The spending review and restorative justice

Last week’s spending review was expected to herald unprecedented cuts across the justice system. Police budgets were expected to be slashed, while cuts in the Ministry of Justice’s budget of 30% or more were widely predicted. In the end, what emerged was nothing like as bad as many in the criminal justice world had feared.

Significantly, and unexpectedly, police budgets were protected (more or less). With changes to the police funding formula also put on hold for now, PCCs have some breathing space and there will be less immediate pressure on them to go into May’s elections having just proposed a significant hike in council tax. Cuts to the Ministry of Justice’s budget of 15% were also less than expected.

So what does this mean for restorative justice?

First, it seems likely that dire warnings about the death of neighbourhood policing will not come to pass. Local police officers and PCSOs – working closely with their communities – are well placed to use restorative approaches to deal with low level crime and antisocial behaviour informally. With police forces now more likely to retain this capacity they should invest in proper restorative justice training for their officers and staff. This will benefit them in the long term by both reducing demand and improving satisfaction.

Second, while 15% cuts to the Ministry of Justice’s budget were less than expected, that is still a lot of savings to find. Prison budgets will be tighter than ever and the court system will be under ever-increasing pressure to minimise delays and cut the number of court appearances for each case. Meanwhile caseloads for the new Community Rehabilitation Companies are lower than expected, which is leaving them with less funding than anticipated. All of this will combine to create an environment which is potentially inhospitable to restorative justice, where staff have very limited capacity to deliver it and where funding for independent providers will be scarce.

Third, the spending review also specified that the Ministry of Justice will, by 2019-20, make savings to the department’s administrative budget of 50%. This cannot be delivered without having a significant impact on the ability of the Ministry of Justice to drive things from the centre. This is in line with plans for greater autonomy for prison governors – an idea that has the full support of Michael Gove – and greater devolution generally. But it will mean that the Ministry of Justice will play a lesser role and the case for restorative justice will need to be made locally rather than at the centre.

And finally, we know little yet about what impact all of this will have on the funding that currently goes to PCCs to enable them to deliver services, including restorative justice, to victims. This grant was initially paid for out of the victim surcharge – the money paid by offenders as compensation to victims – and is therefore theoretically safer from cuts. But if funding overall is being cut, there is no point in pretending that this funding to PCCs will not be under threat. The fact that the police budget has not simultaneously been decimated will help, but services will need to prove their impact to survive, as discussed in a previous blog.

Overall, it’s a mixed picture. We know from an extensive evidence base that restorative justice can be cost effective, delivering savings to the criminal justice system of £8 for every £1 spent. But we need to make sure that money is spent on developing and maintaining restorative justice capacity within the criminal justice system at a time when every pound will be increasingly precious. Otherwise recent progress in restorative justice delivery will be undone before we have really had a chance to show what it can deliver.