Prisons: Can we do it better? The role of Local Authorities and Public Health in the Criminal Justice System

As an ex-Prison Officer I took interest in an article about Lincolnshire County Council requesting devolution of the Criminal Justice System (CJS) to their proposed Combined Authority and it set me thinking: How would devolution of CJS budgets to Local Government work? How can Local Authorities do things better?

As the Howard League for Penal Reform states, the number of men, women and young people sent to our prisons has doubled over the last two decades and while the prison population continues to grow, the money and resources available to manage prisons has been reduced. In light of this and the Government’s commitment to devolution, whether to Combined Authorities or Councils, Local Government is best placed to deliver an integrated, holistic approach to prisoner health & wellbeing, rehabilitation (including education & skills) and resettlement.

Figures published by the Prison Reform Trust show 26% of women prisoners and 16% of male prisoners have said they have had Mental Health treatment before entering prison. However, once they enter prison 57% of women and 62% of men were identified as living with Mental Illness. When inside, a prisoner is either medicated or housed on a Mental Health Ward. Also, there is no direct referral to NHS Mental Health services for people leaving custody.

Local Authorities, through Public Health must have part of the Criminal Justice System (CJS) budgets devolved to address this. Public Health and their NHS partners should have access to prisoners on entry into custody, preferable during their entry interview in the First Night Centre. By identifying Mental Illness at an early stage of imprisonment, provision can then be put into place to manage the prisoner correctly during their sentence and for when they are released. By doing this, a person leaving prison would need no direct referral to NHS services and they wouldn’t be lost in the system. This would also cut out duplication of provision and allow funds to be utilised more efficiently for service delivery.

This also applies to people who live with Mental Illness who are not in Prison. If we are serious about reducing offending and the numbers of people sent to prison, we must put in place a holistic prevention and early intervention strategy. Poor Mental Health must be diagnosed at the earliest possible stage whether through childhood or adulthood. Local Authorities and Public Health Bodies are in prime position to address this by working with Adults & Children’s Social Care and Education Departments, Safeguarding Boards, Schools, Clinical Commissioning Groups and Mental Health Trusts. By realigning their budgets and by devolving CJS budgets aligned to prevention, a more holistic approach can be delivered.

Drug and alcohol dependency are a large contributor to crime and imprisonment. Whilst in custody, prisoners can voluntarily access Drug and Alcohol Rehabilitation Treatment, but often relapse on release. Again, if we’re serious about reducing offending this must be tackled at the earliest opportunity. Through integrated Public Health this could be addressed using a similar model for tackling poor Mental Health.

The delivery of Probation requires overhaul and must be devolved. At present it is too fragmented with the National Probation Service dealing with prisoners with sentences over 12 months and Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRC’s) looking after prisoners with short sentences. I would like to see CRC’s scrapped and budgets for Probation devolved to Combined Authorities (CA’s) to allow an integrated delivery of service across the CA area. This would allow the Probation Service to work more closely with devolved Jobs and Skills Boards, Local Housing Authorities, Police and Crime Commissioners/Local Policing Teams, Public Health and the Education Sector to put in place a holistic plan to reduce reoffending for those leaving custody.

Local Government, whether through Councils or Combined Authorities is the vehicle to ensure the delivery of a good standard of education, both academically and on health matters; for providing quality social housing by investing in house building; to protect & safeguard children, young people & vulnerable adults from abuse, to provide advice and guidance on careers and welfare. Westminster has failed to deliver holistic approaches to tackling crime and the cause of crime, nor for dealing with many of the issues faced by prisons and prisoners. Whilst the operation and staffing of prisons should be the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice and Governors, Local Government is the vehicle to deliver non-operational services and must be given the tools and funds to do so.

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