The first part of Charlie Taylor's review of youth justice for Michael Gove, focussing on custody, was published in February, to a generally favourable response. It came against the background of the horrific abuse at Medway STC exposed by 'Panorama' in January, and universal relief that Gove dropped his predecessors' plan for very large Secure Colleges (though not not before £6m had been wasted on that project). Is this review an exception to the trend I complained about in my first post, of government launching new initiatives without bothering to inquire into existing or previous arrangements? Let's see.
Evaluating the existing system
The existing youth custody arrangements certainly cry out for proper evaluation. In 1998 the Blair Government began a new, hugely ambitious - and very costly (in its heyday, over half billion a year) - approach to youth justice. For the first time, there was a single body, the Youth Justice Board, to drive and coordinate both preventive programmes in the community and custodial services, on the basis of 'what works' evidence and the best available professional advice. The previous Tory government's programme for Secure Training Centres (STCs), built and run through PFI, was taken up and expanded. Thus, the YJB commissioned rather that ran custodial services, of three very different types:
The 3 types of accommodation tended to be used for different types and ages of offenders, but to a limited extent, the YJB could move children between them. Over time, as the numbers in custody rose and then fell, the YJB made strategic choices about where to expand and then where to contract the estate (except that the STC contracts were in practice unbreakable, though the original PFI contracts are now ended, with one exception.)
There was, therefore, a great opportunity to assess which types of custody worked in what ways for which types of offender; whether it was worth paying 3 times as much for a place in a smaller, more intensively staffed LASCH than for one in a YOI; or whether the troubled history of STCs was to due to the original concept, or the way the private sector ran them. But the YJB never did so. It was sharply criticised for that by Public Accounts Committee in 2011:
"After ten years ...the Youth Justice Board knew little about the relative effectiveness of interventions with young offenders...[It] had not been able to isolate which programmes had had the most impact on youth offending, and why.....making it difficult to assess whether, for example, a Secure Training Centre, which cost £160,000 a year, was value for money in comparison to a Young offenders' Institution, which cost £60,00 a year" [figures are per place /year, JL].
Nor has Taylor bothered to find out. Indeed, he barely distinguishes between the different types of custodial facilities, before dispatching them all to the dustbin of history. He says nothing about LASCHs, even though their small size, 'welfare' ethos and high staffing ratio makes them much nearer what he has in mind than either STCs or YOIs. Nor – an extraordinary omission! – does he even mention re-conviction rates as measure of success. Grayling had previously pointed out that the rates are not that different for the different types of custody – so in that respect, you don't get more, by paying a lot more:
Youth custody, cost/place v. re-offending rates
From MoJ consultation paper, 'Transforming youth custody', 2013 (NB the populations were not matched).
But what Grayling omitted, and Taylor doesn't even get close to noticing, is that re-offending rates for youth custody have been falling steadily, despite the much more difficult mix of offenders that Taylor notes: a drop of 8 percentage points, more than was achieved for community sentences.
Trend in proven re-offending for youth custody
Erm...doesn't that look a bit like...well...success?
So much for what Taylor omits to say the system he is charged with reviewing. What does he say?
He points out that as the estate has reduced, so children are being held further from home; and that this smaller population are made up of the more persistent and troublesome offenders. He gives one single figure on performance: that YOIs, instead of he 30 hours a week education contracted for, have recently managed only 17 hours, due to staff shortages. But he doesn't mention that STCs do much better – 25 hours a week. Why not, I wonder? Nor does he draw the obvious conclusion – that spending cuts have badly damaged youth custody services, and need to be restored if the system is to do any good. He complains that leaders of existing units cannot commission services they need or recruit their own staff: but that simply isn't so of STCs, run by private companies.
But his main point is a sweeping one: that custodial staff – in LASCHS , STCS, and YOIs alike – simply aren't adequately trained, experienced or skilled for the job. This isn't backed by any facts or analysis – except that he found they aren't teaching literacy using phonics. (In the world of educational faddery, this is indeed a most hideous crime.)
