Despite the political turmoil of the past three years, many of the issues awaiting new Justice Secretary, Robert Buckland QC, remain what they were before the referendum. From day one, it can be easy for a new Justice Secretary’s focus to be drawn instantly to the state of our prisons. But our prison population, and the conditions in which we house prisoners, are a consequence of other areas of the justice system that are going awry.
Here are seven priorities which we at the Centre urge the Justice Secretary to take forward, to make our communities safer through justice reform.
Win increased funding for justice in the next spending review
Spending on the justice system has been cut by 40% since 2010. Cuts have diminished people’s ability to get a lawyer, increased violence in prisons, dilapidated and closed our courthouses and filleted the probation service’s ability to keep our communities safe. Without a financial settlement that reverses some of these trends, the Justice Secretary's aspirations for justice reform will be as nourishing as the soup made from boiling the shadow of a crow.
Trust the frontline
Despite the huge pressures of the last seven years, practitioners in agencies across the justice system are some of the most dedicated and inspirational people working in Britain's public services. They continue to put in the hours, doing their best and, when given the freedom, are creating innovative new approaches to issues as they arise. As our map of innovation shows, there is much more a Justice Secretary can learn from the frontline about sensible policy than all the inter-departmental committees and policy reviews they will have to participate in Whitehall. Involve the frontline in policy formulation- and give them the freedom to innovate.
Invest in violence reduction
While crime continues to be much lower than it was ten years ago, rises in robbery and knife crime are worrying, and domestic abuse remains all too often unaddressed. The Home Office’s investment in new violence reduction units to build comprehensive public health approaches need justice services to play their part too. For example, transforming how courts hear domestic violence cases, refer victims into services and tackle the root causes of perpetrators behaviour remains a job unfinished.
Pursue court reform based on people, not cases
Far too often, citizens pass through our courts, unclear on what is going on and often leave without any of the underlying issues that brought them there in the first place being addressed. The expansion of problem-solving courts in the public family justice system needs to be matched with similar moves to do the same on the criminal justice side, tackling issues such as drug addiction, mental health and domestic violence. We also need to explore and trial different models to get people access to legal services and lawyers, especially for the poorest in society.
Encourage evidence led responses to low-level crime
A great deal of people who commit less serious crimes are trapped in a revolving door of homelessness, crime and mental health problems. Police-led diversion is a way of addressing the crime they commit, ensuring that people are given a proportionate, effective resolution that makes communities safer. Especially for young people, diversion can also avoid burdening them for the rest of their lives with a criminal record. Smart use of these schemes can create better outcomes for those diverted while keeping communities safer.
Build a stable and effective probation service
Despite the problems caused by recent reforms, probation remains the key agency that can deliver reductions in re-offending and stop the cycle of short prison sentences. As the new model for probation is rolled out in 2021, HMPPS will face a range of challenges in creating anew a stable and effective community sentence framework for the future. This should include efforts to renew the trust of judges and increase the use of community sentences, re-think how community sentences are delivered for low risk offenders, and to exploit the potential of new technologies to deliver tighter and more proportionate community punishment.
Deploy new technologies to make better decisions
It is inevitable that the potential of new technologies such as artificial intelligence and big data will increasingly be used within the justice system. Engaging with the ethical and practical issues in their use now will avoid pain the future. The use of machine learning, for example, to assess risk in remand decisions holds the prospect of a more intelligent use of prison places but also, if used poorly, could lead to widening unmerited disparities. Policy makers at the Ministry need to engage with the tech sector now to test out how and where these technologies can usefully facilitate better outcomes.