Beyond incarceration and re-offending

By Anton Shelupanov
10 Aug 2010

The challenges facing the criminal justice system affect us all. If it becomes unable to deliver its core functions, then as well as the obvious threats to public safety, there are the considerable dents to the public purse and the public health implications of addictions, infectious diseases and mental illness all becoming amplified in overused and overcrowded prisons and spilling out into society.

It is good then, that recent ministerial announcements by both the Justice and Home Secretaries seem to be signalling a move away from hyper-incarceration and mass criminalisation, and more towards what Kenneth Clarke termed a “rehabilitation revolution”.

In principle, this is good news for public safety, victims of crime and the taxpayer, but how can this be achieved? At present there just are not enough proven off-the-shelf alternatives which ministers can confidently apply and scale in order to bring this "revolution" about.

At the Young Foundation we believe there is an answer to this: innovation. Public services like health and education, as well as successful private companies like Apple and Google, have embraced an innovation-led approach, creating a space and making some resources available for practitioners and researchers to experiment, try out new things and support scaling the ones which work, in a systemised and coherent way.

The justice sector is different. Even though there is much ad-hoc innovation going on in individual locations (after all there are some 900 or so NGOs involved in the sector), none of it is systemised, and the smaller more creative organsiations often come up against problems of scaling, dissemination and commissioning challenges.

The Young Foundation’s new report Turning the corner: beyond incarceration and re-offending (http://www.youngfoundation.org/publications/reports/turning-corner-beyon...) argues that this is how the criminal justice system can become much more adept at designing, rapidly testing and then scaling new innovations across a wide spectrum - from helping former offenders into jobs to effective supervision of people on community sentences. To do this, it must embrace innovation as a necessity, not as a desirable extra.

There are several suggestions as to how this can be done. The first is an intermediary organisation - a UK Centre for Justice Innovation, perhaps modelled on the successful New York Center for Court Innovation. It runs demonstration projects to address offending and helps scale them when they work well.

Since it came into being, both crime and the use of custody in New York have fallen, resulting in improved public safety as well as savings to the US taxpayer. One of its best known achievements is the acclaimed Red Hook Community Justice Centre whose community-centred personalised approach has been successfully replicated in the UK in north Liverpool.

The second idea involves the rolling out of Social Impact Bonds. Here local authorities would generate a hybrid of charitable funding and private sector investment to run innovative schemes which result in less reoffending, fewer court appearances, [and] less use of custody.

The savings from this reduced pressure on the system are then repaid to the implementing organisation, with a return on the initial investment dependent on the scale of the savings. This could become a powerful tool for re-aligning incentives, rationalising the local commissioning of innovative approaches and ensuring that local solutions are not left to monolithic national agencies.

Thirdly, an Employment Deployer for former offenders can address a particular problem connected with reoffending. Having a stable job can reduce the risk of reoffending by up to a half, and yet currently three quarters of those leaving prison have no job to go to.

The odds are stacked against someone who returns to the community being able to get a job and hold it down. Building on existing examples of good work various organisations carry out around the country, a Deployer would combine a locally applicable combination of managed mentoring, through the gate support, brokerage with employers, supported employment and access to appropriate training. This will become increasingly important as the country emerges from the recession.

The justice system, like other public services must learn to function in our new austere climate – and it must learn to do so without compromising public safety or the needs of victims. We think this is possible if it applies some of the ideas above, and learns the lessons of other sectors.

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(c) Anton Shelupanov is a penal reformer and social innovator. He leads the programme of work on Innovation and Justice at the Young Foundation, a centre for social innovation. The Young Foundation’s new report Turning the corner: beyond incarceration and re-offending has just been published. See: http://www.youngfoundation.org/publications/reports/turning-corner-beyon...

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