Someone really should tell Ofsted, which inspects STCs and YOIs. I have read some of their reports and yet to see one conclude that the education providers in the youth custody estate are getting it all wrong. It also seems strange that the YJB, charged with commissioning these services and which sets elaborate standards for them, hasn't spotted just how ill-trained all these staff are, in all these different types of institution, over all these years. Here, for example, is Ofsted in a very recent report on the Keppel Unit at Wetherby, the star of the YOI system:
“The quality of teaching, learning and assessment was good....Additional individual learning support for boys with low-level literacy and numeracy skills was of high quality, providing the right balance of support and challenge. Boys clearly enjoyed their learning and felt more confident about taking external examinations as a result.”
Nor was Taylor's view shared the outgoing Chief inspector of Prisons, Nick Hardwick. Here he is on the Keppel Unit:
“a place that always ensured very good outcomes for young people....[a] model of how a specialist unit should be run.....Keppel cares for some of the most difficult boys currently held in custody. It does so calmly and humanely, and evidences a culture of respect. The unit has a strong positive ethos and boys are dealt with as individuals. Poor behaviour is challenged and positive behaviour modelled and promoted. An attentive and patient staff group deserve great credit for the work they do. “
Here is his predecessor Ann Owers – extraordinarily, actually lamenting the closure of a prison – Thorn Cross YOI:
“Thorn Cross juvenile unit was a beacon of good practice in working with a small number of young people and preparing them for the transition to life outside prison.”
That the current system has serious problems is clear enough. But Taylor's critique is both shallow and dismissive.
Having thus summarily dispatched (in half a page) everything that came before, what does Taylor propose instead?
Much of what he proposes has been received wisdom among youth justice professionals for a very long time: small units, near to home, intensively staffed, with a welfare ethos, strong on education, and with access to high quality specialist services. That's the professional consensus that opposed STCs when the Conservative Government first opposed them in the early '90s, and it is why the YJB wanted to reduce its dependence on YOIs.
But there is a reason we don't have such a system: it would be unfeasibly expensive. It was unaffordable, even in the days when a government department's worries were whether its budget would grow by 10% next year or only 5%. That's why the YJB found itself unable to reduce its dependence on YOIs. And since 2010, of course, the world has changed: Grayling cut the prison budget by any eye watering 25% (which explains the under-performance of Y0I regimes). This isn't the time to be dreaming of big new spending projects.
Taylor acknowledges there would be 'financial..challenges' in implementing bis ideas and seems to be hoping to top slice money from the education budget. He gives no figures, so here are some ball park ones of my own, for accommodating the current numbers (1000) in say 30 'Taylor' units:
Capital and one off costs
Site purchase, construction and fitting out @ £120k/place £120m
less sale of STC and 2 YOI sites - £40m
plus redundancy for 500 prison staff @ £20k each + 10m
net cost £90m
Difference between cost/place of YOI v LASCH, as benchmark for high staffing high quality multi disciplinary provision = £145k X 700
£102m a year
Difference similarly STC v LASCH= £35k X 180 £6m a year
total £108m a year
Is it worth it? We know that lack of employment is highly predictive of re-offending; and that many young offenders have such poor literacy and numeracy skills that many jobs. But the links, increasing literacy-increasing employability-increasing employment-reducing re-offending, are hard to make in any measurable way. But let's say giving offenders basic skills who lack them on entering custody cuts re-offending by 20%, a generous estimate compared to other interventions where the size of the effect is known, and suppose only half that effects already in place via basic skills programmes which are already in place. Then the effect of 'Taylor' units would reduce the re-offending rate for juveniles in custody from 67.1 % to just over 60%. But because numbers are so low, this would 'avoid' only about 350 crimes year - an astronomical £216k per crime avoided. Doesn't look terribly good value, does it? These figures should make us to think about what else can be done with £108 a year. Or, more realistically, under austerity economics, what it would cost to cut that £108m from somewhere else – say, the education budget: 3, 000 fewer primary school teachers. I wouldn't like to have to justify that.
