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Thoughts for 2017

Wednesday 20 December 2017

What has surprised us in the criminal justice sector this year and what to look out for in 2018.

When the nominations for word of the year include ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ it is astonishing that Crest’s evidence-based thinking has somehow bucked the trend. Our highlights of the year include a report for the Hadley Trust on the declining use of community sentences and our analysis of the disjointed approach to performance from criminal justice agencies. Alongside our policy and insight work, we have continued to deliver outstanding strategic communications support to our clients across the private, public and voluntary sectors.

We’re finishing 2017, with a collective slice of insight on the criminal justice system, what surprised us this year and the unanswered questions for policing leaders and policy makers in the year ahead. Keep an eye out for our next report on justice devolution early in 2018.

Crime is back on the political agenda


Crime is back on the political agenda. A decade ago polls show it topped the list of issues causing public concern. Then the financial world imploded and everything changed. We confidently predicted that policing would barely feature in the general election. But the atrocities at Manchester Arena and London’s Borough Market catapulted police officer numbers into the campaign (not least since police reform had been seen as a ‘win’ for a Home Secretary-turned- Prime Minister) and created a less unsympathetic climate for the service itself. The rise in recorded crime and the opportunity to attack the PM’s track record means crime is back to stay.

Stop and search, mental health, non-crime demand, officer morale, funding formulas… there’s lots of issues policing must grapple with in 2018. But, to a degree, they all miss the bigger question: what is the point of policing? HMICFRS can ask forces to be more efficient, effective and legitimate, the College can seek to turn all officers into graduates, the IPCC can require lessons to be learned with more training, new kit, better multi-agency working etc etc. But is there any consensus within the service - let alone one shared by the public - about what it is policing is there to do and, critically, not there to? 

As the world gets more digital, as offenders and victims have more complex needs and as scrutiny becomes more intense, something has to give. It would be helpful if the police and public can agree on what that something is. Only then can it work out the ‘how’.

#MeToo is a call to action to address low conviction rates for rape


Is it surprising that the extent of sexual misconduct against women was finally revealed in 2017? Sadly, yes. Although the overwhelming response to the #MeToo campaign begs the question as to why so much sexual abuse had been able to take place for so long. To witness those in the highest echelons of power, forced to reflect on their attitudes, behaviours and how they impact on their subordinates, has been momentous, and should mark a turning point. It remains disappointing - albeit unsurprising - that apologists for sexual assault continue to make accusations of ‘witch-hunts’ and use women’s clothing and the time it takes to report an assault as reasons for women not to be believed.

Nevertheless, the brave women who spoke up in 2017 will have a lasting legacy for which future generations can be immensely thankful. And who would have thought #feminism would be the word of the year?

The strength and extent of sexual misconduct demands wider policy action. Less than 6% of reported rapes ends in a conviction - partly because our criminal justice system places unnecessary and inappropriate stress on victims. 2018 presents a huge opportunity for a step change in how the police, CPS, legal profession and others deal with sexual offences.

We should continue to be shocked by levels of prison violence


This year the Chief Inspector of Prisons warned that no prisons holding children were safe. In the wider prison estate in 2016/7, there were over 27,000 incidents of assault and 41,000 incidents of self harm. These figures are all the more shocking when looking at the per prisoner rate: 319 incidents of assault per 1000 prisoners; self harm incidents at 482 per 1000 prisoners.

The levels of violence are compounded by severe levels of overcrowding. In such an atmosphere, rehabilitation and other interventions cannot be provided; and prisoners continue to leave prison without underlying needs even being identified, let alone addressed.

A prison governor told me he liked to think of his prison as being a suburb of the town in which it was located: he wanted the inmates to have opportunities and thrive under his watch. But this national picture instead made me think what a terrifying place to live.

Quite apart from the obvious expectation that public institutions should be places of safety for both staff and inmates, the public should also reasonably be able to expect prisons to be places of correction, not accelerants for violence and self harm.

The worry is that the ever more depressing picture coming out of prisons only desensitises people to what is happening behind the prison gates. We should continue to be shocked.

Can the police catch up with technology?


The lack of relatively basic analytical capability held by many police forces remains surprising.

Everyone already knows the problems with police ICT in England and Wales - 43 independent forces with 43 different ICT strategies has led to a myriad of systems that lack interoperability and are hugely expensive to maintain. So how do we change this? Well firstly, most of the technology that the criminal justice system needs and the public expects already exists in the market. We don’t always need central government solutions. Basic lessons have not been learned from past failures - electronic monitoring (hugely over budget, delayed and now simply purchasing existing solution from the market), Common Platform (late and solution already being delivered in major force areas by the market), ESN (delayed and over budget).

Software as a service needs to be at the heart of all major ICT developments in the future, alongside greater willingness to buy what the market already offers. Where central initiatives can help is in aligning standards - leaving forces free to procure from suppliers themselves rather than forcing large, opaque, top-down initiatives on them.

