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Devolve prison budget to inspire council-level prevention schemes – IPPR

Devolving the budget and responsibility for managing low-level offenders could address the “inherent flaw” embedded in the country’s criminal justice system, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) has said today.

Describing what it dubbed a “hugely expensive and highly inefficient arm of the public sector”, the think tank said the prison system is currently unsustainable because the bodies that could reduce offending have “neither the financial power nor the incentive to do so”.

“This is because many of the services and agencies that could act to reduce offending are organised and controlled at the local level, whereas the budget for prison places is held by central government,” its report said.

Devolving available funding, which continues to fall under the remit of the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), could “unfreeze resources” currently locked up in the system to ensure local agencies are able to tackle crime and develop alternatives to custody.

Incentives to do this currently work in the “wrong direction”, the IPPR said, with a local authority that invests in high-quality services to keep people out of prison seeing benefits accrue to the MoJ rather than the council itself.

But the government’s devolution momentum across major cities could “hold the answer” to this issue, with some elements of the youth justice system already devolved to city-level.

Jonathan Clifton, IPPR’s associate director for public services, commented: “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.”

Extending this approach to the management of low-level adult offenders, which the think tank said “makes up the bulk of churn within the prison system”, could stimulate local authorities to invest in preventative services and ensure the responsibility of cutting reoffending “is located where it can best be exercised”.

This could involve giving city-region mayors or combined authorities a devolved budget to pay for these offenders, but charging them for each night that an offender from their area is kept in prison.

It cited Ohio as a successful example of this model of work, where the budget for prison places was devolved to local districts in ‘Reclaim Ohio’ – leading to higher investment in community services and better quality alternatives to custody. It eventually reduced the amount of young people being kept behind bars by the state from a high of over 2,600 in 1992, when the programme was created, to less than 510 in 2013.


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