It seems clear, then, that all that will be affordable will be a few pilot 'Taylor' units, in areas far from existing facilities. That means that existing provision, especially in YOIs, will remain for a very long time. That, surely, means that we need just as urgently to remedy the defects he has spotted in YOIs, including underfunding. In fact, in terms of bangs for bucks, it looks like money might be better spent restoring those education cuts in YOIs, than in a few extremely costly new units. We would need also, of course, to properly evaluate the effectiveness of the first 'Taylor' units, before embarking on further costly expansion, since it is always possible they will not deliver the breakthrough he promises.
Is AP the right model?
Taylor envisages a very specific model, taken from 'alternative provision' schools in the community, which take pupils who cannot attend mainstream schools because they have been excluded, or other issues. He points out that AP schools deal with children many of the same problems as those in custody. That may be a good starting point. But there are some questions that need asking about it.
Are AP schools a successful model?
This is worth asking because in 2011, Ofsted published a very critical report on AP schools. A further report published this year found there had been progress, for which Taylor himself takes much of the credit, but still many worrying issues. Not all AP schools are required to be registered or inspected: some that should be registered, aren't. Much depends on the child's mainstream school evaluating the quality of AP and the child's progress in AP, but many don't. In some, teaching is still poor, curricula too narrow and expectations of the children too low. Some haven't got proper child protection procedures in place. This means some of the most vulnerable children are being placed in schools that aren't regulated or inspected and about which little is known. According to 'Schools week', of 14 AP schools inspect so far this year, 9 were rated as inadequate or requiring improvement, none as outstanding. Given all this, are we so sure that AP is the right model? What is the evidence for that?
Right balance of 'school' and 'prison'?
The history of custodial treatment of juvenile offenders in this country has for the best part of a century repeatedly see -sawed between the polarities of 'welfare' and 'punishment', a saga mordantly summarised by Hagell and Hazel (2011) (see end note). Taylor wants to 'reconceive youth prisons as schools', a move that will be widely welcomed in the sector, with the horrific scenes at Medway still in the mind's eye. He seems completely uninterested in the criminal justice system which sent children there, or why they were sent. He wants only to think schools.
But they are not schools - and can't be. There is a world of difference between running a school where difficult and troubled children attend during the day but cannot be prevented from leaving, and do leave at the end of the day, and locking a group of difficult children up in an institution for many months, maybe years at a time, an institution which they cannot leave and which they must do all their living inside. This raises risks, issues, challenges which simply don't occur or not in the same unrelenting way as in custody. It also partly explains why the procedures, rules and controls that so irritate Taylor are in place. One wonders whether a better starting point would be to accept that any youth custody facility must be both a place of detention where you are sent as a punishment - why else are they there? - and a place of care, education and resettlement. That, indeed, is what makes them such difficult places to get right.
With his impatience of rules an procedures and control, Taylor is clearly singing from the same hymn sheet as Gove with his 'reform prisons ' - prisons 'set free' from central control. That idea raises many issues which I shall explore separately. I simply observe here that those issues present in an esepcially acute way when you are dealing with the most vulnerable children - which is where we came in with the recent Panorma programme.
Will post-release support be adequate?
Taylor's focus is rightly on preparing children to live safe, rewarding lives on release. It is worth pointing out therefore that his proposals can achieve little if services to support children after release have been damaged by cuts. Or if the economy has been ravaged by the supreme folly of Brexit (but then, I'm only going on what the Treasury, CBI, IMF, Bank of England, and the governments of America, Japan and Germany say).
Taylor has not bothered to make any serious analysis of the existing system, and consequently the opportunity learn lessons from the most complex, ambitious and expensive experiment ever undertaken in youth custody has been missed.
