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Max Chambers: Transforming offender management, reducing reoffending

By Max Chambers of Policy Exchange, Senior Research Fellow in the Crime and Justice Unit.

In just a few weeks time, the Government will publish much anticipated proposals on the future of sentencing and rehabilitation policy. A Green Paper will promise to deliver a ‘rehabilitation revolution’,  with innovative reforms seeking to break the cycle of reoffending. Proposals to cut reoffending will centre around a key idea – payment-by-results – where the state pays independent and voluntary groups for the results they achieve in reducing reoffending – funded by the savings to the criminal justice system of reduced crime.  This groundbreaking concept was first put forward by Nick Herbert MP, the Policing and Criminal Justice Minister, in 2007 - and it is now being studied by policymakers from all over the world, including those in the White House. So, why is reform needed, and will the idea actually work?

At Policy Exchange, we have always been sceptical about the previous Government’s claims to have reduced reoffending, and our new report finally blows apart this myth.  Officially, reoffending levels have fallen by 15.9% since 2000 – on the face of it, a pretty substantial achievement. However, ‘reoffending’ levels in this country are measured according to whether a criminal is reconvicted of another offence within one year.  But cautions, which require an offence to be committed and an acceptance of guilt on the part of the offender, and Fixed Penalty Notices are inexplicably excluded.  Basing the reoffending rate on reconvictions alone means that the measure is dangerously susceptible to changes in police practice – in other words, decisions about whether to convict. And over the last decade, there has been a huge rise in the number of cautions issued by the police. In fact, since 2000, the reduction in the reoffending rate is almost exactly proportionate to the increase in the proportion of offences dealt with via a caution (15.9% and 15.6% respectively). Our analysis shows that, as a result, it is extremely unlikely that the previous Government reduced reoffending at all – despite all the money spent – and it means the measure of reoffending is now unsafe.  So we need a better measure of reoffending that counts all crime, and then we need to try something new if we’re to reduce our high reoffending rates in future.

This would be an important task in itself, but it is now also a financial necessity.  The Ministry of Justice has set itself the hugely ambitious target of reducing the prison population by 3,000 in five years, and reduced reoffending (and thereby demand on the prison system) is being relied upon as one way of achieving this.  Such a turnaround would be unprecedented, and the ambition is commendable, but if it is going to be credible, then payment-by-results is going to have to deliver something really special.

The idea has got everybody in the sector geed up. But what will it really mean in practice? The argument for payment-by-results is quite simple: reducing reoffending requires the contribution of many different agencies to address issues such as accommodation, mental health, debt, employment, skills, and drug and alcohol addiction. The delivery of public services to address these issues for a small number of chronic criminals is fractured, bureaucratic, siloed, and ineffective.  By giving providers a direct financial incentive to reduce reoffending, you reward what works, and stop paying for what doesn’t.  The incentives will drive the private and voluntary sector to work together to better coordinate interventions and services for offenders, making sure they are sequenced properly, appropriate for individual circumstances, and more likely to reduce reoffending. Bodies will also be able to fill in the gaps where there is no service provision – such as meeting short-term prisoners at the gate on the day of release (like the probation service used to do), providing mentoring and wraparound support, and physically taking offenders to drug rehab sessions and job appointments.   And what makes payment-by-results really important, and relevant now, is the funding mechanism.  In theory, it costs taxpayers nothing up front, and ensures that if and when taxpayers do pay out, they are only funding what has actually be proven to work.

Important though this new approach is, it will not in itself fix the problems that exist in the public sector, where most of the services required to reduce reoffending lie. A true solution to reducing reoffending will seek to actually fix the fragmentation and perverse incentives in the public sector, and build on the expertise that is already there. Policy Exchange’s preferred model would be for the Government to introduce financial incentives to reduce reoffending (payment-by-results), but then go further and enable a mix of public sector professionals to come together with private providers and the voluntary sector to form a Public-Private Partnership, or a ‘Reducing Reoffending Mutual’.  Groups of disaffected but ambitious public service staff could club together and “spin out” from public sector agencies to form independent employee-owned social enterprises. Public sector staff with expertise in reducing reoffending could unite from across the range of services, while the private and voluntary sector could bring their own expertise to bear.  We believe this approach will inspire the most innovative approaches with a wide enough remit to make a difference and ensure chronic offenders stay on the straight and narrow.


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