The latest sky-high reoffending figures should convince justice secretary Michael Gove of the need to prioritise rehabilitation in his plans for prison reform. Often overlooked is the role of businesses and charities, which provide volunteering and work placement for prisoners on temporary release in the community.
The contribution of organisations such as Timpson and Sue Ryder, which work with people on release on temporary licence (ROTL), is vital in enabling people to gain training, education and skills to help them reduce their risk of reoffending. It's a partnership that can benefit both prisoners and providers. James Timpson is chief executive of Timpson and chairperson of the Employers' Forum for Reducing Reoffending. He says: "The best way to secure a great colleague, who won't ever go back to offending, is to employ them on release on temporary licence."
A joint briefing published by the Prison Reform Trust and Clinks, the umbrella organisation for the voluntary sector working in criminal justice, suggests that the good will of charities and businesses is being squandered by government.
Based on a survey of 39 voluntary and private sector providers of community placements for prisoners on temporary release, it reveals that restrictions on the use of ROTL introduced by Michael's Gove's predecessor, Chris Grayling, are damaging the performance of voluntary and private sector organisations and preventing prisoners from getting jobs and training in the community to help them turn their lives around.
The existing ROTL policy was introduced in March 2015 following a review commissioned by the former justicesecretary in 2013, after three high-profile and serious failures in quick succession. The changes, most of which were first introduced as interim measures shortly after the review was commissioned, include more stringent assessment and monitoring arrangements and strict rules governing who is entitled to ROTL and the start, frequency and duration of placements.
Ministry of Justice statistics show that the number of people released from prison on temporary licence has fallen by 41% since the review was announced in 2013. This is despite the importance of ROTL for effective rehabilitation and the strong track record of the prison service at managing risk. Less than 1% of releases on temporary licence fail and, of these, only 6.1% involve an arrestable offence. This is the equivalent of five arrests per 100,000 releases.
The findings of the survey suggest that charities and local businesses are struggling to fill volunteer and work placements as a result of the new rules. Almost two-thirds (65%) of respondents to the survey had seen a decrease in ROTL, with some organisations reporting that placements had "completely stopped" or become "almost impossible". One respondent said: "We have had to stop working with women on ROTL as the process takes too long and it has affected our relationship with employers."
Respondents to the survey reported increasing problems communicating with prisons, longer delays in getting placements confirmed and inconsistencies in the application of the new policy. Four-fifths of respondents (79%) said that it now takes longer for prisoners to get ROTL placements confirmed. 68% of organisations said that people on ROTL placements with them had reported difficulties getting their applications approved.
More than half (51%) said that their experience of contact and liaison with prisons about ROTL placements had got worse. 37% said that the changes to ROTL were not explained at all while a further 29% said that the explanation was unclear.
One respondent said: "The process has become much longer and more complicated and has meant that we are unable to send candidates forward for jobs because we cannot be sure that NOMS will process their ROTL in time for their interview." Another said: "The prison does not communicate with us sufficiently. We offer a placement and then we have to chase the prison ... The prison forget we are operating a business and that the offenders are fully integrated [within the workforce]. We rely on their presence."
These findings should concern a justice secretary whose devolving instincts and support for private and voluntary sector involvement in the delivery of services are well-documented. Michael Gove's decision to overturn Chris Grayling's ban on prisoners receiving books, and the short-lived criminal courts charge, is a less than ringing endorsement of his predecessor's criminal justice legacy. Already he has indicated scope for greater use of ROTL under proposals put forward as part of the government's review of education in prisons. The National Offender Management Service (NOMS) has announced its intention to conduct a review of ROTL policy in early 2016.
Building on good practice and the experience of charities and businesses, our briefing makes practical recommendations to help reverse the decline in the use of ROTL, reduce unnecessary restrictions on eligibility and delays to placements, improve communication between prisons and providers, and increase coordination and consistency in the application of the policy.
Michael's Gove's promised review presents a perfect opportunity to restore a more balanced approach, with less bureaucracy, more discretion for governors, and more prisoners putting something back into society.
Mark Day is Head of Policy and Communications at the Prison Reform Trust