Taylor seems to come to this review with his panacea ready prepared. His proposal is in many way what youth workers have always wanted: but it is unaffordable and even if could be funded, appears a very poor way of using so much money, that will have to probably come from existing education programmes. So only a small scale experiment can be afforded, in which case it is just as important to remedy the deficiencies in the existing institutions which he notes, perhaps more so. Such pilots must be properly evaluated before expanding coverage. There are questions over the AP model: its very mixed track record in education, the balancing of 'school' and 'prison', accountability and control. The new custodial system will achieve little if post release services are damaged by cuts - or if unemployment soars after Brexit. Perhaps Taylor might have a word with Gove about that?
Ref: Hagell, A. and Hazel, N. 'Macro and micro patterns in the development of secure custodial institutions for serious and persistent young offenders in England and Wales' Youth Justice 1(1), 2011.
A persistent characteristic of criminal justice policy in this country is the commitment to rehabilitation: the belief that every offender has the potential to repent his/her ways, and that the criminal justice system should encourage and support that change. It is remarkable, and heartening, that this idea has survived the drift to right in UK politics, so that it is as entrenched on the right as on the left of the political spectrum.
That tradition was revived, after a period of deep pessimism in criminology ('nothing works') by the Blair Government in 1997, and taken to a new level - a 'rehabilitation revolution', if you will. Labour's belief in the capacity of huge state programmes to shape and improve society took the form, in the criminal justice system, of a new approach to reducing re-offending:
One might think that politicians since then who have so fervently declared their ambition to reduce re-offending would at least inquire what happened to the Labour programme. But I cannot recall any politician seriously inquiring into past efforts, at least for adult offenders. (Grayling's comment, in launching his probation changes, that there had been no progress in reducing re-offending rates prior to his arrival, was simply wrong, as I shall show.)
Yet the data is there. What does it tell us? (I shall stick to adults for the moment because, God knows, that is complicated enough, and there are particular issues affecting juveniles.)
Measuring changes in human behaviour is complicated, and made more so by government's habit of changing the data definitions, and the way results are presented and explained, every few years. From the base year of 2000, changes in the way re-offending is measured have include: a switch from waiting two years from release from prisons (or start of community sentence), to measure how many are re-convicted to just on year; from measuring just whether they are re-convicted or not, to measuring changes in frequency and severity of re-offences; from measuring just convictions, to including cautions; from measuring using just the first quarter's data ,to using the data for the whole year; from expressing changes as percentage changes in the re-offending rate (thus, a fall from 50% to 48% was a 4% fall), to stating the change as percentage points (a 2 percentage point fall, on the same data). The results were shown two ways, as changes in raw data, and after adjustments to take account of changes in the mix of offenders which, other things be equal, would have made them more or less likely to offend.
These changes sound terribly technical – but they do make a huge difference to the results:
Chart 1: different results for % change in re-offending, 2000-09/10, using orginal and later measures
Note: the fall in re-offending rate is here given as:
The lesson is that, as ever, you have to read the (very) small print on such statistics; and one should never assume they provide an absolute and unchallengeable truth about reality, as a thermometer or pressure gauge would.
Nevertheless, the overall trend can be seen:
Chart 2: Trend in re-offending rate, and frequency and seriousness of re-offending, 2000-13/14, adults, one year
Note: 'raw' data i.e. not adjusted for changes in offender mix.
After a rise at the start of the 2000s, re-offending rates, frequency of re-offending, and the seriousness of re-offences all fell in the mid 2000s. Since then, there has been no further fall.
Was that reduction, though, a result of government action? After all, the re-offending rate fluctuates 'naturally' over time, for example over the quarter of a century before Labour came in in 1997:
Chart 3: changes in re-offending rate at 2 years, 1971-2008
(The dotted line in this chart shows the rate adjusted for breaks in series.) What it shows is entirely counter-intuitive: that there was a sustained and significant re-conviction fall in re-conviction rates just at the very worst years of the prison crisis of the 1980s, and the period of 'nothing works' in criminology. (Or it could be an artefact of declining police detection rates?) At any rate, there is a case that the fall after 2000 was merely another natural fluctuation, and nothing to do with government policy.
