Shine A Light

Is the new Justice Secretary tough enough to act on the evidence that prison doesn’t work?

Chris Grayling may find the solutions to his problems lie in penal reform.

Andrew Neilson
19 October 2012

Our new, tough talking, Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling, has suggested in interviews that savings required of the Ministry of Justice might be made through reducing prison budgets, as opposed to reducing prison numbers. Yet as the Chief Inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick, said this week in the foreword to his annual report, resources are already stretched very thinly and, if a “rehabilitation revolution is to be delivered, there is a clear choice for politicians and policy makers – reduce prison populations or increase prison budgets”.

The problem facing the new Justice Secretary is that Hardwick is only partially right. In fact, there is no choice facing the government as it is already committed to reducing public spending across departments. With increasing prison budgets not an option, it is only a matter of time before a courageous politician must face down criticism and reverse the trend of ever-rising prison numbers. Whether Chris Grayling is the man of the hour remains to be seen.

The fate of his predecessor is instructive. Ken Clarke, with the help of his erstwhile Prisons and Probation Minister Crispin Blunt, was originally tasked with pushing through the government’s ‘rehabilitation revolution’, testing a payment by results approach to pay providers to reduce reoffending.  Alongside this, the Clarke approach to law and order involved characteristic blunt talking and a refreshing departure from the ‘prison works’ orthodoxy that had formed over almost two decades of both Labour and Conservative governments.

Clarke’s initial attack on the notion that ‘prison works’ was rooted in pragmatism. Firstly, the reoffending statistics – almost two thirds of those serving sentences of a year or less go on to be reconvicted within two years of release – demonstrate that the revolving door between prison and the community is spinning fast. Worse, each spell in prison makes reoffending more likely. By contrast, the reoffending rate for much cheaper community orders is 37 per cent, falling to 34 per cent for those on intensive programmes tackling drug and alcohol misuse. 

When the Howard League interviewed prisoners as part of a research project into short sentences, many told us that they preferred spells in prison which ask little of them compared to the challenges they would face completing community programmes that directly tackle the causes of offending.

Secondly, Clarke pointed out that there simply wasn’t the money in public coffers to keep financing the ever-expanding prison population. Prison numbers have doubled since the mid-1990s and continue to increase, while the Ministry of Justice now faces 6 per cent cuts to its budget year on year until 2015.  Indeed, in an age of austerity it is all the more important that expenditure on prisons is limited so that precious funds can be diverted to those public services with a demonstrable impact on the prevention of crime such as education, social care or the treatment of physical and mental health.

Even if payment by results proved successful – and that in itself is a big ‘if’ – Clarke recognised that any efficiency savings produced by the reforms would not dramatically alter the potential spending gap if the Ministry of Justice continued to see prison numbers rise. He therefore proposed a number of bold sentencing reforms, only to drop these when political opposition hardened and Downing Street failed to come out fighting on behalf of its Justice Secretary. In recent months, the refreshing rhetoric of Clarke’s early days in the job was seldom heard.

Time then, perhaps, to see a new face at the Ministry of Justice.  Yet the choice of former Work and Pensions minister Chris Grayling as the new Secretary of State for Justice worries many in the penal reform lobby. This is primarily because the new minister appears to have redoubled the rhetorical effort, but in the opposite direction to his predecessor. Chris Grayling has made it clear that he is not planning to “reduce the number of prison place”.  His first big initiative announced at the Conservative party conference involved making it easier to shoot burglars, which, while not strictly relevant to penal policy, certainly underlined his desire to be seen as tough.

Yet scrape away this rhetoric and perhaps less has changed than some might fear. Yes, the new Justice Secretary has talked about seeing “more of the right people going to prison” but at the same time he does not “want to see them coming back”. Chris Grayling has talked of the importance of “turning people’s lives around” and, while making it clear there will be a “change in emphasis”, he has also acknowledged that “Ken put together some useful proposals and made some useful changes”.  As for identifying himself as a ‘tough Justice Secretary’, it’s a brave Justice Secretary who would characterise himself as soft. 

Whatever Grayling may say, the reality is that his hands are tied by the departmental finances he now oversees. For not only is the Ministry of Justice facing year on year cuts, but due to the collapse of Clarke’s sentencing reforms, the department lost around £130 million of potential savings. A report by the National Audit Office into the restructuring of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) found that the agency in charge of prisons and probation is already projected to spend £32 million more than its budget for 2012–13 due to lack of progress in reducing the prison population.

Given that the Ministry of Justice is hurtling towards a fiscal precipice, a truly tough Justice Secretary would make the case for reducing prison numbers and focusing on effective interventions in the community, with a better use of scarce resources within prison walls.  If Chris Grayling truly believes in a rehabilitation revolution, then he may yet find himself converted to the cause of full blooded penal reform.

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