Putting rocket boosters on the rehabilitation revolution

November 20, 2012

In a speech focused on how best to reduce reoffending and turn offenders’ lives around, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling this morning repeated his desire to bring about a “revolution”. He sketched out a number of key priorities he has set for his department and outlined his ambition to spread payment-by-results (PbR) – whereby the state pays private and voluntary sector providers for the results achieved in cutting reoffending – right across rehabilitative services by 2015. What was most noteworthy about the speech was the impressive speed at which Grayling is willing to drive this agenda, and his obvious dissatisfaction with the lack of progress made by his new department on PbR in the last two years.

Ken Clarke’s approach to the “rehabilitation revolution” was to test PbR through pilots – and lots of them. Until recently, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) was designing or commissioning around 10 pilot projects focused primarily on reducing reoffending. However, this approach has been shown to be poorly conceived and implemented – with commissioners having no clear idea of what specific intelligence was being gleaned, and no strategy for what might happen next. MoJ commissioners were also pursuing incredibly complex operational, financial and legal models of PbR which led to lengthy procurement delays, unviable commercial propositions and even instances of market failure.

Above all, the pilots were designed in such a way that the first reoffending outcomes would not have been available until well after 2015, making it highly likely that that the PbR agenda (a flagship Conservative crime policy) would drift aimlessly and perhaps even be lost altogether. So the new Justice Secretary has rightly decided that it is time to stand back, postpone all of the pilots which have yet to commence, and re-define the policy.

So what will happen next? The speech gave a few clues about the direction of travel: 1) a much bigger system of PbR will be rolled-out which will focus on offenders sentenced to less than 12 months in prison; 2) delivery will be centred around post-custodial support (as there is no probation provision for this cohort) rather than in-prison rehab; 3) the scheme will exclusively involve the private and voluntary sector; and 4) all of this will happen very quickly.

There are a number of important issues the MoJ will need to address to make a success of this new, more ambitious strategy. First, how to fund the scheme: while Ken Clarke may have left some change down the back of his office sofa, there remain questions about the cash-squeezed department’s ability to sustainably fund a new programme focused on so many people – especially when it will deliver minimal marginal cost savings because most offenders spend only a few weeks in jail. Secondly, commissioners will need to design PbR in a more commercially viable and attractive way, giving due weight to the fact that these kind of reoffending outcomes have never been delivered at scale before. Thirdly, and perhaps most crucially, Ministers will need to make decisions about what to do about the rest of the system which may be untouched by the new scheme.

At Policy Exchange, we believe PbR is a vitally important reform and so strongly welcome the new energy (and impatience). But, as we will show in upcoming reports, we believe that PbR should be a means to a bigger end. The real prize of a reform programme like this should be to produce, for the first time, a truly outcome-focused criminal justice system where all parties are focused on a common aim. That means finding a way of wrapping the public sector into efforts to cut reoffending, and driving culture change (the biggest barrier to a modern, accountable criminal justice system) through new incentives and outcome frameworks shared across all sectors.

So, to misquote the Beatles, the new Secretary of State has said he wants a revolution – we’d all love to see the plans. Today’s speech was a strong start, but the devil will be in the details being worked up over the coming weeks.

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