Yet that the reduction in table 2 was, at least in part, the result of the re-offending programmes is made plausible by the following:
Chart 4: % changes in re-conviction rates, adults 2000-2011, by disposal
-these are % falls in the % rate
-of those given a court order, most were supervised by the probation service, but not all
(The reduction achieved with prisoners is extraordinary, and something the prison service has never received credit for. On the contrary, we get the old myth lazily repeated on the left and right, that prison fails to acheive anything positive.)
It is possible to estimate roughly how many offences were 'avoided' i.e. would otherwise have occurred but for the reduction in offending, and frequency of offending. In 2010, that was about 80,000 a year (that is, offences resulting in conviction or caution - but many more, if those that were never reported to or solved by the police showed a similar fall). Not an insignificant number, I suggest, of people who did not become victims of crime. Costly, yes: on my recollection of the sums involved, around £3000-4000 per crime avoided. I leave it to you, and the economists, to decide if that was worth it. But it is a small fraction of what is spent convicting and punishing those who re-offending is not reduced.
Implications for policy now
The main implication is surely negative – that in current circumstances, there is no reason to believe that further reductions in re-offending rates can be achieved as a result of government action.
Consider: the Blair programme had the benefit of hundreds of millions of new money; of staffing ratios were much more generous than today; of new knowledge of 'what works'; of sustained political will. Yet the fall it achieved was small. No other initiative has made any impact.
Today, there is no prospect of new investment ever being affordable; or of any relaxation of record low staffing ratios and unprecedentedly tight budgets; or of any relief to overcrowding; and the increase in knowledge of what works since 2000 has not been game changing. Cuts since 2010 are thought (by everyone outside the MoJ) to be making prisons less safe, and less likely to succeed in reforming prisoners. As for probation, the Grayling experiment of throwing all the cards up in the air simultaneously means tremendous risk; for most offenders, resources are likely to reduce, not increase; cross institutional working must become more difficult as the probation service has been fragmented; while 'payment by results' has yet to be shown to work in reducing re-offending.
The one exception is prisoners serving less than 12 months. As we've seen, they were the one group for whom re-offending rates did not improve, for the obvious reason that they were not supervised after release. If, as is intended, the CRCs release significant resources through greater efficiency, and if they choose to reinvest that in better preparation for release and post release supervision for short sentence prisoners, and if they use interventions based on research into what works, and if the benefit of those interventions outweigh the increasing stress on the prison system and prisoners – a lot of 'ifs'! – we should see improvement in re offending rates for that one group in 3 years or so.
To be clear, I am not saying, give up on trying to reduce re-offending. Interventions do work for some, that is after all what the data shows: and prison and probation staff have a moral and professional duty to do their best for the person in front of them.
What I am saying is that it is simply not credible for government to think that it can achieve significant further reduction in the re-offending rate, other than for short term prisoners. Of course, such reductions may occur naturally, as a result of general societal changes - and if they do, government will no doubt claim them as an achievement!
One could go further and question whether, in the light of the amazing fall in crime since 1995, and the equally striking reduction in public concern about crime (demonstrated in opinion polls), seeking a reduction in the re-offending rate is quite the priority it was 20 years ago, compared to other long-standing problems in the criminal justice system, such as the absymally low detection rate or the slowness of the criminal process or the high rate of cracked trials. Or for that matter, demands on other hard pressed public services, such as the NHS or schools.
A second implication is that poor prospects for further reducing re-offending should prompt re-thinking of criminal justice policy. If (as the statistics plainly show) for the majority of offenders no disposal will reduce their future offending, it follows that sentencing must to be based on other aims. Government should therefore start thinking again about the business of sentencing, which it hasn't done seriously now for a generation, and not by accident – it has been a politically willed absence of thought. Yet during that time, use of custody has doubled, with the enormous costs associated with it. I will return to that in another post.
