Publication Devolution Justice Machinery of government 22 May, 2016

Local commissioning, local solutions: devolving offender management

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Over the last 15 years, there has been significant change to the way in which offender management services – i.e. prison and probation – are organised and managed. This has included the introduction of competition, first through private sector run prisons and then more recently through the outsourcing of the bulk of probation services through the Transforming Rehabilitation programme. Successive governments have also sought to create a more integrated offender management system, primarily by bringing prisons and probation closer together through the creation of a single agency – the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) – to manage both.

These reforms have delivered some positive change: costs are down and there have been measurable, albeit small, reductions in re-offending. For the scale and ambition of the changes made, however, the impact has been disappointing. Despite marginal improvement, reoffending rates remain stubbornly high and some aspects of prison performance have actually deteriorated. In addition, there remains continuing pressure to secure better value for money from the offender management services. A different approach is needed.

Local commissioning, local services

Offender management services need to be commissioned and delivered locally, by commissioners who can make well-informed decisions about where money is best spent to achieve reductions in reoffending and reflect local priorities. Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) occupy the right place in the system to fulfil this function. They are sufficiently local, and have direct accountability to the electorate in the communities they serve. They can claim a democratic mandate to change criminal justice services in order to reduce crime. This democratic mandate and the need to win re-election also instils a strong antidote to provider capture. As such, PCCs should take responsibility from NOMS for commissioning all prison and probation services. They should also take responsibility for commissioning drug and mental health services for offenders to enable genuinely joined-up solutions to be configured at a local level.

To facilitate this, the current National Probation Service (NPS) should be disbanded. Responsibility for the management of all sentenced offenders, irrespective of risk, should transfer to CRCs. Building on the Government’s plans to devolve autonomy to prison governors, all prisons should be re-constituted as self-governing organisations, rather than merely branch offices of a highly centralised national organisation. Prisons with freedom to respond quickly and flexibly to the requirements of PCCs will enable the momentum of reform to be accelerated.

These reforms together would negate the need for NOMS. Instead, a small Offender Rehabilitation Strategy Unit should be established in the Ministry for Justice to provide advice to the Justice Secretary on strategic planning and priorities, budget setting and response to poor performance. At the same time, a new delivery vehicle should be created to drive local service integration. Local Rehabilitation Trusts (LRTs) should bring together one or more prisons, with CRCs and other offender services to enable the provision of end-to-end services. LRTs would offer commissioners integrated solutions, aimed at reducing cost and improving outcomes.

The Government should also create a new Criminal Justice Regulator, with responsibility for setting and monitoring standards, ensuring value for money and encouraging competition. As with other public service regulators, they would intervene in cases of poor performance. The regulator would replace the current complex and overlapping system of multiple organisations, providing clarity and consistency. Taken together, these changes would create an offender management system which was genuinely local and genuinely accountable. With empowered local commissioners and providers able to take rational and informed decisions to deliver better outcomes.

The case for change

Offender management services should be designed and delivered at a local level. They must also be integrated. Evidence shows that a consistent approach to case management is more effective in managing risk, develops more positive offender engagement and is more likely to reduce reoffending than an approach in which case management responsibilities are shared across more than one person. An offender’s journey through prison and probation should be as seamless as possible – the right services, delivered at the right time, in the right place.

The Government has recognised the compelling case for continued reform, announcing plans to devolve greater powers to local areas and give prison governors operational autonomy, starting with establishing six Reform Prisons this year. Their reforms are also backed up by a £1.3 billion investment in modernising the estate by building new prisons and closing old and inefficient ones. Nonetheless, this programme does not go far enough, fast enough. An integrated system which puts rehabilitation at its heart cannot be adequately achieved whilst the system remains driven by the centre and pre-occupied principally with managing the prison population.

The proposals in this report set out an ambitious blueprint for reform that sees the Government’s current programme as the first step towards a radically different model of offender management.