On the afternoon of 16 October 2023, the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, the Rt Hon Alex Chalk KC MP, made a statement to the House of Commons announcing a range of measure to reduce the pressure on prison places.
The Lord Chancellor announced an interesting range of measures, and people in the voluntary sector will recognise some as things the sector has been recommending for years. This is especially the case for the intention to introduce a legislative presumption against custodial sentences of less than 12 months. Such a presumption has widespread support across our sector and has been called for by many voluntary sector-led campaigns.
This part of the announcement is very welcome. Clinks encourages the government to involve voluntary sector organisations, the people they support and those with lived expertise, in developing the specifics of the necessary legislation. There are still details to be worked out around the choice of suspended sentences as the preferred alternative to short custodial sentences, including considering whether this is too blanket an approach. When developing the plans, Clinks urges the government to consider all models for alternative sentences, alongside all relevant factors.
The Lord Chancellor made other positive announcements: exploring the possibility of widening the use of Home Detention Curfew (HDC), looking at the licence periods of people serving IPP sentences, along with the introduction of a temporary scheme to enable the earlier supervised release of certain people in prison 18 days ahead of their usual release date. Whilst this last measure was announced as a temporary step, Clinks would be supportive of this being a longer-term approach to support more effective resettlement and desistance.
We know many colleagues across the sector want even more to be done. Certainly, many in the sector would have also welcomed more radical steps, such as to significantly reduce women’s imprisonment, which may have also yielded more prison capacity where it is needed. Even more could have been explored around people in prison serving IPP sentences, and that it was not, seems a missed opportunity. It is also disappointing that, while the increased size of the remand population was recognised, little was said about the how the number of people currently on remand can be reduced.
No longer stuck in fifth gear
Many times, we have spoken about the need for the criminal justice system to be reformed to become less dependent on custody, and use more of the existing alternatives to prison, as well as introduce new ones. It is as if the system is being driven like a car stuck in the wrong gear for the conditions.
Prison is the fifth gear of our criminal justice system, and we should not see the use of custody at the level that we do. Instead, we need to see steps taken to not only address the immediate prison population crisis, but to allow the system to better utilise all of its gears. This means it would work in ways that better supports desistance, and for people to get the opportunities they need to transform their lives.
Barriers to success
While the announcements made this afternoon aim to relieve a capacity crisis, some of these changes will, with the right support and implementation, change the criminal justice system and how it works for people for the better. However, almost every one of the steps announced today relies on the support of the Probation Service. Despite this, there was no mention of changes to the service, systems, or ways of working. This seems remarkable given the staffing shortages in probation are well-documented. For the measures announced today to successfully enable people to stay out of prison and effectively move on with their lives, high quality probation services with sufficient capacity are vital.
Here, there are a range of options. This includes both additional staffing but also ways to reduce pressure on existing staff. In the same way that prison capacity will be found through end of sentence supervised release, those nearing the end of their licence period should be supported and managed in ways which are more focussed on phasing out supervision, and enabling greater autonomy and self-regulation.
Probation supervision itself needs to be looked at to assess where it is helpful to rehabilitation and desistance. The blanket policy of supervision on release for everyone leaving prison has not been the success many had hoped. While that may be due to the lack of quality and sufficient staffing, it may also be that supervision is not what in itself creates the right environment for reducing reoffending.
Criteria for who is supervised, and how intensely, should be looked at again. This is not just because it currently creates real challenges in implementation. The newly proposed legislative presumption against short sentences also means that the Rehabilitation Activity Requirement (RAR) model will need revisiting. This will be to ensure that sentencers can select the most effective supports and sanctions suited to the offence and the risk it poses, as well as an individual’s own needs and risk factors.
Investing in accommodation
To enable the measures which relieve prison capacity pressures through earlier release, we need more accommodation. Investment in accommodation for those leaving prison in recent times has been welcomed and is much needed. However, the current models will not have the capacity to meet the needs of a greater number of people, especially those who may need greater access to approved premises or housing with support and supervision built in.
The role of the voluntary sector
For both the issue of pressure on the Probation Service, and the issue of pressure on available accommodation in the community, more thought needs to be given to the role of the voluntary sector in supporting people affected by the new measures, as well as across community and resettlement services. Greater and more effective partnerships with voluntary organisations allows for potential to support the best outcomes. This will require doing things differently, like commissioning, contracting, getting services up and running, and vetting staff. But with the right involvement, and working in the spirit of collaboration and partnership, a lot could be achieved that would have a positive and lasting effect beyond this crisis.
We implore the Ministry of Justice and HM Prison and Probation Service to engage right across the voluntary sector, and Clinks is ready to help with this. There is experience, expertise, and innovation on offer from the sector, and it needs to be utilised if positive change is to be brought about.
These are welcome first steps. But more needs to, and can be done. There are already countless examples of voluntary organisations providing services that intervene before a custodial sentence even becomes an option. By diverting people away from the criminal justice system at the earliest possible opportunity, we can address many of the underlying issues that can lead people to having contact with the criminal justice system – including poverty and substance misuse – reducing future crimes. Such a focus on diversion and early intervention will not only help to address these underlying causes through service provision in the community, wherever possible, but also ensure that we never again face the predicament we currently find ourselves in. The voluntary sector stands ready to offer its expertise in plotting a path forward.
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.@hibiscuscharity have launched a report - funded by Clinks - which explores the complex issues faced by Black, minoritised and migrant women in contact with the CJS and the resulting impacts on their mental health.
Read the report here: https://hibiscusinitiatives.org.uk/media/2023/06/rmc-mental-health-report-document.pdf