Cutting crime: the case for justice reinvestment - Justice Committee Contents


1. The purpose of this report is to evaluate the current direction of policy and spending on the criminal justice system, in particular to examine whether the enormous sums being spent, particularly the large share allocated to imprisonment, could be used more coherently and effectively.

2. In previous work we have found widespread expert, professional and academic concern over the Government's plans for the allocation of significant resources to prison-building. The evidence we have seen in these inquiries suggests overwhelmingly that the purposes of sentencing, as set out in the Criminal Justice Act 2003, are not being achieved by the existing sentencing regime and related policies. The prison population is projected to grow to 96,000 by 2014 as the courts sentence offenders to custody for longer in the absence of effective and adequately resourced alternatives to custody and a sufficiently powerful and coherent strategy for reducing re-offending. We note that, despite the backdrop of a long term fall in the overall crime rate there has been an equally persistent increase in the prison population. Household crime, such as car theft and burglaries, and violent crime, as experienced by victims, has fallen by 46 per cent., and 43 per cent., respectively since 1995[1] while the prison population has almost doubled since 1992.[2] In an extremely tight public expenditure environment, with the Ministry of Justice expected to find £1.3 billion worth of cost savings over the next three years, it is doubtful whether further expansion in the criminal justice system, and prison estate in particular, is wise or financially sustainable. Existing resources cannot be stretched much further without compromising public safety especially when the high prison numbers militate against remedial work within prisons and the actions of relevant agencies do not seem to focus clearly on the extent to which current efforts to reform offenders are proving effective.

3. In previous inquires we received compelling evidence that local community provision is insufficient. In recent evidence the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice,
Rt Hon Jack Straw MP[3], has spelt out some of the steps the Government is taking to promote confidence in community sentencing, but the context for our report is that the courts appear to doubt the effectiveness and the availability of some criminal justice interventions to tackle offending and re-offending at a local level and the extent to which the needs of offenders are being met by local agencies outside the criminal justice system, such as employment services, housing, health—particularly mental health—and drug treatment services. The prison and probation services seem equally unable to adequately address the rehabilitation and resettlement needs of a large proportion of prisoners and former prisoners leading to arguably avoidable returns to crime and to custody.

4. The basis for an inquiry into the re-alignment of criminal justice policies, systems and resources, aimed principally at the reform and rehabilitation of offenders and the subsequent reduction of crime and re-offending, developed from these concerns.

5. As this inquiry began, a much lower than expected public expenditure allocation to the Ministry of Justice was announced for 2008-11. This appeared to mark the end of a period of significant growth in the prison and probation machinery. Despite this squeeze on Ministry of Justice resources, the public finance for further prison-building has been more or less guaranteed by the Treasury, outside spending review constraints, amounting to £4.24 billion over 35 years aimed at providing capacity for the projected increase in the prison population by 2014. Despite the overwhelming evidence that prison is not always the most effective means of reducing re-offending for many offenders (and therefore fails the test of increasing public safety, other than by simply incapacitating offenders), the Government appears wedded to a prison-building agenda, a policy which is not underpinned by supportive evidence and therefore merits the closest possible scrutiny. There is no doubt that the prison estate is currently bulging at the seams—with the Prison Reform Trust recently estimating that some prisons are up to 179 per cent. over-crowded and, as at 31 July 2009, 88 prisons out of 140 were operating over normal capacity with nine of these at levels judged to be unsafe.[4] There is an obvious and urgent question over whether directing vast sums towards increasing the number of prison places is a sensible or effective policy response.

6. The case for the closest possible scrutiny, and for looking at penal policy in the context of the approach to criminal justice, indeed social welfare, as a whole, is further reinforced by comparisons with other EU and OECD countries. In 2007, the UK Government spent approximately 2.5% of GDP on public order and safety, the highest of all OECD countries.[5] Such comparisons raise questions about attitudes in England and Wales to, and patterns of expenditure on, prisons relative to other criminal justice expenditure, spending on preventative measures and community sentences, and to other social policies such as health, education and housing. England and Wales also looks out of step and punitive when it comes to considering the balance between punishment and reform in developing policy and setting priorities.

