You are here: A smaller prison population “for the right reasons”

Yesterday, in a speech at the Centre for Social Justice, the Secretary of State for Justice, Liz Truss, set out plans for prison and sentencing reform. The speech likely indicates the direction of the forthcoming Prison and Courts Bill, expected to be published later this month. Truss outlined an ambition to lower the prison population, but said this needed to be “for the right reasons”, arguing that this is best achieved through improved early intervention and reduced reoffending, rather than shorter sentences.

Improving early intervention has long been a central part of Revolving Doors’ work, from establishing link worker services in our early days to more recent work supporting the roll out of liaison and diversion services. Like Truss, we believe that “early intervention is not a ‘nice to have’ added extra to the justice system, it is vital if we are ever to break the cycle of crime, punishment and more crime.” However, systemic challenges must be addressed if early intervention is to have the intended effect of reducing the prison population.

Firstly, if the criminal justice system is to address social care needs, disabilities, mental health problems or substance misuse, these needs must be identified in the first place. As set out in a previous blog, we are concerned that a move towards digitalised court services may result in decreased opportunities to identify needs in court. This adds to an existing problem in the wider criminal justice system. As highlighted in a recent report by the Prisons and Probation Inspectorates, prisons and through the gate services are currently failing to sufficiently identify prisoners' social care needs, disabilities or mental health problems.

Once needs or vulnerabilities are identified – whether at arrest, court or in prison, a decision has to be taken about whether to retain the individual within the criminal justice system, or whether to divert out into health (although in reality, the criminal justice and health pathways can and do run in parallel). Where a need has been identified, the next step should be to refer onwards for specialist input. However, it’s not clear that this always happens, and there are a number of reasons to think it may not be. For example, some national programmes, like the Drug Interventions Programme, have been wound up nationally, although continued locally by some Police and Crime Commissioners. Other services may be unavailable, or – and this may be crucial – be perceived as being unavailable locally. As we highlighted in our recent report Rebalancing Act, while there is significant data about health and social problems held locally, both for offenders in prison and the community, none of it is visible to every commissioner or responsible body. This means that it is harder to make the case for responsive services and collaborations than it could be.

Where services do exist to respond to needs or vulnerabilities, these either “don’t work as well as they should” – as Truss highlighted – or they are not linked with the criminal justice system. Truss outlined intentions to increase the use of Mental Health Treatment Requirements and other community sentences. These intentions are welcome. However, if these are to be effective, there must be effective joint working between mental health or substance use services and the criminal justice system. Sentencers must have confidence that quality community services are available if they are to sentence defendants to use them.