Our courts system is stuck in the past


Our courts continue to astonish. The system demands reform, not because the courts are creaking and old and mired in paper and processes, though they are. Nor because they are cumbersome and clumsy in dealing with victims, though they are. But because they are stuck in the past and suffering from a more acute version of the question the police also face. What are they for? Reducing re-offending? Giving communities respite from offenders? Building confidence among victims? Solving problems?

Courts must be one of the last parts of the system that remain paper based and impenetrable to all but those who operate there at professional levels. Walking into any court in England and Wales one is struck by the antiquated system. Take court listings as an actual physical example. Each morning courts staff print out and pin pieces of paper to a green felt board. Hundreds of courts, thousands (maybe millions?) of pieces of paper. What can possibly go wrong? The example is in the weeds but it is there to highlight a bigger issue; after years of stripping back the budgets afforded to the justice system we have been left with a bare bones service that is struggling to keep up with the times in which we live and is divorced from the needs of those it serves, that is, the public.

With such a centralised system, there is no one with any real purchase on the system. So who will ask the big questions, still less answer them? And there is little hope, let alone scope for local innovation. HMCTS is aware of the challenges it faces and a £1 billion transformation programme is underway. But it needs to punch above its weight. 

Digital transformation of the last bastion of paper-based public service is not for the faint hearted. None of that is to undermine the case for judicial independence. But we need to stop conflating the courts and justice - court administration can change; the justice within remains the same. Our prognosis is to aim high and think big - but prepare for many bumps along the road.

The actions needed to tackle reoffending


How difficult it is for criminal justice organisations to systematically share information about the needs of the offenders they are working with?

Ultimately, this information could help change behaviours and reduce reoffending by using it to tailor services and design pathways to the needs of offenders and demands of an area. From our work in this area this year, we know there are many reasons why this is so difficult; from incompatible systems to lack of analytical capability to fear around data sharing. And unfortunately, when it does happen in a local area,  it is the exception, and not the rule.

2018 is the time to quantify the impact policy changes to drug treatment, housing and health services have had on the police and the wider criminal justice system.After years of budget cuts, personnel cuts and with vast, potentially disastrous recent policy changes to the criminal justice landscape (notably the annual HMIP report questioned just this week whether the ‘new’ probation model can ever work), ensuring resources are targeted at dealing with offending and managing it effectively is key.

Knowing, mapping, and truly understanding critical needs that contribute to offending behaviour is key - whether that is related to homelessness or substance abuse etc. But it is currently a largely absent tool.

Rather than continuing to pay and manage the cost of failure, my challenge for 2018 is for the system to have access to information to deal with the issues that contribute to offending. Only then can we truly get to a point where we reduce reoffending, and start to stop offending from happening in the first place.

Too many costly, ineffective short sentences and no early intervention


The high and increasing rate of short custodial sentences dealt for low severity, albeit prolific offences (c.35% on average) is astonishing, and has been particularly noticeable for female offenders across the regions Crest has worked with this year. 

There are most certainly complex reasons for this increase, including; a more prolific offender cohort, more severe sentencing guidelines, the decline of early intervention in the form of out of court disposals, lack of magistrate/probation communication due to restrictions on CRCs. But surely, we cannot keep sending  such low level offenders to custody when we know that short term custody is ineffective, does not deter criminal activity, increases reoffending rates and is really expensive (on average £30K pa)? Instead, we should tackle root issues and develop alternative punishments and rehabilitative programs.

Community Justice Scotland is paving the way for change through a presumption against three months custodial sentences and a proposal to scrap all custodial sentences under a year. Watch this space for more on this in the coming weeks.

In 2018 a whole system approach is desperately needed:

1. Better information sharing between criminal justice and other local public services in a painless, cheap way.

2. Increased involvement of universal services and non-criminal partners in criminal justice conversations. They have access to key levers for change.

Opportunities from justice devolution


The start of 2017 looked gloomy for devolution thanks to a combination of Brexit and a new Prime Minister, not renowned for her devolutionary tendencies. Twelve months on, those predictions look to have been overly pessimistic. The election of a new raft of City Mayors including Greater Manchester, the West Midlands and Merseyside in this year’s local elections and an unexpected general election outcome has led to devolution in general - and justice devolution in particular - making a comeback. PCCs and Mayors are generally better placed than Whitehall officials to make decisions about how best to resettle and rehabilitate offenders, and how to prevent people from entering the CJS to begin with.

2018 should be the year that PCCs and Mayors take over responsibility for managing female offenders. The (relatively) low volume of offenders involved means the Ministry of Justice ought to feel less risk averse than they are prone and the case for change is compelling. Very few women in custody pose a significant risk to the public; twice as many women are sentenced to short custodial sentences as men, often for shoplifting offences, and the trend is going in the wrong direction. This makes no sense. Short sentences are both ineffective and costly (see my colleagues views above). Greater Manchester have demonstrated what can be achieved with a small amount of investment - creating a network of women’s centres to divert female offenders away from the CJS.

It is time to let PCCs and Mayors take charge of how female offenders are managed, creating the financial incentives to invest in alternatives to custody and address the underlying causes of their offending behaviour.


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