A last query, on which comments are welcome: given the general rate of offending has fallen so dramatically since the '90s, why has the rate of re-offending remained so stubbornly high? I assume the explananation is that fewer people now turn to crime, but those that do embark on criminal careers find them just as hard to get out of as they ever did. Or is there some other explanation?
Readers of the late Oliver Sack's wonderful memoir of neurological deficits and disasters, 'The man who mistook his wife for a hat' – and if you haven't read it, what a treat you have in store! - will recall the dreadful case of Jimmie G., victim of Korsakoff's syndrome, which left him unable to form new memories, so that he recalled nothing of the past 30 years or so.
Sometimes it seems Korsakoff's has quite a hold on penal policy. Politician after politician arrives at the Ministry of Justice seemingly unaware of – or at least, not much interested in - what has gone before.
For example, each in turn announces, as though as a new insight, that the rate of re-offending is really rather high, and that he wishes to reduce it, implying that his predecessors have for some strange reason not bothered to do so. Thus:
Jack Straw: 'reducing re-offending is one of the Government's highest priorities'
John Reid: cutting re-offending 'the central focus of our policy and practice'
Charles Clarke: 'the central aim' of his 5 year strategy
David Blunkett: 'the highest possible priority'
Ken Clarke: re-offending is 'a national scandal...unacceptably high...there is an urgent need for steps to counter it'
Grayling: 'under the previous Government, re-offending rates have barely changed. This can’t go on. '
Gove: 'horrified by our persistent failure to reduce re-offending'
(One has to go back to Michael Howard for an exception – he of course just 'knew' that prison 'worked', independently of any effect on re-offending.)
And what a cascade of proposals all these Sectaries of State have announced to get re-offending rates down! Reorganising prison and probation, more central control, less central control, cutting prison numbers, drug free wings , 'hard work' in prisons, using outside firms in prison industries, outsourcing to the private and third sectors, prisoner compacts, new community sentences, more or better education, new interventions, better mental healthcare services, help with housing, employment and resettlement, 'payment by results', 'community prisons' (Charles Clarke), 'working prisons' (Ken Clarke), 're-settlement prisons' (Grayling), 'reform prisons' (Gove)!
One might have thought that, given every single Secretary of State for two decades has made this his top priority, there would have been a thorough investigation of whether any previous policies have had any effect - and if not, why not. If there has been such a review, I haven't seen it. Rather, we get a rapid conclusion that nothing very worthwhile has been achieved before, and quickly on to the next panacea. Which, in fact, sometimes looks much like the old ones.
Such institutional amnesia matters, because it prevents us learning from experience. It is not just that 'he who forgets the past is doomed to repeat it' (and in truth, there is precious little genuinely new in penal policy.) Equally, it can lead to abandonment of past policies which actually did work. There are examples of both in prison and probation.
There is a particular political context to this forgetfulness. In the 1990s, Labour moved sharply towards the right and on many issues, were not far apart from the Tories. The Blair Government took up, and much expanded, many inherited Tory penal policies – use of PFI for building prisons, Secure Training Centres, expansion of the prison population and prison system, emphasis on prison security and increased central control of both prison and probation systems. Thus on many issues, the two main parties shared responsibility for past policies. Might that in part account for the studied lack of interest in critically re-examining them? (It is curious that what one might call 'New Old' Labour has yet to recant on these policies, which may owe something to the fact that the Shadow Secretary of State, Lord Falconer, was Secretary of State under Blair.)
In future posts, I shall explore what might be learned from objective review of past policies - starting with reducing re-offending.
I was formerly Finance Director of the Prison Service and then Director of the National Offender Management Service responsible for competition. I also worked in the NHS and an IT company. I later worked for two outsourcing companies.
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