7. The question of how resources should be distributed across the criminal justice system formed a key part of our inquiry and, in the light of the recent economic downturn, many submissions referred to the timeliness of the inquiry and the need for a debate on public spending and penal policy. The recent report of the Commission on English Prisons Today goes so far as to suggest that the global economic crisis is a blessing in disguise in this respect as it establishes the necessity to re-examine a set of incongruent policies that the Government can no longer afford to pursue uncritically.[6] This report explores the capacity of the current system and whether resources and policy priorities are directed in the best possible way to improve public safety and reduce crime, in particular:

  • the use of resources within the criminal justice system and the capacity of prisons and probation to reduce re-offending and their relative cost-effectiveness;
  • the use of resources outside the criminal justice system and the potential re-direction of funding from that system into health, educational and other social provision to focus on the underlying factors which make offending and re-offending more likely;
  • what can be learnt from policies and patterns of relevant expenditure pursued in other countries; especially those countries where rates of imprisonment are much lower, or have been recently reduced, without increasing crime rates; and
  • the potential for achieving a more mature cross-party consensus on law and order policy—and more effective options for the future—than the current interaction of politics, media and public opinion appears to allow; it is necessary to get away from a self-defeating over-politicisation of criminal justice policy and develop an environment conducive to identifying, prioritising and implementing "what works" based on the best available evidence.

8. The question of whether imprisonment represents the most rational allocation of resources for criminal justice is not unique to the English and Welsh context. Many other jurisdictions including Scotland, Finland, Canada, Germany and some US states[7] have grappled with this question, driven by recognition that resources for criminal justice are not infinite. Although these other administrations and legislatures have come to a variety of conclusions on the way forward, they have shared the view that the use of imprisonment must be reduced. We have visited these countries over the course of our inquiry, giving us valuable alternative perspectives on whether the challenges we face are too difficult to fix and how we can move away from a position where over-burdened correctional services and exponential system expansion are accepted as the norm. We draw on examples from all these jurisdictions throughout our report but we focus particular attention on the potential applicability of the concept of justice reinvestment which has enabled some US states to begin to reduce expenditure on prison building and criminal justice.

Justice reinvestment

9. "Justice reinvestment" is a term that refers to a variety of approaches to criminal justice policy reform developed in the USA over the last 10 years which have sought to tackle burgeoning prison populations by addressing the root causes of criminality. The growth in prison numbers in the US has placed enormous pressure on state budgets. Whatever their political allegiance, state governments have been faced with stark choices about whether to continue to spend public money on meeting the projected demand for prison beds or whether to consider ways of reducing that demand and introducing alternative measures which produce more cost-effective contributions to public safety.

10. At its simplest 'justice reinvestment' refers to the persuasive proposition that it is far better—and probably much cheaper—to focus resources on preventing criminality than solely on catching, convicting and incarcerating criminals. The approach, in effect, looks to implement effectively the 'getting tough on the causes of crime' half of the Labour Party's original statement of purpose on criminal justice before the 1997 election. Justice reinvestment seeks to reverse what many have argued to be a grave and expensive failure of social policy which leads to prison becoming a stand-in health and welfare system for people with problems—often bundles of problems related to legacies of low literacy, unmet mental health needs and/or drug and alcohol dependencies—that society in general, and their local services in particular, have failed to deal with. It also challenges policymakers to think carefully about the consequences of some criminal justice measures that are considered to be 'tough on crime', for example, by encouraging criminal justice agencies to seek to enhance offenders' compliance with community orders rather than to focus on the enforcement of breaches.

