We will end the merry-go-round of reoffending

By tapping into the expertise, resources and innovation of the private and voluntary sector, the government is bringing a fresh approach to rehabilitation.

Editor's note: This piece is a response to Alan White's article, "Three reasons Chris Grayling's outsourcing plan for the probation service is a terrible idea"

Last year around 600,000 offences were committed by those who had broken the law before. And almost half of people who leave prison are back to their old ways within a year.

These are dreadful figures and represent untold misery and pain for victims and billions of pounds in wasted taxpayers’ money. Anyone who is happy to live with this is on another planet.

Try telling the homeowner who has had their home broken into by the repeat burglar, or the old lady who has been mugged in the street by the recidivist crack addict that we’re happy with the status quo, that we’re doing enough.

Simply put, we are not, and I am determined to deliver swift and significant reforms so we can finally stop the merry-go-round of reoffending and give the public a criminal justice system they deserve.

By tapping into the expertise, resources and innovation of the private and voluntary sector, we will bring a much needed fresh approach to rehabilitation. Only paying providers in full if they are successful at reducing reoffending is the right way forwards, ensuring taxpayers’ money works harder with organisations that are fixed on turning round the lives of troubled offenders.

We need providers to work with all offenders. Our payment by results contracts will be split in two: one success payment for reducing reoffending and another for reducing the number of further crimes committed by the people they are working with. This will stop providers picking off the low hanging fruit – on the contrary, greater rewards will be available for tackling the most persistent and chaotic criminals who cause so much damage to our communities.

We will not see big private companies monopolising rehabilitation contracts – smaller grassroots charities and voluntary organisations have an essential role to play in our reforms. We will give them the right support to take their seat at the table. This is why we recently announced a significant package of measures to help the voluntary sector compete for contracts on a fair and level playing field.

Introducing competition and payment by results, and giving the voluntary sector a greater role, means we can do more with less. By freeing up our budgets we can afford to introduce a new minimum 12 months rehabilitation period in the community for every offender leaving prison. This will give frontline staff and offenders a proper chance at finally breaking the cycle of crime.

Our reforms are not about removing the public sector from the mix - quite the opposite. A new refocused National Probation Service will be at the heart of the system, protecting the public from the most dangerous offenders and taking on lower risk criminals whose risk rises. Let’s not forget, the professionals who are making these judgement calls today are the very same ones who will be making them in two years time. The difference is they will be working in a far more flexible environment, one in which they can innovate to find what works best.

The argument for change could not be clearer and we are now working closely with all providers on the fine design of a new approach that will bring together the best of the private, voluntary and public sectors, so we can better protect the public.

People have criticised payment by results, and pointed to the Work Programme. It is still early days but already more than 207, 000 people had been helped into a job through the Programme by the end of September 2012 and performance is improving still further.

We have seen some first-rate, innovative support from providers to get people into work, albeit in a challenging economic climate. That’s not to say we haven’t learnt valuable lessons from it. For example our rehabilitation contracts will not be 100 per cent payment by results. Providers will be paid a set fee for carrying out orders of the court, but to achieve the full value of the contract they will have to demonstrate real reductions in reoffending.

I’m under no illusions about the scale of this challenge and what we are trying to achieve, but I’m determined to drive these plans forward for roll-out by 2015 - it is simply not an option to rest on our laurels. No longer can we shrug our shoulders as if this merry-go-round of crime is an inevitable fact of life that we should all just put up with. We can and will stop it.

Chris Grayling is the Justice Secretary

David Cameron is escorted around C wing by prison officers during his visit to Wormwood Scrubs Prison. Photograph: Getty Images.
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The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.