Why has it proved so difficult to join-up sentence management?

I was intrigued to listen to Lord Carter this week discussing his plans for saving the NHS £5bn a year.  It took me right back 12 years to his Managing Offenders, Reducing Crime: A New Approach, a report commissioned by his colleagues in the then Labour Government.  I have always thought that his analysis of the problem was spot on, but his solution misplaced.  I have no idea if that is true of the NHS report.  (I also think that his support of large ‘Titan’ prisons in his 2007 report was unhelpful).

In 2004, the Home Office immediately adopted the recommendations of Lord Carter’s Report and by that summer the National Offender Management Service had been set up.  The problem rightly identified by Lord Carter was the ‘silo’ mentality of probation and prison services, failing to provide ‘end to end’ sentence management.  But NOMS has not led to more ‘joined up services’ but to greater fragmentation.  And we seem to be sliding ever further from that elusive and essential goal: joined-up ‘sentence management’.  It should not be offender management, mind you: offenders should be their own managers.  But it is essential that offenders have someone within the ‘system’ to help them manage and process through their sentences.  This opinion piece asks simply why has it proved so difficult to join-up sentence management?

The creation of NOMS didn’t help because the Probation Service remained the poor relation: see the comments of the Justice Committee in 2011 on The Role of the Probation Service.  This is an extract from the summary of a hard-hitting report:

It seems staggering to us that up to three-quarters of probation officers’ time is spent on work which does not involve direct engagement with offenders and we call on NOMS and individual trusts to increase the proportion of their time that probation staff spend with offenders.

It is a concern that probation trusts have laboured under a tick-box culture, and we call on NOMS to provide trusts with greater autonomy. Specifically, there needs to be speedy progress towards rectifying problems with national contracts for estates management and IT provision and trusts need greater flexibility. It is imperative that NOMS consults trusts properly when planning the introduction of competition to the provision of contracts; this seems not to have been done with regard to the recent community payback tendering exercise, and we do not think that the large and incoherent groupings used for those contracts are appropriate vehicles for future commissioning initiatives. Trusts also need greater financial autonomy and, specifically, the power to carry-over a small proportion of their budgets from year-to-year.

There needs to be a more seamless approach to managing offenders: prisoners are shunted between establishments and continuity of sentence planning is not treated as a priority. The MoJ and NOMS need to ensure that the end-to-end management of offenders is a reality and not just an unachieved aspiration.

The creation of NOMS was described to us as a “takeover” of the probation service by the prison service. It has not led to an appreciable improvement in the ‘joined-up’ treatment of offenders; its handling of the community payback exercise has not inspired confidence; and it has not proved itself proficient at running effective national contracts. Therefore, the MoJ should commission an externally-led review of NOMS and be prepared to take radical steps to redesign its structure and operation.

Since then matters have got very much worse, both in prisons and in probation.  On prison, just listen to the Chief Inspector of Prisons Annual Report 2014-15 reflecting on the impact of cuts:

You were more likely to die in prison than five years ago. More prisoners were murdered, killed themselves, self-harmed and were victims of assaults than five years ago. There were more serious assaults and the number of assaults and serious assaults against staff also rose.  …..overcrowding was sometimes exacerbated by extremely poor environments and squalid conditions. At Wormwood Scrubs, staff urged me to look at the cells. ‘I wouldn’t keep a dog in there’, one told me.     Improvements in health care were undermined by restrictions to the regime and the unavailability of custody staff to provide supervision. ….  Our judgement that purposeful activity outcomes were only good or reasonably good in 25% of the adult male prisons we inspected is of profound concern. These are the worst outcomes since we began measuring them in 2005–06. The disappointing findings reflected both the quantity and the quality of activity. ….  . The core day was fatally undermined by staff shortages and this affected outcomes in all areas.   (extracts from p 8 -13)

Personally I think IMBs could shout much louder than they do about these issues: they are the eyes and ears of the community.  And ‘probation services’ have been further decimated since the enactment of the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014.  The creation of 21 community rehabilitation companies each separately struggling to build a ‘supply chain’ of public, private and voluntary sector providers is no way to join-up sentences.  Who is meant to help the prisoner negotiate his or her way through the system?  In a recent article I explored how the implementation of “Through the Gate” resettlement services has been dogged by contractual problems, staffing crises and the many inefficiencies which flow from the imposition of a market economy on the real world of rehabilitation on offenders.  The prison population is not shrinking, and the number of offenders on license who are recalled to prison continues to rise.  The progress of a prisoner through the prison system can be compared to a game of snakes and ladders, a lottery full of unpredictable accidents and uncertainties (listen to my lecture on this).

Mr Gove appears to have a very healthy interest in education for prisoners.  It is hugely important that prisoners are offered help in acquiring the skills which are so necessary to be employable.  We all need education.  Offenders also need a home, friends, community, health, opportunities, work ….. and the right sort of self-belief and self-confidence which education helps foster.  Interesting times with a new Chairman of the Parole Board and new Inspectors of prison and probation announced in the last month.  And a Prime Minister who is also taking an interest.  But until politicians and policy makers get the message that ‘joined’ up rehabilitation really is important, that maintaining long-term relationships with real human beings is important, and that this takes real investment (money) to provide, we’re unlikely to find the messy world of penal justice gets any better.

About the author

Nicky Padfield is a Reader in Criminal and Penal Justice at the University of Cambridge, and Master of Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge.  Her husband Christopher is on the IMB of Bedford Prison and is Chair of AMIMB.