Under a deal signed by interim mayor Tony Lloyd, Greater Manchester will gain devolved powers over large parts of the criminal justice system. Responsibility for education in prisons, work with youth offenders, and offender management schemes will be decided at a local level rather than nationally.
Westminster will transfer those powers to Greater Manchester’s new devolved authority.
Greater Manchester is the first English region to gain such responsibilities.
The devolution of powers could represent a significant opportunity for prison reform. There is currently a ‘double-bind’ that currently exists within the criminal justice system which prevents those who are really affected by cycles of reoffending being able to do much about it. The people who are perhaps best placed to act to reduce offending lack the financial power and incentives to make much difference. The majority of the services and agencies that could make a real difference are organised and controlled at the local level, whereas the budget for prison places is held by central government.
Could Devolution improve Prison Reform?
If – and it is a big if – the resources that are monopolized by the prison system could be diverted to local services and agencies they could be better used for crime prevention and to develop alternatives to prison.
At present, there is a perverse logic in operation whereby if local services are developed which reduced reoffending and kept people out of prison, the financial benefits would be enjoyed by the Ministry of Justice. The cost of prisons would fall while the local authority would end up with more people using community services, which they are paying for.
Devolving powers over criminal justice provides central government with someone else to carry the can if decisions are made to develop a criminal justice policy which relies less on prison and bad headlines follow in tabloid newspapers.
Nationwide Prison Reform
There is some cause for optimism from Scotland. The Scottish government has already introduced a presumption against prison sentences of three months or less. There has been a public consultation asking whether this period should be extended to six, nine or twelve months. The Scottish Justice Minister has described the impact that this could have:
“If the presumption was to be increased then it will help to reduce the churn of those who get those short sort of six-month sentences and the level of resource that takes up within our prison system, which will free up that resource to be used much more effectively.”
People who work in prisons and with prisoners know that rehabilitation is a complex and expensive task. It requires intelligently led, coordinated services for which the supply can meet the demand. It will not thrive in environments which are in a perpetual state of crisis and transition.
Greater Manchester Devolution
Greater Manchester may be able to lead the way for a new approach to criminal justice policy in England which relies less on an ever-expanding prison population and finds more innovative, socially useful ways of responding to crime.
Andrew Sperling – Specialist Prison Lawyer and Higher Court Advocate
Written by Andrew Sperling. Andrew is a is a Solicitor-Advocate, who was admitted as a Solicitor in 1996 and granted Higher Courts Civil Advocacy rights in 2010. He specialises in public law, Parole Board advocacy and human rights. He has a particular interest in the interplay of media, politics and the law and a developing practice in Court of Protection work.