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The five golden rules for justice devolution

Sarah Kincaid, Head of Strategy and Insight

Wednesday 25 April 2018

Look across the criminal justice system today - red warning lights are flashing everywhere. From growing waiting times in our courts, the violence and sense of despair in our prisons, through to the failure to rehabilitate offenders once through the prison gate - there is a sense that services are on the point of collapse.

In days gone by, most of us would have turned to Whitehall for answers. But Crest's work across four contrasting areas of the country over the last nine months has told us solutions are more likely to be found in Plymouth, in Taunton, York or Sunderland than in Westminster. 

At Crest, we explore how the different parts of the criminal justice system are working, processing people through the system (often repeatedly) from the police, CPS, courts, prison through to probation. Those working in the system are increasingly saying, "let's focus on what we can do ourselves". Harnessing this energy and driving it constructively to improve outcomes for victims and offenders is the starting point for justice devolution. 

This is not about cutting loose for the sake of it, but understanding that by taking greater control over the system locally and seeing it as an ecosystem, it can be tailored to improve outcomes for citizens. A more devolved system also allows a fighting chance to better engage and join up with those local public services - housing, mental health, family support - which lie outside the walls of criminal justice but which are vital to reducing offending and recidivism. 

Crest's experience of working with PCCs across the country to explore and deliver more locally accountable justice, has enabled us to develop to five golden rules of justice devolution.

Rule 1: Know what you want to achieve


A major downside of a highly centralised system is the differential impact it has locally. Exercising greater control over particular elements of the system is an important driver for those seeking more devolved arrangements. For example, North Yorkshire's dispersed population means many people currently travel long distances to access justice in court, a situation exacerbated by courts closures. The PCC has set a clear priority of supporting victims to play their part which has driven her plans for pop up courts, bringing justice to the people rather than the other way round. 

In many places, young offenders are placed in custody far from home, reducing family contact and support from professionals in their home community. With numbers in custody falling, the average distance between where children are incarcerated and their home has risen in the last decade. Several areas were keen to look at the feasibility of commissioning youth custody places locally to keep their most prolific young offenders closer to home, to have some influence over the custodial arrangements and make their resettlement back into their community easier.

Rule 2: Know the local criminal justice picture


In a system made up of different components run in different ways across different boundaries, there are real challenges for PCCs and partners in understanding the local justice picture. Crest looked at a cross-section of the local criminal justice system in order to map flows through the system - from offences, through to charge, prosecutions, outcomes and reoffences. Mapping the journey of women offenders in Northumbria showed that 87% of offences for which women were prosecuted were summary offences and that 82% received fines. This suggested that women were avoiding more serious disposals but at the cost of greater economic hardship. Moreover services could be missing the chance to make more effective interventions. 

By costing crimes and sentences we were able to help PCCs and criminal justice partners understand the potential to reduce longer terms costs through more effective interventions - vital for making the case for greater control over the system.

Rule 3: Focus on people not structures


Reform of complex systems often focuses on changing structures or management. The starting point, however, must be the people in the system and how their outcomes can be improved. We found that focusing on specific cohorts of offenders, or victims was a more effective way of thinking about change and what can be done locally. In Avon and Somerset, we found more than a third of women who received custodial sentences did so for theft, principally shoplifting. As the offending population becomes more complex and more concentrated, we found that it was most effective to focus on particular cohorts that are known to drive a significant proportion of demand, and for whom there is an clear case for developing a distinctive approach.

Rule 4: Ensure robust governance


Devolution should strengthen democratic accountability, not weaken it. In most cases, that must involve devolution to a single, visible elected leader, rather than to a committee. Whether that person is a directly elected mayor or a PCC will depend on local circumstances. In areas without a single dominant conurbation, PCCs clearly fulfil that role as elected representatives responsible for a single police force area. Their democratic mandate has given them significant soft power to convene many of the most important local agencies to address common problems. Their mandate also empowers many to start challenging the performance of not only the police, but also the wider justice system. The Conservative's 2017 election manifesto committed to giving PCCs wider oversight of the criminal justice system. Labour have also pledged more radical devolution plans as part of their response to the UK's exit from the European Union.

Rule 5: Get local buy-in for change


The recent history of justice devolution suggests it is only when all local stakeholders buy into the need for reform, that momentum for change starts to build. Where PCCs or combined authorities have attempted to run ahead with reform, without taking local stakeholders with them, devolution has ultimately stalled. Getting local buy in means persuading others of what is in it for them - whether that be the opportunity to better manage those who are driving demand in services and finding shared objectives.



With PCCs and Mayors increasingly well established, there is a real opportunity to develop a more localised and preventative approach in criminal justice - to get upstream rather than processing the costs of failure. There is a great deal that can be done now to start joining up the system before the more devolution of policy, services and budgets. In the absence of answers from Whitehall, we urge PCCs and their criminal justice partners to grasp the opportunity to make the justice system better serve local communities and our experience shows how it can be done. 


The UK's only consultancy dedicated to crime and justice.

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