Restorative justice and prisons - an opportunity?

This will be my last blog before Christmas and as 2015 draws to a close it is an opportune moment to reflect on the past year. Clearly the general election in May was a standout moment. With many planning for a coalition, possibly between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, the election of a majority Conservative government was largely unexpected. It also brought – in another surprise – Michael Gove to the Ministry of Justice.

While Gove’s successor at the Department of Education, Nicky Morgan, has kept a lower profile, the new Secretary of State for Justice has been making waves in the criminal justice field. And it is already clear that much of his focus will be on making prison more effective at rehabilitation, helping offenders to put crime behind them and move on with their lives. 

As part of this, prison governors are widely expected to get greater autonomy in how they run their prison, with the expectation that they will find ways to use their budgets to greater effect. A 50% cut in the Ministry of Justice’s central budget – announced in the recent spending review – will certainly see NOMS take a lesser role than it has in the past in determining what prisons do.

We know that restorative justice works to reduce reoffending and if prison governors are to be incentivised primarily around this aim, then it will be in their interests to ensure it is available. This presents opportunities for the restorative practice field. There are, however, three barriers to taking them.

First, it is clear that Michael Gove sees education as the key route to reducing reoffending. Prison governors will inevitably react to this and prioritise the provision of education. This is, in my view, a good thing. But at a time of diminishing resources, a major investment in education will come at the expense of other interventions, including restorative justice. It will therefore be important to demonstrate how restorative justice can support people to change, acting as a gateway to enable them to engage with other services such as education, rather than to simply compete on which intervention ‘works’ best.

Second, prison governors will be encouraged to use the Ministry of Justice’s Justice Data Lab to inform the decisions that they make in commissioning services that reduce reoffending. The Data Lab enables organisations to use central reconviction data to test the impact of their intervention on reoffending. It also provides a rudimentary ‘what works’ tool for commissioners. To date no restorative justice service has submitted their results for analysis through the Data Lab. There is therefore no evidence in that key forum to show that it works. There is a strong case for rectifying that sooner rather than later.

Third, until now the easiest (if still not easy) way to make the case for more availability of restorative justice in prisons has been to work with relevant officials at the Ministry of Justice and NOMS. Probably fewer than 10 people. There are, however, 117 prisons in England and Wales, dispersed around the country, and there is no easy way to reach every governor. Making the case to each of them individually is a much bigger job.

Nonetheless the current circumstances present a real opportunity to increase the use of restorative justice in prison, and during 2016-17 we are planning a major focus on this issue. Prison governors will be helping themselves to succeed by commissioning or running a restorative justice service in every prison, working with the Community Rehabilitation Company and other local partners. Now somebody just needs to tell them. All 117 of them. I am going to be spending a lot of time on the train.