11. Justice reinvestment involves the development of an evidence-based, data-driven, strategy designed to produce policies that "break the cycle of recidivism, avert prison expenditures and make communities safer."[8] The process examines current spending and seeks to identify ways to improve effectiveness with the aim of establishing a longer-term strategy, re-directing prison funding towards more productive locally-based initiatives designed to tackle the underlying problems which give rise to criminal behaviour. Such initiatives are targeted on those populations most at risk of offending and re-offending which is why a local focus is required. The first step of the process is to analyse the relationship between high levels of various indices of deprivation, such as low employment, and high levels of re-offending in the same areas. This analysis enables locally-based policy options to be developed using what is known about the needs of offenders, demands for services and the most cost-effective practices, to prioritise investment and ultimately reduce spending on the criminal justice system as a whole.[9]

12. The analytical model which underpins the process was pioneered by the Justice Mapping Center in New York which we visited in 2007. The application of this approach in New York City identified so-called 'million dollar blocks', i.e. single residential blocks where the administration was spending over a million dollars on incarcerating the inhabitants. Tragically, spending on prison places was found to represent the majority 'social investment' in some of these blocks. The justice reinvestment process is now being applied in several US states, with the main impetus coming from the Council of State Governments Justice Center.[10]

The context in England and Wales is rather different from the US. England and Wales has a much lower proportion of its population in prison than the US where 760 per 100,000 of the population are in custody, compared to 151 here. The US also lacks a universal welfare system and the system of governance is very different with imprisonment provided at local (county), state and federal levels via different institutions and budgets for different offences. Despite these differences, interest has been emerging in the potential benefits of adopting key aspects of the approach in the UK.[11] A major part of our inquiry has been to examine the potential value of the justice reinvestment approach to the criminal justice system in England and Wales and, if it appears desirable to implement such an approach, to consider how our systems could be organised so that it could be applied. This is discussed in chapter 6.

Conduct of the inquiry

13. Lists of the oral evidence sessions held, the written evidence gathered and the visits undertaken during this inquiry are set out at the back of this report. The substance of the evidence received can be found in a second volume. In addition to evidence received via traditional means, we also conducted an e-consultation between 9 June and 22 July 2008. The contributions received online inform the report throughout but we also include an overall analysis in an annex to this report (see annex 4). We also took into account a significant number of reports and analyses already in the public domain and, where relevant, these are referenced in footnotes to the text.

14. We would like to take this opportunity to thank all the providers of oral and written evidence, as well as the contributors to our e-consultation, for taking the time and trouble to do so. We are also very grateful to Rob Allen of the International Centre for Prison Studies at King's College London for acting as a special adviser to the Committee on all aspects of this inquiry.

1   Home Office, Crime in England and Wales 2008/09, Vol 1: Findings from the British Crime Survey and police recorded crime, July 2009 Back

2   Home Office, Prison statistics in England and Wales 2002, November 2003, Cm 5996 Back

3   Hereafter 'the Justice Secretary' Back

4   Prison Reform Trust, Top 20 worst overcrowded prisons, 25 Aug 2009. Back

5   Table 11 OECD. Stat database Back

6   Commission on English Prisons Today, Do better do less: Report of the Commission on English Prisons Today, London, 2009, paras 3.10-13 Back

7   Including Arizona, Connecticut, Kansas, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Vermont and Wisconsin. Back

8   Allen, R. 'Justice Reinvestment: A new approach to crime and justice?', Prison Service Journal, Issue 176, pp 2-9 Back

9   The US Council of State Governments describes justice reinvestment as a four-stage process: (1) Analysis of the prison population and of relevant public spending in the communities to which people return from prison-known as 'justice mapping'; (2) provision of options to policy-makers for the generation of savings and increases in public safety; (3) implementation of options, quantification of savings and reinvestment in targeted high-risk communities; and (4) measurement of impacts, evaluation and assurance of effective implementation. See Back

10   Ev 169 Back

11   See for example, Allen, R. and Stern, V. eds, Justice reinvestment-a new approach to crime and justice, International Centre for Prison Studies, June 2007; Ross, H, Justice reinvestment: what it is and why it may be an idea to consider in Scotland, CjScotland, July 2008 Back

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