There aren’t many good news stories around in criminal justice at the moment. Prisons are in crisis, probation is in meltdown, there’s been a spate of absconds by serious and violent criminals and the legal aid system has been decimated. With less money to spend than in the past, whoever wins power in 2015 will face huge challenges.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. Our youth justice system offers a glimmer of hope – and a pointer to reforms elsewhere. Although not perfect, over the past decade or so fewer under 18s have committed crimes and fewer are behind bars – a double success that has eluded the adult justice system.
This success has its roots in the radical changes that began under Labour in 1998. The key reform was the creation of local Youth Offending Teams – bringing together councils, police, probation, education, health and social services. Their task was to identify those at risk of drifting into a life of crime and to work together to stop them from committing further crimes.
The idea at the heart of this is simple: our justice system works best when, rather than treating everyone the same, services collaborate to get a grip on these people, dealing with the root causes of their offending behaviour.
Although not perfect, these bold reforms have seen dramatic reductions in first time offending – they are a third of what there were ten years ago. The numbers of young people sent to jail have been halved. Testimony to this is that prisons for young people have been closing.
So communities are safer and the taxpayer is better off to the tune of some £80 million.
At a time when we know budgets are going to remain under considerable pressure, these statistics are impossible to ignore.
Let’s be clear. The sanction of prison will always be needed for those who commit serious crimes. But the success of the youth justice system shows we can continue to drive down crime but also cut the numbers locked up. I want the next Labour government to build on these successes.
This week, the IPPR published a report recommending that the youth justice system is extended to young adults, up to the age of 21. This is a sensible idea and one that we will look at very seriously.
It won’t be easy. It will involve culture change in many agencies. It will need to be affordable. But much of the infrastructure is in place, and if we give local authorities the right incentives and support they’ll have powerful reasons to make this work, cut crime and save money.
For many young people, moving from adolescence to the cusp of adulthood sees support through the youth justice system stop, with young adults receiving no specific focus in the criminal justice system. Focusing attention on 18-20 year olds should help address what the House of Commons Justice Select Committee identified as a “period of high risk”.
The key to Labour’s past reforms and future policy is to follow the evidence of what works. The prize is to make our communities safer and to save precious resources. The contrast with how this Tory-led government operated could hardly be starker.
They’ve declared war on evidence. They’ve cancelled pilots which could have produced evidence of what works and what doesn’t work. Instead we have a Justice Secretary who prefers to follow his own ideological instincts. Trusting the instincts of a man who brought us the disastrous Work Programme is a big ask. He failed then and he’s failing now.
The grotesque manifestation of this triumph of ideology over evidence is the half-baked and reckless privatisation of probation. It goes against the grain of everything we know about what helps to reduce re-offending. It’s ripping apart multi-agency working, commissioning services direct from a desk in Whitehall, and handing over supervision of dangerous and violent offenders to private companies with little or no track record in this area.
The government is presiding over a giant experiment. Early reports are that probation privatisation is causing chaos, just as many including Ministry of Justice officials warned it would. At stake, if things go wrong, is the safety of communities up and down the country. I’m not prepared to be so casual with public safety.
The choice is clear. On one side a Tory-led government – driven by ideology – dismantling working relationships that reduce re-offending. And, on the other hand, a Labour Party promising to build on what works to reduce crime and prison numbers, and to do more with less. I am convinced the marriage of evidence-based policy and Labour’s principles will cut crime, reduce re-offending and cut the massive cost of crime to our society.
Sadiq Khan is Labour MP for Tooting and shadow justice secretary