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February 3, 2014

Justice reinvestment – the holy grail for criminal justice reform?

The most effective means of reducing offending lie outside the remit of the justice system.   Entrenched offenders need stable housing, good family relationships, employment and good healthcare to turn their lives around.  Yet offenders struggle to gain access to these services and to the job market.   There are few incentives for those providing services outside the criminal justice system to prioritise the needs of offenders and ex offenders.  In fact, in many cases they go to the back of the queue.   A young offender needing housing is often seen as trouble and excluded by providers.   Meanwhile millions are spent on court costs, police enforcement and prisons.

How can we incentivise public services to help rehabilitate offenders, when money is already so tight?  New Labour encouraged local authorities through local area agreements.  Each council chose a measure (such as increasing diversion of children from the criminal justice system) and their performance was tracked and, if positive, rewarded.   The coalition  government has instead backed “payment by results” (PBR) mechanisms, whereby providers will only be fully recompensed for their rehabilitation programmes if they reduce reoffending.  But all the contractors who undertake PBR will do so with at least one hand tied behind their back.  They have no control over the health service, social housing providers and other statutory services which provide the framework for effective rehabilitation.  The risk with PBR is that those given responsibility for offenders will have even less power to access local services than probation trusts and courts have now.

This government has flirted with a mechanism for incentivising all local services to help offenders turn their back on crime – justice reinvestment.  This involves reform of the way criminal justice is paid for, to reward those involved in reducing imprisonment and offending.   In the case of remand for under 18 year olds, the government has delegated the custody budget to local authorities.  The decision of judges is still independent but if, through better bail practice, local authorities succeed in reducing child remand below their benchmark, they can keep the money which would otherwise be spent on prison places. Child remand has gone down 16% since the budget was delegated.

The coalition government appears however to have turned its back on justice reinvestment as an idea – as have many of the states in the USA which pioneered this approach.  This paper by Rob Allen looks into the reasons why, and suggests that justice reinvestment is still one of the most promising ideas for reducing crime and imprisonment.