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Local prison cash call

The prisons budget for low-risk adult offenders, estimated to be around £400m, should be devolved from Whitehall to City Mayors, according to a think-tank. With the prison population set to climb to nearly 90,000 inmates by the end of this Parliament, and the Ministry of Justice budget set to be cut by £600m over that same period, radical action is needed to reduce offending, the IPPR says. Efforts to reduce offending must focus on the ‘revolving door’ of low-level adult offenders who end up in prison as a result of social ills such as drug addiction, mental health problems and earlier abuse, the think-tank says.

This group of offenders places a disproportionate burden on the Ministry of Justice budget because they cycle in and out of prison, representing a large volume of court cases, prison receptions and probation caseloads. The report argues that there is an inherent flaw in our criminal justice system: the people who could act to reduce low-level offending have neither the financial power nor the incentives to do so.

Local community services are best placed to reduce the number of people who fall into low-level crime as a result of social problems – but the funding for prison places is all held by central government. This means local councils do not have the resources or financial incentives to try and reduce the prison population – because they would pick up the tab for investing in local services but any savings would accrue to Whitehall.

The report looks at reforms in the youth justice system in Ohio and New York, which devolved the budget for prison places to local districts and courts, and then charged them for the cost of anyone sent to prison. By charging local areas for the cost of a prison bed, Ohio and New York were able to incentivise local districts and courts to invest in community services and high quality alternatives to custody, dramatically reducing the prison population in the process. In Ohio, the number of young people being incarcerated by the state fell from more than 2600 in 1992 when the programme was introduced, to less than 510 in 2013.

The think-tank’s report recommends that the Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, adopt a similar model in England and Wales. Under a new prison devolution system, up to £400m could ultimately be devolved to City Mayors or local councils. The authors suggest councils would be rewarded for reducing crime by earning savings that could then be invested in community justice, while councils that fail to make a difference would be forced to make up the additional cost of paying for extra prisoners from elsewhere in their budgets.

Giving mayors and councils control of the prison budget could be the next step in the government’s so-called ‘devolution revolution’. The Mayor of London, and the forthcoming Mayor of Greater Manchester, have already been given oversight of the police force, so it would make sense to align this with the prison budget, the think-tank argues.

Jonathan Clifton, Associate Director for Public Services at IPPR, said: “Our court system is clogged-up, our prisons are overflowing and we have the highest reoffending rate in Western Europe. Reform is desperately needed to reduce offending. We need to free up cash that is frozen in the prison system, and give it to local areas to invest in tackling the social problems that drive reoffending such as lack of qualifications, mental health problems and homelessness.”

IPPR’s new report Prisons and prevention: Giving local areas the power to reduce offending:

Pictured: HMP Leicester.


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