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Nothing to lose? Rewiring justice to transform punishment & rehabilitation for the 21st century

Insights Report


Jon Clements, Development Director | Sophie du Mont, Strategy and Insight Manager | Manon Roberts, Senior Analyst | Faerlie Wilson, Senior Analyst

Monday 1 January 2018


Since 1991, there has been roughly one Act of Parliament every two years focused on criminal justice. Despite this, the prison population has increased by around 40,000 in this time, and reoffending rates have remained stubbornly high. Recorded crime is at the same level as it was 25 years ago, though now rising. Why have so many attempts to reform our justice system failed?

In our new report, Rewiring Justice, we explain how legislation has too often ignored the changing nature of crime and the pressures building in the criminal justice system. Instead, reform has been shaped by a sterile debate between those who argue the priority for the justice system should be punishment, and those who argue it should be rehabilitation.

We believe that solutions lie in looking at things differently. We should learn from how other public services have transformed themselves and we should not discount the views of offenders themselves who are often well placed to understand how to make systems work better.

Rewiring Justice sets out an alternative vision of a future criminal justice system - one which is more intelligent, effective, efficient and humane.

New justice challenges

The nature of offending has changed markedly compared to a decade ago. We have seen an increase in the incidences of violent and sexual offences, pitted against an overall fall in the number of crimes being committed. The fall in the numbers coming before the courts has not been mirrored by reductions in the prison population. Offenders are increasingly more prolific and more complex, circulating in and out of a massively under-resourced justice system.

Government efforts at reform have failed for two reasons. Firstly, reforms have been based on flawed assumptions about how to change behaviour. Outdated ‘new public management’ principles have been adopted which prioritise processes over relationships, and treat offenders as a homogenous group. Secondly, policies have oscillated between two false choices of either a liberal, welfare-oriented justice system (focused on rehabilitation) or of a more punitive system (emphasising punishment).

This has resulted in the following failures at every stage of the offender journey:

  • Interventions reach offenders too late

  • Punishment within the community is virtually non-existent, so prison is over-utilised

  • Prisons are overcrowded and thus incapable of proper rehabilitation

  • The social causes of crime and reoffending are neglected

Our report argues that the current system delivers neither punishment or rehabilitation as an objective, and that the solution to the failure of criminal justice reform lies in balancing both objectives, not prioritising one over the other.

Views inside and outside the justice system

It is not only the statistics which demand a new approach. Polling by Crest has found the public too recognises the need to balance punishment with rehabilitation. Asked to choose the six most important aspects of how the justice system performs out of 14 options (see table below), the public put in second place overall "Judges give sentences which effectively punish and rehabilitate." Contrary to some media and political assumptions, the public is neither in favour of locking people up for the sake of it, nor do they support policies which ignore the wider factors that influence offending.

Those who have gone through the criminal justice system want positive change too. Focus groups with service users highlighted the importance of sentences being tailored and meaningful and of positive relationships with criminal justice staff. Participants emphasised the lack of holistic and personalised approaches, and the positive benefit this would have had:

"If they get to know you and understand what you're about, then they can give you the right support."

They also highlighted a strong punitive culture across the criminal justice system, and the demoralising effects of this:

“When you go to prison, do you not get punished? Or when you do your community service, do you not get punished? Where does it stop? Where does the punishment stop? And that’s the problem, you know, the punishment never stops. Once you’ve been branded a criminal, the punishment does not stop.”

And, as Crest set out in our community sentences report, these feelings are felt by staff across the system, with sentencers themselves also sceptical about the efficacy of some of the punishments they have at their disposal and how these are being carried out.

Crest's Rewiring Justice Report makes the case for a new model for reform based on three key principles:

The case for change: 1 - Devolve power to free up resources

Devolving responsibility to Police and Crime Commissioners and directly elected Mayors for managing offenders serving short custodial sentences, as well as giving them greater powers over offender management services locally, would remove the main obstacle to greater connectivity and innovation in the criminal justice system - centralisation. Because Whitehall continues to determine the funding and priorities for punishment and rehabilitation, services are still delivered in silos without a holistic 'whole person' approach.

Justice devolution - as set out in our report - would enable elected mayors and PCCs to pool devolved budgets, boost integration across services, avoid duplication of service delivery and allow for more personal interventions to tackle drug and alcohol dependencies, mental health problems or other causes of offending behaviour. Budgetary discretion would also give local authorities a real economic incentive to invest in prevention and innovative alternatives to custody, such as electronic monitoring.

The case for change: 2 - Integrate services

As well as devolution and pooling funds, tackling prolific offending requires service integration. The root causes of offending often exist outside of the criminal justice system and issues such as substance misuse, poor housing, mental health issues and unemployment should not be treated in isolation. This means that to change and reduce offending behaviour, professionals from different sectors must work together to take a 'whole person' or ‘whole place’ approach.

The government should therefore pilot a network of ‘rehabilitation hubs’ for male prolific offenders within police force areas, based on the ‘women’s centre’ model.

The case for change: 3 - Deepening relationships

One of the most negative impacts of recent criminal justice reform has been on the quality of relationships between offenders and those seeking to work with them to change their behaviour. Participants at our service-user focus groups, who have first hand experience of various parts of the system, spoke at length about how high turnover of staff undermines trust among offenders and reduces the likelihood of successful rehabilitation. A number of the service users described having too little time to develop meaningful and productive relations, with contact restricted to transactional exchanges, such as sanctions, rather than exploring how to achieve positive change. These discussions revealed a picture of time-constrained, transactional relationships, dealing with sanctions rather than productive change - and mirrored the issues faced by professionals across justice services, engaged with, as part of this project.

Consistency and quality is needed from frontline services to enable relationships to develop, with services and institutions that facilitate rather than hinder face-to-face interactions between offenders and staff.

The government's probation reforms, anticipated over the next two years should include a probation workforce strategy to ensure minimum professional standards for both prison and probation staff, such as stipulating maximum probation caseloads and minimum staffing levels to ensure staff are equipped with the right skills and capabilities to work with chaotic and complex offenders to change their lives.


Most of the core principles and assumptions underpinning our justice system have remained unchanged for the last 25 years. Despite a myriad of policy and legislative change, the impact on reoffending has been negligible, leaving a criminal justice system that is not fit for purpose and fails to respond to the changing nature of both offenders and the crimes they are committing.

The government must look at root and branch reform of the justice system. This requires the rewiring of justice to handle offenders whose behaviours are driven by complex issues. Recent experience suggests this is beyond the capability of central government. Therefore ministers should use devolution to unlock the potential for better prevention and integration at a local level. After years of stagnation, and with the criminal justice system close to breaking point, what does the government have to lose?


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