Rehabilitating rehabilitation

By Alex Van Vliet 22 February 2013

What turns someone away from a life of crime? While cinema audiences have wept their way through ex-convict Jean Valjean’s redemption in Les Misérables this winter, the Ministry of Justice has been busy putting policy experts to work on the very same question.

This afternoon, NPC submitted its response to ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’, the government’s proposal for reforming the offender management system. The UK’s stubbornly high reoffending rate has been a thorn in the side of governments for decades, costing between £9.5bn and £13bn each year and prompting need for a new approach in the face of one of our most pressing social problems. No one could accuse Chris Grayling’s reform programme of lacking ambition. He intends to open the entire criminal justice sector up to more providers, using payment by results to allow ‘a whole host of new participants’ to provide rehabilitation services.

Charities, with some justification, are nervous about their place in this new commissioning landscape. Payment by results presents a big challenge for the third sector, especially in the areas where charities have least experience—understanding the financial risks they’re taking on, and judging how to price their services accurately and competitively. Despite feeling confident about delivering on outcomes, for some charities, the capital required to compete for contracts will be prohibitive. The outcome that generates a saving can often only be measured several years after an intervention. But how many charities can survive on payment in arrears, for how long? In our response to the consultation, we’re encouraging the government to carefully consider contract design to allow charities to compete on a level playing field.

It is clear that the government, charities and the private sector are going to have to work together much more closely if these reforms are to respond to lessons from the Work Programme. This is one of the reasons charities have for cautious optimism. Evidence shows that piecemeal, disjointed services don’t lead to lasting change for offenders and the communities they return to. The government’s emphasis on greater co-operation between providers should lead to a better chance of breaking the cycle of offending. Integrated support on practical needs—housing, employment, finances—will deal with the offender’s most pressing problems. This should be combined with work on social and personal outcomes—building confidence and self esteem and work to improve family relationships and friendships.

We’re also in a better position to find out what really works. To avoid decisions based on instinct or anecdote, those working in criminal justice need access to evidence on which approaches are successful. In December last year we published Unlocking Offending Data, a report calling for the creation of a Justice Data Lab, a national system for accessing offending data. The government has committed to implementing the Lab, and we believe this is a huge step forward for the sector.

Done right, this tool will help charities, funders and commissioners identify which services work, but also how services could be improved. Over time, this will help ensure more offenders get the services they need to make last changing in their lives—or as Fantine might put it, a life worth living.