Frances Crook's blog · 26 Jul 2016
Devolution and criminal justice system
Devolution is being offered to Manchester, and it is a great opportunity for the great city to do things differently. Unfortunately, it comes with strings. Indeed, the puppet master is yet again the Treasury and central government and this means that devolution is not quite the real deal.
It could be a real opportunity to develop distinctive local policy to create safer communities in Manchester and invest in what works. This is a chance to take control of Greater Manchester’s future by pioneering new responses to the problems in the criminal justice system and reject Westminster’s failed policies.
I have been impressed with the innovative approaches emerging from Manchester in recent years, not least the whole-system approach for women in contact with the criminal justice system. This followed the evidence, bringing agencies together to intervene early, divert people from the criminal justice system and respond to law breaking in the community, with the least harmful and most effective response.
The Howard League has worked closely and successfully with Greater Manchester Police over the last few years to change the approach to policing children and reduce child arrests. Our latest figures show that GMP has achieved a larger reduction in the number of children arrested than any other police force. In policing Manchester is leading the way in showing the best outcomes for individuals are achieved by investing to keep people out of the criminal justice system. This, importantly, saves money for the police and the city. The whole point of devolved budgets is to give cash back to communities, so they have the flexibility to invest early to save in the long run as well as improving the lives of local people.
In light of this, I was disappointed to see that plans are already afoot to build yet another prison in Manchester. This is the wrong approach to take and if pursued would be a missed opportunity to ensure the criminal justice system better serves the people of Manchester. Beyond the initial capital spend, the long-term commitment of resources will eat into future budgets and prevent other investment. It will mean taking cash out of communities rather than giving cash back to help those communities thrive.
Manchester Strangeways prison has not had a happy history and all the new big prisons across the country have suffered appalling problems with high levels of violence, assaults on staff, lack of activity, self injury and suicide, and endemic recidivism. The giant prison being built in Wrexham will force men to share small cells and has only half the number of workshop places for its proposed population.
Prison building has been a Westminster obsession but the evidence that this approach has failed is everywhere apparent in the prisons themselves. Building more prisons simply creates a larger, more expensive version of the failing system we have at the moment. Greater Manchester should resist this and follow its own example of applying downward pressure to reduce the involvement of criminal justice agencies in people’s lives.
A new prison will absorb a huge proportion of the local justice budget and house people from all over the country. This money would be far better spent investing in community sentences, drug and mental health services and strengthening the network of women’s centres – policies that would lead to real improvements in community safety.
We need real devolution and a markedly different approach to responding to crime and it can be implemented in Manchester
I will follow with close interest how the devolved powers work and what is achieved. If used properly, Greater Manchester could lead the country in developing a much more humane and effective justice system that serves local people.