A reoffending revolution? by Ian Mulheirn

3 Mar 11
Payment by results looks set to revolutionise criminal justice policy. But ministers must be prepared to follow the logic of PBR to its radical policy conclusions if this exciting scheme is really to get off the ground

The Ministry of Justice wheeled out the big guns – both ministerial and official – at a rehabilitation revolution seminar this morning. The MoJ plans to launch six pilot programmes in which organisations will be paid for reducing the re-offending levels of offenders in their care. Today, external stakeholders were invited to discuss the design of the pilot schemes, the proliferation of commissioning options, and the quagmire of measurement issues.

As Ken Clarke and Nick Herbert both made clear, the inspiring aim of what can at times be a pretty technocratic debate is unleashing innovation and delivery flexibility for front-line professionals to tackle the problems that make people re-offend. The prize is lower crime, significant taxpayer savings and offenders’ lives turned around. But the ‘how?’ is a messy and difficult thing.

Five key challenges – among others – were highlighted:

  • How can the department ensure that the organisations being paid by results operate on a large enough scale for offending outcomes to be statistically measurable, and therefore rewardable?
  • Can PBR work in an environment where an institution’s accountability for re-offending outcomes is compromised because prisoners move between prisons at high frequency?
  • How can the MoJ ensure that providers have sufficient control over a prisoner’s journey – both before and after release – to make them willing to invest at reasonable risk premia?
  • Should a successful outcome be a binary measure of stopping re-offending, or should the MoJ reward reduced frequency or severity of subsequent criminal behaviour?
  • Can the MoJ realise any savings if providers succeed, or will the police simply find new criminals to lock up?

The Social Market Foundation’s model, articulated in our report Prison Break, released last March, tackles each of these issues. But the policy design that does so requires a pretty fundamental upheaval of the way the prison estate currently works.

To overcome the problems of measurement and prisoner churn, it’s vital that these programmes are ultimately commissioned at a regional level, with one prime provider supplied by prisons in its geographic area. Doing this at the prison level will result either in the MoJ paying exorbitant risk premiums, or the programme being deeply commercially unattractive to private providers.

Ensuring that one organisation had ultimate control of the end-to-end offender journey is also essential to success. This requires a wholesale change of mind-set. Prisons would need to become part of a supply chain that is funded by, and answerable to, the regional prime providers, with uncomfortable implications for public sector prisons.

The regional contractor model also overcomes the tension between a binary measure of success – stopping any further re-offending or not - and a ‘reduced offending frequency’ measure. The latter would be messy and likely to run into accountability problems once, on subsequent re-offending, the person gets sent to a different prison. In the regional model this problem goes away. A provider that fails to stop a prisoner re-offending will be sure to see that person again, giving them a second bite at the rehabilitation cherry. They have strong incentives to work even with people who they suspect will re-offend at least once more.

Finally, there is the question of whether stopping re-offending will just lead to new people being locked up. Even if the new system cuts re-offending substantially, it seems unlikely that the prison population will fall rapidly. But here the MoJ must take a broader view of the cost-benefit analysis. For short sentence prisoners, the bulk of the taxpayer costs are associated with the process of getting them back to jail, not the costs of incarceration itself. And by reducing overall crime, a successful payment by results system will save families and firms a fortune, even if the taxpayer sees no reduction in cost.

With a thoughtful ministerial team behind it, payment by results looks set to revolutionise criminal justice policy. But ministers must be prepared to follow the logic of payment by results to its radical policy conclusions if this exciting scheme is really to get off the ground.

Ian Mulheirn is director of the Social Market Foundation

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