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Major Criminal Justice Reforms Continue Despite Political Turmoil

13/07/2016 10:53

In what has been a tumultuous fortnight in British politics, beneath the surface some major tectonic plates are shifting in the realm of criminal justice reform. While these may pale in comparison to the huge shakeups and fall outs across the political spectrum, they are worthy of greater note - and may in fact prove the start of a major move in policy and practice.

First, the newly signed Manchester devolution deal which gives the mayor (also the Police and Crime Commissioner) responsibilities over crucial areas of policy including the management of women in the justice system, young people who offend and those sentenced to less than two years in prison. Just take the example of people sentenced to less than two years in prison, the "revolving doors" group who often have complex underlying needs such as drug or alcohol use or extreme poverty that can fuel reoffending. Yet for many years, our overly centralised system didn't allow areas that invested in robust crime prevention (such as effective drug services or crisis services) to reap any reward financially for reducing prison numbers. However, this has now all changed. As I wrote in 2013:

"the creation of Police and Crime Commissioners and possibilities of further devolution present risks and opportunities, but in the changing landscape we need to ensure that local areas that prioritise crime prevention are rewarded for their efforts. Without structured investment, early intervention and prevention can so easily be relegated to the sidelines whereas they should be central concerns".

This is now happening in practice and although Manchester is the first English region to gain such responsibilities, it is unlikely to be the last. We know the Mayor of London will argue for greater devolution, likely across health and criminal justice. As more areas gain such powers and potentially demonstrate the power of intervening earlier to prevent problems escalating into repeated criminal justice (sometimes called justice reinvestment) others will follow suit. The incoming Police and Crime Commissioners will have seen their predecessors make the most difference when they have successfully joined up systems and forged partnerships to tackle crime rather than attempted this in isolation.

The second significant development is the newly announced national roll out of liaison and diversion services which place mental health nurses and other specialists (eg learning disability nurses) in police custody and courts to ensure people with mental health and other needs are diagnosed and supported. The statistics emerging from the first two waves of liaison and diversion services show that the vast majority of people engaging with the service have an identified mental health need and many face a host of other difficulties including for example a third struggling with alcohol issues and 15% experiencing housing problems. For some of those assessed, this could mean common sense diversion into appropriate services that can help them address underlying problems. For others, it may mean criminal justice sanctions but for the first time having a proper diagnosis to ensure a fairer trial, and so that criminal justice staff actually know the issues and can give better support.

Again, liaison and diversion alone will not transform the entire system but it is an important building block and one that Revolving Doors has advocated for many years. It also provides those local leaders, including PCCs, seeking devolution with the hard statistics to show just how many people in their patch are ending up in criminal justice because they have been failed by wider health and social services. Perhaps it will give greater impetus to investing in better prevention. This will be even more powerful if they are accountable for the costs of prison places.

What ties both developments together is that they both rely on the all powerful Treasury for backing. This time last year when asked to suggest only one policy for the new Justice Secretary, I argued that they should "embrace, rather than hate, the Treasury". What I meant by this was the department's focus on ensuring value for money and effectiveness rather than salami slicing budgets that can damage services quality and impact. In terms of criminal justice, effectiveness can only be realised by tackling some of the complex problems that drive demand on the criminal justice system in the first place. People facing multiple and complex needs are over-represented on short prison sentences, often repeatedly arrested, using emergency services and experiencing entrenched poverty and deprivation. These facts must drive a change in approach.

Whoever the new Justice Secretary both liaison and diversion and devolution have already got the green light. Furthermore, prison reform will certainly continue to feature over course of this parliament. Revolving Doors along with colleagues and people with lived experience will be working with government to turn these ambitions into reality.

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