Criminal justice is an area of focus for NPC as charities play an important role in this sector. We know there have many changes over the last five years, especially with the Transforming Rehabilitation programme which we have regularly commented on.

To get an inside view on the latest announcements we asked Anne Fox, CEO of Clinks—the membership body supporting voluntary organisations working with offenders and their families—to share her thoughts and reflections. 

The change and uncertainty that the country is now facing feels like an extension of what we in the criminal justice sector have been experiencing for many months now. Indeed, before Brexit and its political fall-out drew the press’s gaze to Whitehall, it felt to many of as if there was news about our justice system, especially prisons, on our radios and in our newspapers every day. So where do things stand at present?

Charities still battle red tape to help those in the criminal justice system

The facts about the criminal justice system often make for uncomfortable reading—from high rates of violence, self-harm and deaths in custody to reports of squalid conditions and overcrowding. And yet everyday charities battle red tape and jump through hoop after hoop so that they can work inside prisons and support people at a major time of challenge in their lives.

Since joining Clinks last year I’ve met with many of our members working in a range of ways with people in custody and in the community. I’ve been struck by their patience and by their energy.

Recent reforms could change things

The most recent and possibly most exciting news is that six prisons are to start the ‘largest reform programme since Victorian times‘. These newly branded ‘reform prisons’ will be managed by four Executive Governors with financial, legal and operational freedoms and greater autonomy to run their prisons in order to achieve better outcomes.

The voluntary sector has widely welcomed the news, but is also waiting to see what changes may come about as a result. These new reforms come not long after the last set of changes to probation, which we’re still adjusting and adapting to. With a desire to make things better there is also always a risk that—without consistent ways of measuring what works and what makes it work—everything happening now isn’t good enough.

We need to keep a close eye on what’s working and what isn’t

With prison governor autonomy—as with various local public policy developments in recent years—comes the dilemma of being able to adapt, while simultaneously showing you can achieve consistent and robust results. We need to find metrics that are useful and meaningful, possible to measure, and can be attributed to things that prison services are (or should) be addressing.

The things we measure need to tell us whether or not prisons are genuinely supporting the people in their care. Are they ensuring people get the right services, as well as driving a reduction in re-offending? Initiatives like the Justice Data Lab are a great resource for understanding where we’re making a difference. But it’s important that charities are supported to access these tools where they exist.

Charities must keep in mind the important role they have to play

We are confident that the voluntary sector has a key role to play in shaping reform prisons—those already announced and those that will follow in their footsteps. This includes a serious consideration of what the sector’s role is: how does it contribute to better outcomes for people in prison, their families, and the communities to which they return? Our recent discussion paper, The rehabilitative prison: What does good look like?  and Do it Justice Guide The rehabilitative prison: Good engagement with the voluntary sector aim to address these big questions.

As new reforms are implemented, there will be a great deal of uncertainty about exactly what will happen. And the uncertainty continues as our new criminal justice minister settles in to her role. But one thing we must remain certain of is the energy and passion of the voluntary sector; an energy that can be harnessed to ensure outcomes for those preparing for a better life outside of prison.

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