Criminal Justice: Breaking the Cycle consultation the Government response

The Ministry of Justice has published a response to its consultation on the Green Paper, Breaking the Cycle, setting out the government’s plans to reduce offending. News reports have focused on the Justice Secretary’s having back-tracked on proposals to reduce time served on prison sentences to 50%: in practice a wider range of issues are covered, many of which are of direct relevance to local government, either as a result of their specific responsibilities, or because of their interest in promoting safer communities.

Publicity about the government’s proposals for reform of the criminal justice system has focused on opposition to plans to reduce the prison population by reducing the number of offenders remanded in custody, and reducing the length of time served on a prison sentence to 50%.

Debate on key issues, such as where responsibility for reducing offending should lay, the need to plan for rehabilitation as well as punishment, as well as the ramifications of the government’s approach to funding criminal justice outcomes, has been obscured.

While aspects of the proposals are becoming concrete – in the Legal aid, Sentencing, and Punishment of Offenders Bill and the many pilot studies mentioned in this briefing – much is still to emerge. Insufficient time has passed for more than implementation issues to be learned from pilot studies, and important consultations, such as on further provision for victims of crime, and sentencing reform, have been signposted.

Any failure in the government’s proposals to reduce prison numbers is likely to have significant implications, making it difficult to achieve what are, on the scale of the problems faced, a relatively limited set of objectives, or, more remotely, perhaps demanding that savings are made elsewhere in the Ministry of Justice budget.

The lack of acknowledgement of existing locally-based responsibilities (other than for young offenders) and recognition that the contribution of the main public sector agencies is essential to local offender management is disturbing.

Schemes established by local authorities and partner agencies, supported by the MoJ, have been shown to have value, and will remain essential to reducing offending and supporting the interests of the public and of victims of crime. Local authorities and partners will be aware of the need to remove barriers to local Integrated Offender Management, and will without doubt continue to raise potential issues with ministers and in practice to work closely with MoJ officials.

With all discretionary schemes under national and local budget pressures, it is perhaps not surprising that this Secretary of State for Justice is placing reliance on payment-by-results contracts. Untested and presenting considerable challenges to implement and achieve appropriate measureable outcomes, the success of such schemes are necessarily unproven.

The case for the alternative, of locally managed solutions based on shared devolved budgets, remains as strong as ever, although it is clear that payment-by-results contracts are expected to play a part here too. Local partnerships will want to learn from the Peterborough research (pdf) when considering how and whether to enter into such relationships themselves.

The solutions, in finding accommodation, work experience, and resolving family breakdown will not be fully addressed without the continued integrated activity of public sector partners, and this will necessarily emerge in practice.

The LGiU/APPG commission identified those serving short sentences, those on remand, and young offenders as in particular benefitting from integration of services and budgets at local level. The government has not fully grasped the nettle of the lack of provision for offenders serving sentences of 12 months or less, a group for whom no probation support is provided and among which individuals rarely benefit from in-prison services, and will most benefit from integrated local solutions. It is attempting to reduce the number of prisoners on remand whose jobs, accommodation and family ties may be at risk (for example by providing that offenders unlikely to receive custodial sentences should be granted bail) and is extending local authority responsibilities towards young people.

It may be difficult to quantify any change in level of responsibility for those remanded on bail – although they will undoubtedly present with accommodation, drug, alcohol and mental health issues calling on local services. The MoJ apparently envisages that new responsibilities for young people will involve costs for local authorities to be offset by long-term reductions in offending. Local authorities may want to note that the recently revised New Burdens Doctrine – under which ministries are required to fund such new responsibilities – will apply to the new policy. It seems unlikely that the arguments in the Impact Assessment published at the time of the Green Paper would stand up to the revised set of rules, and should be revisited.

In conclusion, one is left wondering about the substance of many of the government’s proposals, and how much is aspirational and how much achievable.

This post is based upon an LGiU members briefing. For more information on LGiU membership please email chris.naylor@lgiu.org.uk.