Andy Sawford: Only a radical shift of power will save the British justice system

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Through its tacit acceptance of the status quo, the UK's political community has allowed a very bad system to reach the brink of crisis.

Unlike the banks, whose catastrophic failure demanded immediate intervention, support and regulatory redesign, the prison system, whose failure is ongoing and endemic, apparently warrants no such action and motivates no equivalent political scrutiny.

It has become a forgotten service: a political football that is unfashionable and explosive. Whitehall has failed to encourage local innovation in the delivery of prison and probation services and the result is that local policymakers, who in many other areas of the public services are given space from central interference to experiment and pilot innovative ideas, have their hands tied. Yet the statistics speak of a desperate need to seek alternative solutions to those that Whitehall churns out.

Britain spends more on law and order as a percentage of its gross domestic product than any other country in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and yet we are a "high-crime country" by comparison. At 153 prisoners per 100,000 general population, we have the highest per capita rate of imprisonment in Western Europe, apart from Luxembourg. The prison estate is running at 10 per cent over capacity. Most prisoners reoffend within two years of their release from custody. Two-thirds of all adults reoffend within two years. Three-quarters of young offenders reoffend within two years. That is why "prisons" and "in crisis" have become inseparable bedfellows.

Only a radical shift of powers and funding down to a local level, in what is termed "primary justice", will turn around Britain's failing system. The Local Government Information Unit (LGiU) report is published after a six-month inquiry by a panel of criminal justice experts and MPs. Through a fundamental recalibration of budgetary and decision-making control from Whitehall to local government, Primary Justice will break the crime cycle for people given short sentences, reprioritise funding and reconnect the professionals with each other.

This is an edited extract of a speech given by the chief executive of the LGiU to MPs in Parliament at the launch of the LGiU report, Primary Justice