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Devolution revolution – would it help reduce prison numbers?

Penelope Gibbs
04 Dec 2015

England and Wales has one of the most centralised criminal justice systems and one of the highest imprisonment rates in Western Europe. No-one knows whether there is a correlation internationally between the two, but the USA is an interesting case study. A new report by Rob Allen for Transform Justice looks at “justice reinvestment” in the USA. There, the imprisonment rate is the highest in the world and the criminal justice system is localised. Criminal law is particular to each state and some states administer criminal justice at a county, rather than state, level. More localised justice fosters innovation, but it can also foster terrible practice, such as the continued use of the death penalty in some states. But localisation has also allowed states to act relatively quickly to introduce measures to reduce imprisonment. In recent years politicians on the left and right have recognised that imprisonment is draining scarce resources, which could be better spent elsewhere. “Right on Crime”, the right-wing penal reform movement in USA says “ultimately, the question underlying every tax dollar that is spent on fighting crime ought to be: is this making the public safer?” So politicians have started reversing two decades of punitive legislation, in order to avoid building and servicing yet more prisons. They have reduced sanctions for breaching parole, and sentences for minor drug offences. Because budgets are local, they can redirect the money saved to community approaches.

Under Ken Clarke, the Westminster government was even more radical. Three different schemes were tried to give local agencies a strong financial incentive to reduce imprisonment and convictions. The most successful was the custody pathfinder – where the whole of the under 18 custody budget was delegated to local councils. The imprisonment of children is very expensive – up to £200,000 per child per year. So reducing “bed nights” saves serious money. The consortia of local authorities managed to reduce child custody considerably, and to keep the money saved to invest in services for vulnerable children. A win win situation. But one completely ignored by Chris Grayling, who seemed to have no interest in this form of “payment by results”.

Michael Gove has proved ready to overturn his predecessor’s decisions. And he is a localist. So it will be interesting to see if he can reform perhaps the most centralist and centralised department in Whitehall.