We need a plan…

Last week the Prime Minister gave a major speech on prisons policy. The following day the interim report of a review of the youth justice system, led by Charlie Taylor, was published. The previous week the Home Secretary gave a speech outlining future plans to expand the role of Police and Crime Commissioners. And earlier that week the Prime Minister had announced a review of overrepresentation and racial bias in the justice system, to be led by Labour MP David Lammy.

All of this comes at a time when the justice system is already recovering from the shock caused by wholesale reform to the probation landscape in the dying days of the coalition government. Indeed NOMS CEO Michael Spurr, speaking at the Clinks AGM recently, said rather forlornly that he had been hoping for a period of relative stability while the new probation reforms bed in. As he acknowledged, he clearly isn’t going to get it.

The scale of reform set out even in this cluster of announcements is significant. Six ‘reform prisons’ by the end of the year and changes, at last, to the way we deal with pregnant women and mothers who offend were among the announcements made by the Prime Minister. Charlie Taylor has proposed a wholesale revamp of youth custody and – reading between the lines – the probable demise of the Youth Justice Board and changes to YOTs. The Home Secretary wants PCCs to play a greater role across the board (including, possibly, in setting up schools). And if we are going to genuinely tackle overrepresentation of people from ethnic minorities in the justice system, which has been an issue for decades, then whatever David Lammy comes up with is going to have to be radical.

Where does restorative justice fit into all this? Charlie Taylor’s review mentions diversionary restorative justice positively, though briefly, and we hope that the final report, which will now also look at sentencing and the courts, will address its use in more detail. The new reform prisons, which will give governors far greater autonomy, should also take note of research which shows the impact that restorative justice can have on reoffending. And with PCCs here to stay and potentially taking on greater responsibilities, their involvement in commissioning restorative justice is only likely to grow. Meanwhile we think that there are issues with access to restorative justice for people from ethnic minority communities – something that we will be exploring in a research project that will begin shortly.

There is, then, clearly a role for restorative justice in all of these reforms but the overriding impression is of a system in flux. We don’t yet know what the full reform package will look like and what impact it will have. And within this changing environment the delivery of restorative justice remains complex. As just one example, challenges remain about how best to co-ordinate delivery between PCC-commissioned services, the local Community Rehabilitation Company and local prisons. In some areas everybody is competing to take on cases. In others, everybody is stepping back and hoping that others will take responsibility.

Within this environment, it’s clear that further work to embed restorative justice across the justice system is required. Huge progress has been made in recent years, with more restorative justice taking place now than ever before. But it’s a job half done. And with CRCs struggling as lower-than-expected caseloads affect their budgets and PCCs expected to be given greater discretion as to whether to fund restorative justice, there is a real chance that we could slip backwards.

What can be done to address this? Much of the progress that has been made in recent years has been driven through a series of restorative justice action plans, published by the Ministry of Justice. As our submission to the Justice Committee shows, they have helped to achieve real progress. The current action plan is, however, due for renewal in April, with the current set of actions due to come to an end next month and new actions required to deliver on the existing strategic goals (which run through to 2018). Now more than ever – in this changing environment – it needs this update.

We would therefore urge the Ministry of Justice to demonstrate their ongoing commitment to high quality restorative justice by publishing an updated action plan that sets out further positive steps to increase its availability and accessibility and that reflects and addresses the current issues facing its delivery. This would be a significant indication that all the work carried out in recent years to promote and develop its use isn’t going to be wasted. Because for the RJC, for our members, and for everyone who has pushed so hard to get restorative justice to where it is, that would be very hard to take.