodies to prevent crime, rehabilitate offenders and reduce the use of prison. With radical changes like these, prison numbers could start to come down to a more manageable level. Without them, the Government might be tempted to emulate one of Kazakhstan’s less progressive policies; back in 2011 it moved the prison system back from the Ministry of Justice to the Ministry of Interior.

Conventional wisdom is that politicians who adopt a soft approach will be slaughtered in the media and the polls. But the Sun on Sunday said today “Our jails are stuffed with too many non-dangerous criminals…” That's as much of an invitation to sentencing reform you are likely to get.

Rob Allen


The second:-

Alternatives to Prison - a Shot in the Arm or Shot in the Foot?

The movement to cut the prison population picked up steam this morning when the Lord Chief Justice told the Justice Select Committee that “fewer criminals should be jailed and tougher community punishments developed as an alternative to imprisonment”. In contrast to Michael Gove, who last week called for a reduction in prison numbers having steadfastly refused to countenance it when in office, Lord Thomas is in a position to do more than talk.

As head of the judiciary he can exercise a strong influence on the 20,000 judges and magistrates who send people to jail. Unfortunately, he seems to have passed up the opportunity to persuade the Sentencing Council (of which he is President) to take a more ambitious line on alternatives to prison in its recent guideline on the imposition of community and custodial orders. He might, however, look for an opportunity to issue a guideline judgment encouraging the greater use of community sentences.

The Chief Justice might say that his support for such sentences is contingent on their being tougher. If he means that they should impose more and more onerous requirements on offenders, his positive intentions could easily lead to unintended consequences. The numbers spared custody at the front door of sentencing could be exceeded by those experiencing it via the back door of breach - a risk Lord Thomas seemed to recognise in respect of the post release supervision of short term prisoners introduced last year. If the Chief means the sentences should be  to coin a phrase, tougher on the causes of crime, he might be on to something.

Gove last week called for community sentences to be far better policed, with swift and certain sanctions for those who don’t comply. “Swift and Certain” is shorthand for an American approach to probation originating in Hawaii. It appeared in the 2015 Conservative manifesto but has yet to find its way into legislation. I’ve long had doubts about its applicability here, though these would be alleviated if the response to missing appointments or drug tests were not swift and certain periods of detention - as they are in the US HOPE Probation system - but more intensive rehabilitation efforts or lesser sanctions such as community work or curfews reinforced, if necessary, by tagging.

There’s a bigger problem of course which is whether the reformed probation service is able to step up to the plate. It may be that the Ministry of Justice review of the new arrangements finds the new model fatally flawed, but its hard to see it being abandoned. The MoJ may look to reinvigorate it by encouraging more diversion from prison.

We are told that the Community Rehabilitation Companies are struggling because the numbers of cases they supervise - and the fees that go with them- are lower than they’d expected. On business grounds if no other, they’d presumably be keen to get onto their books some of the 90,000 people sentenced to custody each year, as an alternative to custody and not just after release from it.

If that’s something the Lord Chancellor and Lord Chief Justice want too, it shouldn’t be beyond their wit to arrange it.

Rob Allen


  1. We will continue to run around in ever decreasing circles until the politicians stop the rhetoric about being 'tough'. Try 'effective'. Try 'credible'. Try 'productive'. Try 'constructive'. But 'tough' is getting us nowhere.

    1. Fully agree, ever increasing applications of stick rather then carrot solves nothing. Indeed, prison is no longer being used as a last resort, but more of a naughty step.
      But I think the system is so broken now its beyond repair, and so offers great opportunities for a real change. Not just change in the numbers we send to prison or how we build them. But change in what we want prisons to achieve, and being realistic about what they can achieve.
      It's my opinion that any success in penal reform must come hand in hand with social reform.
      Drug laws need to be changed. Mental health issues require a whole different focus, individual wellbeing rather then criminalisation. Questions need to be asked about sending people to prison for 4weeks or 6weeks,what does that really achieve? What's the cost? Not just monetary terms, but the cost to the individual going to prison and the potential cost to society when that individual is released.
      Rehabilitation is an overused word I feel, because many in our prisons haven't be habillitated in the first place.
      A whole new way of thinking is needed if we want an effective CJS. One that sees not only the punishment of people, but one that achieves something for everyone too.
      Unfortunately, to achieve radical changes in the CJS, people in power have to grasp some nettles, and Liz Truss, Gove or Grayling are the the people to do it.

    2. Interesting article here that sits well I think with today's blog post.

    3. ERLESTOKE Prison has been accused of resorting to draconian punishments for inmates who break rules by a leading charity.

      The Howard League for Penal Reform has revealed that Erlestoke Prison, near Devizes, came close to top of the league for the number of days of additional imprisonment imposed on offenders.

      In 2015 a total of 2,894 days of extra prison time were handed out to men in Erlestoke compared with just 467 at top security Dartmoor.

      The charity's findings come as the prison service finds itself in turmoil and facing unrest from officers who claim they are abused and assaulted on a regular basis.

      In June prisoners rioted at Erlestoke and two wings remain closed because of the damage closed. But new governor Tim Knight said last week that a full regime was running and the prison was calm and safe. He said that Erlestoke had a zero tolerance policy towards prisoners being violent towards staff or other inmates.

      But the Howard League has accused prisons of to reacting to the growing pressure by being heavy handed with the extra prison sentences imposed.

      A spokesman said: "Prisons across England and Wales, under growing pressure due to overcrowding and a lack of staff, are increasingly resorting to draconian punishments in a desperate and counter-productive attempt to keep control.

      Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “The system of adjudications has become a monster. Originally intended as a way to punish incidents of unacceptable conduct, it is now routinely used as a behaviour management technique by prisons that are out of control.

      “Instead of solving the problems, these punishments feed a vicious cycle, piling more pressure on the prison population and worsening overcrowding, which in turn creates conditions for drug abuse and violence.

      “At the same time, rules to incentivise prisoners’ behaviour have been made more punitive, which is also contributing to the poisonous atmosphere behind bars.

      “The government has acknowledged that there are problems in the system, but warm words are not enough. The imposition of additional days should be seen as a sign of a poorly performing prison and included in new measures being proposed to monitor safety and order. The rules around incentives and earned privileges must also be revised, as ministers have now promised.

      "The Howard League 3R campaign will ask governors to deal with infractions instead of referring to external adjudicators, and the judges to exercise self restraint by not bloating prison numbers even more.”

      A Prison Service Spokesperson said: “We want our prisons to be places of safety and reform, and so it is right that offenders who break prison rules are properly punished. Where this amounts to a criminal offence, prisoners should expect to be investigated by the police and face more serious sanctions.

      "We have announced a major shake-up of the prison system, with 2,500 extra prison officers and new security measures to tackle violence, drones, phones and drugs.

      “In our White Paper, we set out plans to review the current discipline system to deal with low-level disorder in our prisons, and we plan to give governors more powers to run their prison the way they think best."

    4. A minor point, perhaps, but why do these news reports persist in describing HMP Dartmoor as "top security"? It's been a C Cat in all the time I've spent visiting it.

      "Dartmoor is a Category C training prison and has done much in recent years to shake off its historically austere image."

  2. Should we really be citing Kazakhstan as a criminal justice comparator?

    From Wikipaedia

    According to a US government report released in 2014, in Kazakhstan:

    "The law does not require police to inform detainees that they have the right to an attorney, and police did not do so. Human rights observers alleged that law enforcement officials dissuaded detainees from seeing an attorney, gathered evidence through preliminary questioning before a detainee’s attorney arrived, and in some cases used corrupt defense attorneys to gather evidence.

    "The law does not adequately provide for an independent judiciary. The executive branch sharply limited judicial independence. Prosecutors enjoyed a quasi-judicial role and had the authority to suspend court decisions. Corruption was evident at every stage of the judicial process. Although judges were among the most highly paid government employees, lawyers and human rights monitors alleged that judges, prosecutors, and other officials solicited bribes in exchange for favorable rulings in the majority of criminal cases."

  3. Who uses Kazakhstan as an example of good practice!

    1. The Guest Blogger does:'...but the direction of travel adopted in Astana is now sorely needed in Westminster.

  4. I have noticed a huge increase in the complex needs of offenders over the past 10 years. Most of those I work with now have complex needs such as mental health issues, personality disorders, alcohol and drugs, autistic spectrum, OCD, PTSD, ADHD, DV as victim, childhood abuse, etc. We deserve far more recognition and support for what we do and have become a dumping ground for the disadvantaged, abused and mentally ill.

  5. I'm with 17:43 and I think we need to divert more people from courts and take away the authority of Magistrates to send to prison at all. If it is serious, it'll go to the Crown Court!

  6. I have had a tough NPS day so sorry for not being upbeat, actually F*CK being upbeat. Also F*CK being professional and measured in responding and commenting. The IT doesn't work, the systems don't work, the prisons are hideous, the staff everywhere are in despair, about their jobs, their vision, their profession. Of course, this is the same in health, education ... (add your public sevice here). Our justice system is on a tipping point. I cant decide whether to grieve for the destruction of our public institutions, or for a man who has not got the release he has worked for and deserves, because F*CKING housing is non-existent. Rant over

  7. If you are all happy enough to continue turning up for work then it will continue in the state that it is in. Where was probation's unofficial walk out? Where was probations official walk out? 10 people if that in each office? Pitiful. Understand that those who post here are not representative of the majority of probation, the majority of probation doesn't care about the effect it has on the individual. The only thing majority of probation is concerned with is "how much are they going to pay me to do this?".

  8. These are suggestions for reducing our prison population.

    Introduce Community Justice on the Nunavut model. This is a separate Justice System focused on healing damaged relationships to restore harmony within the family and the community, rather than on punishment. In our society recognising the importance of family and friends in reform and helping them. Helping the victim to recover is seen as a very important work for the court. These are very cheap and effective.

    Weekend prison. I was thinking of the TV presenter Guy Martins boss who was sent to prison for working too hard as he put it. He was a Truck driver who falsified his records. Weekend prison is from Friday Evening to Sunday Evening allowing a man to keep his job whilst he does time. In Sweden prisoners who can be trusted and can afford it can get a weekend ROTL. They are given a mobile phone with GPS so that the prison can check them out whilst outside, There have been no absconds yet. Thus there are vacant cells at the weekends when no rehabilitation work takes place anyway.

  9. Bollocks 21.49. Have you worked as a PO? I am spending increasing amount of time assisting depressed, suicidal and desperate individuals. Writing letters of support to ESA tribunals, working with bereaved, private company have no interest in this. I could do the minimum, meet the targets, take the money and run but I don't and neither do I see my colleagues doing that. They are on the phone regularly to support people who are quite frankly in a desperate situation regularly. There may be staff out there with that attitude but whoever you are I can tell you I have never known one in 15 years of service.