03/10/2013 12:23 BST | Updated 03/12/2013 05:12 GMT

No More Revolving Door?

The government is poised to embark on a sweeping set of reforms that will change the criminal justice landscape for the significant future..

The government is poised to embark on a sweeping set of reforms that will change the criminal justice landscape for the significant future. The Ministry of Justice is contracting out probation services to a range of new providers from the voluntary and private sectors with payment incentives to tackle "stubbornly high reoffending rates." Plans also include bringing some 50,000 short sentenced prisoners into supervision and support on release. The rehabilitation support for short term prisoners reliant on the cost savings generated by the competition process.

The Criminal Justice Alliance took the opportunity of party conferences to ask some difficult questions. What are the challenges, especially for diverse voluntary sector involvement? What aspects of the policy require more thought? Do proposals present an opportunity to close the revolving door of prison or will they serve to send ever more people to custody?

Firstly, the scale and pace of the changes cannot be underestimated. We understand over 300,000 offenders will be impacted - the vast majority being those serving community sentences, but also those leaving prison after short sentences and those held in newly designated "resettlement prisons" reaching the end of their sentence. Latest Ministry of Justice announcements make it clear that access to rehabilitation in those final three months in prison will be largely shaped by new probation providers - changes intended to close the often yawning gap between what happens in prison and back in the community.

Yet most acknowledge, including those who support the reforms, that transition is taking place at breakneck speed. As the respected outgoing Chief Inspector of Probation put it, "the scale and pace of the change is considerable and we are concerned as an inspectorate, that it is taken forward and implemented without any drop in performance".

The hope is that reforms will lead to better services, flexible and effective to deal with the complex needs of many caught up in the revolving door of crime and able to break the cycle of reoffending. A core part of the government's narrative is that this can be achieved by harnessing the voluntary sector's expertise in working with some of the most marginalised people in society. Indeed, it is worth noting that charities already provide a vast number of services that help reduce reoffending and promote community safety. A Third Sector Research Council report found some 20,000 organisations working with people involved in the criminal justice system, including for example providing drug and alcohol services, mental health treatment and family work as well as specific rehabilitation services. But will Transforming Rehabilitation offer the chance to do more?

The answer really depends on individual organisations. The voluntary sector is hugely diverse in size and scope, ranging from organisations with turnovers of around £100m to many with less than £500k, and each has a different sense of purpose and mission. So it is a misnomer to give a 'voluntary sector view' whether this is labelling all charities as bid candy or advocating that the reforms will be wonderful for charities. It is welcome that some of the barriers to voluntary sector involvement have been recognised. For example, we are pleased that the MoJ has now adopted a more sensible measure of reoffending that also includes frequency and seriousness. This will reduce, although cannot exclude, the likelihood of people being 'parked' if they make one mistake or ignored altogether if deemed too high risk. Unsurprisingly, charities are often most passionate about working with people most excluded and in need. There is still more to be done to ensure payment mechanisms make this possible.

We are also pleased to see the term "grants" return in policy documents. We have long-argued that smaller organisations with turnover of less than £500k simply cannot afford to take on payment-by-results contracts without going to the wall. So we hope that the "prime" providers will respond and grant fund the smallest organisations, not transferring inappropriate levels of risk down the chain. A recent survey by Clinks found that the majority of voluntary organisations are using their reserves and around half have been forced to cut staff. Managing financial risk was the single most significant reason that smaller charities felt they couldn't sign up to PBR contracts.

Despite progress some challenges undoubtedly remain. The backdrop is serious cuts to prisons, now starting to damage regimes and limit opportunities for rehabilitation. More and more we are hearing of lock downs and prisoners spending all day in cell as there are not the staff available. Into this straining system we now need to add a further 13,000 people who will breach their supervision or licence period and be back behind bars for a few weeks at a cost of £16 million per year. This is according to the government's own Impact Assessment published alongside the Offender Rehabilitation Bill.

Furthermore, we cannot predict how sentencers will respond. We know that when sentencers have confidence in community sentences they are more likely to use them instead of prison. We think more attention should be paid to how judges and magistrates can see community sentences in action on their patch, and perhaps have more engagement throughout the sentence.

Finally, realism is needed about how long it takes to develop and sustain local partnerships with non-criminal justice agencies - local authorities, health services, housing. MoJ states that providers are "expected to agree local protocols in relation to engagement with non-statutory partnerships, where these support the management of offenders and the reduction in their risk of reoffending". Building relationships will be critical, and even the best organisations in the world will need time to develop partnerships in order to bring all local resources to bear. This is particularly important when working with short sentenced prisoners - a group with often complex and multiple needs who absolutely rely on access to services, such as stable housing, for their move away from crime.

The months ahead are critical for criminal justice. Whilst individual CJA members take their own view on the changes, the Alliance has long campaigned collectively for fewer people in prison and the promotion of effective alternatives. Government should be clear that increasing numbers in short term custody would be a negative consequence of the 'rehabilitation revolution'.