On Tuesday 14th June, the Ministry of Justice published their response following the Prisons Strategy White Paper consultation (PSWP). Revolving Doors responded to the initial consultation, focusing on moving away from short prison sentences and the development of resettlement passports.
We are glad to see the Government acknowledging and responding to several issues that the voluntary sector has been raising over several years – in particular, the move away from releasing people from prison on a Friday. Our lived experience members have consistently outlined how being released on a Friday hindered their ability to settle back into the community effectively, with access to services and appointments being greatly limited in the run up to the weekend. We are pleased to see this has been acted on, but further steps must be taken to extend this initiative to all people in prison, rather than just those who are deemed as ‘vulnerable’ – as issues around Friday releases are universal.
The Government’s response made several references to the creation of ‘resettlement passports’. Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) have been consulting our lived experience members to shape the development and implementation of these as a tool. Co-production early in the development process has allowed us to identify and raise key concerns that could limit the effectiveness of the resettlement passports as a tool, and even hinder resettlement, and the hope is that this would expect this feedback to be reflected in the final policy. It is encouraging that the Government is taking this approach to involving people with the lived experience in the design and development stage of resettlement passports rather than at a much later stage, and we would encourage this approach to be taken across the MoJ and beyond.
It is disappointing that acting to either end or greatly reduce short prison sentences is still not on the Government’s agenda, despite ever-increasing evidence on the ineffectiveness of short prison sentences – this is a missed opportunity. The Government states it is committed to reducing reoffending, yet the evidence base demonstrates that those released from prison sentences of 12 months or less have the highest reoffending rates. Furthermore, many people serving short prison sentences – particularly women – have not committed violent offences. It is more likely they have been convicted of acquisitive crimes relating to poverty, problematic substance use, and mental ill health. The MoJ’s own proven reoffending statistics clearly demonstrate that these issues are better addressed by well-funded, holistic community solutions. For people with more than 50 previous offences, the odds of reconviction are 36% higher when a short prison sentence is used compared to a community sentence. Nevertheless, we are glad to see the Government acknowledge that custodial sentences should be a last resort for women, and hope to engage with the Government on the development of a Problem-Solving Courts pilot initiative to offer alternatives to custody.
Our lived experience members often state the importance of trauma-informed approaches when working with people in contact with the criminal justice system, and so it is good to see the Government reference progress on making the women’s estate a trauma-informed environment and work towards creating more peer support services. However, there are two issues in this instance – firstly, trauma-informed approaches must be universal, and not only apply to women. Our male lived experience members have referenced extensive adverse childhood experiences and trauma in their past, therefore trauma-informed approaches must be extended to the male estate. Secondly, a custodial environment can never be truly ‘trauma-informed’, given the experience of imprisonment itself is often traumatic. Here, we would refer back to the importance of community solutions, and the evidence base that outlines their effectiveness over custodial sentences for people caught in the cycle of crisis and crime.
The Government’s commitment to delivering on the 10-year Drug Strategy, which will see £120million investment into problematic substance use treatment for people in contact with the criminal justice system is to be welcomed. However, they must take a dual diagnosis approach and not see problematic substance use as a standalone issue, and approach it in combination with mental health treatment. Members of our National Expert Citizens Group consistently advocate for the need to not treat mental health and problematic substance use in siloes, as the two issues often fuel each other and cannot be addressed effectively alone. Additionally, the Government should take a cautious approach to prioritising abstinence, as there are many other evidence-based approaches to treatment, and tailoring treatment to someone’s personalised needs is imperative.
The introduction of temporary accommodation and support for up to 12 weeks after release for people leaving prison at risk of homelessness is a positive step, as many of our lived experience members have linked either being street homeless or placed into inappropriate accommodation as a key factor in their reoffending and return to prison. Our members recently informed Amnesty International’s June 2022 report on homelessness assistance and the right to housing in England. We hope that, combined with the introduction of resettlement passports and a move away from Friday releases, eventually a point will be reached where nobody is released from prison homeless or put into unsuitable accommodation – but a concerted effort to plan for people’s release and resettlement from the first day in custody is needed here.
Finally, is it positive that the Government have acknowledged the over-representation in prisons of people from racialised minorities, though progress made since the Lammy Review has been too slow. The Ministry of Justice should now go a step further and follow the approach of the College of Policing and the National Police Chiefs’ Council, and work towards creating a Race Action Plan that applies to courts, prisons, and probation.
Overall, there are still issues that need addressing that have not been solved through the PSWP. Nevertheless, it is good to see that the Ministry of Justice has been responsive to concerns shared by both the voluntary sector and people with lived experience of the criminal justice system, and we hope that further developments will continue to be shaped by people with lived experience.