Volunteering in the criminal justice sector – how can we help the ‘helpless’?

Posted on December 05, 2016

Volunteering in the criminal justice sector

James Rowntree

James Rowntree, TSIP analyst, gives an overview of the issues now facing organisations working in the voluntary criminal justice sector.

Over the last few weeks, stories about the UK’s criminal justice sector have dominated headlines, with prison breaks, hard-hitting commentary about the realities of prison life, and work from the Justice Secretary, Liz Truss to set out the government’s latest programme of proposals for prison reform.

And despite crime rates continuing to fall, England still has one of the highest prison populations in Western Europe, and various estimates put the cost of reoffending to our society somewhere between £9.3 – 15 billion a year.

At the same time, criminal justice advocates, campaigners and service providers argue that ongoing cuts are only increasing the pressure felt by many across the sector. With changes at the top – four different Justice Secretaries appointed in the last six years, each with their own priorities – adding to tensions in the system.

Recently, I attended a roundtable event run by London Funders and Clinks, to discuss what all of these factors mean for the voluntary criminal justice sector. 

This is a diverse space, made up of organisations ranging from small, unstaffed community groups to large national organisations, which employ hundreds of people, and it focuses on issues from advocacy, to support, to rehabilitation interventions. 

What’s going on in the voluntary criminal justice sector?

First, the majority of these organisations are dependent on trust funding or government support. But, with cuts to the sector and recent ambiguity over the effects of Brexit, organisations are increasingly seeing funders move their resources to more stable sectors such as youth.

It’s taking its toll and the consensus among delegates was that criminal justice is a sector in transition, marked by uncertainty and a current lack of direction.

For example, in recent weeks, a number of high-profile government initiatives impacting the space have stalled, following criticism from the criminal justice sector about their potentially negative impacts in practice.

This includes a delay to new rules within the Charities Act to disqualify trustees and senior charity employees convicted of certain crimes, which had caused concern for many organisations, and major changes to anti-lobbying proposals within the government’s grant standards – which would have effectively silenced debate within the sector.

In addition, as a result of the wider political environment, there has been little progress in implementing the government’s £80 million Life Chances programme. This was launched by the previous Prime Minister David Cameron to definitively understand the needs of the disadvantaged in the UK.

What are the priorities and focus of the voluntary criminal justice sector?

More widely, delegates looked at the shift that had occurred from, previous Justice Secretary, Michael Gove’s focus on rehabilitation and trying to get prisoners back into society to Liz Truss who is leading work on public safety and the apprehension of offenders, and what it means for them.

Recent evidence reviews have indicated that a post-Brexit government will focus on the following core criminal justice issues: education to develop inmates’ ICT skills, minorities (the BAME experience), youth crime, Islamic extremism and the care of transgender prisoners. 

This is alongside government plans, which are giving governors at six ‘reform prisons’ the powers to control their own rules, budgets and rehabilitation methods to help modernise the system.

Where next?

As reflected throughout the session, criminal justice groups agreed that ongoing work in the sector is difficult to characterise – with many voluntary organisations losing out on valuable government contracts, due to a lack of capital in comparison to private, for-profit organisations.

Crucially, delegates noted that the fragmented nature of the sector means that there is little sector-wide consensus on what works, with the government often in the dark about what is actually happening across the system. 

TSIP’s view

If we’re to address the challenges currently facing those impacted by the criminal justice sector, whether it’s government, providers, charities, campaigners and prisoners and their families, this environment of uncertainty must change.

Although the Ministry of Justice is increasing its focus on ‘what works’ through valuable initiatives like the Justice Data Lab and other studies, more widely robust evaluation support to allow organisations to effectively measure their services, and understand their impact on those they support, should be an essential part of every service and programme.

This evaluation approach must also be sustainable: generating innovative outcomes and solutions to this sector’s unique and urgent challenges and enabling organisations to come together, and share best practice and approaches to evaluation. 

It won’t solve every problem, but it would be an important start.