Criminal justice reform is about more than money

Aidan Shilson-Thomas

Aidan Shilson-Thomas

September 23, 2019 | @Aidan_S_T

Prisons and the probation service are a hidden frontline, managing risk to the public, caring for people with multiple needs, and working to prevent further crime. HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) and its parent department, the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), have worked to tight budgetary constraints. Between 2010-11 and 2014-15 HMPPS budgets were cut by around 20 per cent, achieved in part by reducing the prison officer workforce by 7,000. Late increases to the budget in 2016-17 and 2017-18 were cancelled out by inflation, so funding decreased further.

The cost per prisoner fell by just over £2,000 between 2009-10 and 2017-18, but by other measures performance has declined sharply with record violence, and drug use.  Prison regimes have been restricted due to staffing cuts: the percentage of prisoners in local prisons, which receive offenders straight from the courts, who spend more than ten hours out of their cells at work or in education has fallen from 12 per cent in 2010 to just 3 per cent. Money has not been spent on key areas, such as prison security and the upkeep of the estate, meaning both have deteriorated.

The Service’s resource budget was over £4 billion in 2018-19 – a 4 per cent real-terms increase in spending power on 2017-18 – and the new Government has pledged £2.6 billion for security and new prisons. A new model for probation is also being developed; the outsourcing of probation for low and medium-risk offenders will cease in December 2020, due to fatal contractual flaws that have damaged service delivery. Under a new model management of all offenders will be insourced. Unpaid work, accredited programmes to address offending behaviour, and resettlement services will continue to be outsourced. This new model will require additional spend when details are finalised. Greater investment in HMPPS is very welcome, but only if it is directed to areas of greatest need, and to policies that will reduce reoffending.

Evidence-based sentencing

Sentencing policies impact the level of demand placed on HMPPS to deliver custodial and community sentences, and post-sentence supervision. Currently almost half of prison sentences are for six months or less. The majority – 11,500 a year – are convicted of ‘shoplifting’. The decision to use short custodial prison sentences for petty, repeat offences is extremely costly. The MoJ have estimated that a six month sentence costs £11,000 to administer. Based on this figure, sentences of six months or less passed between January 2018 and March 2019 would have cost a staggering £368 million. Using community orders instead, at £5,000 per order, in just half of these cases would have saved over £100 million. Studies by the MoJ have shown that community orders are more effective at reducing reoffending, so their use would generate additional savings with lower levels of crime. Despite this evidence, this Government has chosen not to move forward with a planned abolition of six month sentences. This course of action is not evidence-led or cost-effective.


To ‘get the basics right’, there has been greater investment in prison security. This is in response to record-high levels of violence and pervasive drug use across the estate, and in particular the challenges posed by psychoactive substances. In 2018-19, £27 million was allocated to the ‘Safe and Decent Programme’ in HMPPS to improve security, in addition to maintenance work. £10 million of this was designated for the ‘Ten Prisons Project’, a targeted investment in ten particularly challenged prisons. £6 million of this was spent on better perimeter and gate security to restrict drug and phone smuggling. It was suggested that successful measures could then be applied to the rest of the secure estate, which mirrors the challenges these prisons face. £100 million has now been committed to scale-up these measures, but it is not clear whether this will provide the necessary equipment and staff for the entire secure estate.

The prison estate

Maintaining the prison estate is HMPPS’ second-biggest single spend after staffing, but this has been severely underfunded. In 2018-19, £340 million went towards estate costs. This spend falls into two categories. The Prison Estate Transformation Programme (PETP) is to modernise the estate and increase capacity with 10,000 new places. £1.3 billion was committed for PETP in 2016, but only £0.2 billion had been spent as of August 2018. This August the commitment increased to £2.5 billion for 10,000 places, on top of 3,330 created since 2016. While much has been made of new capacity, maintenance of the existing estate has received less attention. This is an urgent problem: the backlog for maintenance tasks is valued at £900 million. This has left prisoners living in unsuitable and even inhumane conditions. The failure to finance maintenance is not cost-effective and has created additional expense: the majority of HMPPS’ budgetary overspend in 2018-19 was due to urgent maintenance. The estate needs a significant injection of funding to clear this backlog.

A new model for probation

Probation accounts for less than a quarter of HMPPS spend, at £996 million in 2018-19. This funds the National Probation Service (NPS), who manage high-risk offenders, and 21 Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs), who manage medium and low-risk offenders. The early termination of CRC contracts in December 2020 means that spend on CRCs will be lower than forecast. However, badly-designed contracts meant that CRCs needed top-up payments to supplement their agreed funding. In addition to early termination fees this will total £496 million. Both CRCs and the NPS are servicing huge demand: in 12 of the 70 NPS sub-regions workload is at or above 110 per cent of capacity, and CRCs caseloads are generally higher than in the NPS. HMPPS is currently developing a new model for the probation service, and a mixed market will continue to play a role. HMPPS must not repeat procurement mistakes that left services underfunded.

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