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A reoffending revolution?

This morning the justice secretary Chris Grayling made his first major policy speech since he was appointed back in September. At a Centre for Social Justice event he said that ‘the current criminal justice system is letting down victims and offenders alike,’ and outlined his plans for the future, telling us that ‘saving money does not mean reducing work with offenders—it’s about spending money effectively.’

Grayling set out five key priorities for the Ministry of Justice: better rehabilitation; more support for children in custody; making prison ‘cheaper not smaller’; reforming legal aid so that it commands public confidence; and offering more support for victims. He was also very clear about his plans to open the criminal justice sector up to more providers, using payment by results to allow ‘a whole host of new participants’ to provide rehabilitation services. Controversially, Grayling is pressing ahead with these plans before the evaluation of pilot schemes put in place by his predecessor, Ken Clarke.

I don’t think anyone would argue with the fact that the issue of reoffending in this country is one which needs to be addressed. The facts speak for themselves: a prisoner released from a UK prison has a one in two chance of being reconvicted within one year; the UK’s prison population has doubled over the past twenty years to over 85,000 prisoners; reoffending costs the government between £9.5bn and £13bn each year.

I can also understand why government is attracted to the payment by results model: the approach is designed to motivate providers to use effective methods to tackle a problem, in this case cutting reoffending, whilst shifting the risk away from the public purse. However, a report from Make Justice Work earlier this year on payment by results in the criminal justice sector raised the concern that simply using reconviction as a proxy for reoffending misses out on a host of other important facets of rehabilitation. Then there is the significant financial risk taken on by charities through payment by results contracts: charities and funders must learn from the many unhappy examples under the Work Programme.

Even in cautiously embracing the payment by results approach, it’s naïve to assume that we already know what works when it comes to cutting reoffending. Chris Grayling today spoke about how he doesn’t want people to leave prison alone, that he wants them to ‘meet a mentor at the prison gate’. Studies into preventing reoffending and other research show that the personal relationship and support offered by a mentoring scheme is crucial. But this is just one approach: there is a myriad of different projects up and down the country, supporting ex-offenders in a variety of ways. It is important that the shift toward payment by results does not mean that potentially effective services are squeezed out simply because they are not on an ‘approved list’ of approaches contractors are willing to fund. None of this is easy: as mentioned earlier, reoffending is a coarse measure of rehabilitation, and even if we accept it, organisations can find it challenging to access the data they need to demonstrate their impact in this area. Next month NPC will publish a report recommending how government data can be used to help charities and other providers assess what reoffending reduction services work best—which could in turn help commissioners make informed, evidence-based decisions.

Chris Grayling told us this morning that his ‘Rehabilitation Revolution’ will be all about investing effectively. I hope this includes investing in understanding the effectiveness of the many charities across the UK pioneering new approaches to rehabilitation.

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