As we approach the one year anniversary of the first national lockdown, it is very timely that speakers at our February Members Meeting will focus on the topic of mental health. It has been a challenging year, to say the least, with lockdown measures continuing to disproportionately impact people in the criminal justice system. However, I was delighted that we were able to take an evening to reflect on what had been achieved in the face of unprecedented adversity and celebrate the many outstanding individuals, organisations and journalists at our annual CJA Awards, hosted by the inspiring Junior Smart OBE. If you missed it you can watch it on our YouTube channel!
Here are some recent highlights from the CJA.
As part of the evaluation of our Connecting for Change strategy, as well as planning for our next strategy, we are asking members to complete a short survey to tell us how we add value to their organisation, what issues they would like us to focus on in the future and how we can improve. We really value your feedback. The deadline is Friday 26 February. The survey takes no more than ten minutes to complete.
Responding to the COVID-19 pandemic
Before the Christmas break, CJA members had the opportunity to meet senior officials from Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS), in response to our Routes to Recovery report. The meeting focused on family contact, employment and education. We are hoping to organise a follow-up session focusing on technology and equalities shortly.
The pandemic has further increased the huge backlog of court cases, and the population in prison on remand is at a nine-year high. We have worked with our remand expert group throughout the pandemic to raise concerns about the lack of Bail Information Services and the impact of extended Custody Time Limits. We continue to liaise with the Ministry of Justice and HMPPS on these issues to call for more data, greater transparency and improved services.
We also recently received a response from the CEO of HMPPS, Jo Farrar, to our Responding Restoratively to COVID-19 briefing. She said: ‘We are committed to building back prison communities that are safe and where the culture is characterised by respect, cooperation and hope. This ongoing commitment is demonstrated by our continued focus on rehabilitative culture and procedural justice, as well as developing the application of restorative practice in many of the ways you have suggested.’
The Sentencing White Paper
When the government released a white paper setting out its plans for sentencing, we gathered 16 CJA members working across the criminal justice system to respond to the proposals. Our briefing, A Smarter Approach to Sentencing?, highlighted the positive elements of the plans, but also identified areas where we had concerns or where there had been missed opportunities. It was important to pull together such a briefing because there was no official consultation process for the sector to respond. We have since received a response from the Justice Secretary and an invitation to meet the Sentencing Bill team. We have responded with a further letter, sent jointly with EQUAL, raising our concerns about the disproportionate impact of the proposals on Black, Asian and minority ethnic people. We are also working with an expert group of members to raise awareness of how the government’s plans for policing and sentencing will further entrench racial inequality in the criminal justice system.
Police and Crime Commissioner elections
The PCC elections were delayed last year due to the pandemic but will be going ahead on 6 May. Our Policy Officer Amal Ali has been working with the Centre for Justice Innovation and our PCC Expert Group members to refresh our briefing Public Safety, Public Trust, which will be published in April. We would encourage members across England and Wales to use it when engaging with candidates ahead of the elections and we will use it to work with successful PCCs as they develop their police and crime plans.
Effective Scrutiny and Accountability
In January we welcomed our third paid intern in partnership with The Longford Trust. Victoria Ebun is working part-time as a Policy and Research Intern on our projects with the Independent Monitoring Boards (IMB) and Independent Custody Visiting Association (ICVA). These projects are focused on improving community scrutiny of race and gender issues in police custody and prisons. Victoria has worked with a group of Black, Asian and minority ethnic women to co-produce survey questions for women in prison and has analysed data from surveys and focus groups with IMB and ICVA volunteers.
I was recently invited to sit on a new working group set up by the Ministry of Justice to improve outcomes for Black, Asian and minority ethnic women and attended my first meeting.
Our work on improving community scrutiny of stop and search was included in the Mayor of London’s new policing action plan, which focuses on tackling the disproportionate use of police powers by the Metropolitan Police, including stop and search, use of force and Taser. The action plan says: ‘This work will seek to build on the good practice identified in the Criminal Justice Alliance’s Stop and Scrutinise report.’
At the end of March, we will be launching a report on section 60 ‘suspicion-less’ searches and will call for a national body to support the scrutiny of stop and search. We have been working with our Stop and Search Expert Group to discuss the data we secured on use of section 60 through Freedom of Information requests. The group has also helped develop our recommendations for policy and practice.
In November 2020, the Ministry of Justice published the new revised Victims’ Code, which is due to come into force in April 2021. This followed our response to the Victims’ Code consultation, raising our significant concerns that the revised code watered down the right of access to restorative justice. After we met with the Victims’ Commissioner to express our concerns, she wrote to the Minister for Victims, adding extra weight to our recommendations.
We are delighted that the Victims’ Code now includes a new right for victims to be referred to an restorative justice service. The Victims Code also took account of our influencing about the Equality Impact Assessment for the Victims Code and our concerns about the overreliance on the police to share information with victims. A new section was added at our request, putting responsibility on other agencies, who may be more trusted than the police by minority ethnic victims of crime, to inform victims about restorative justice.
Following an invitation from the Victims’ Commissioner, we have since contributed to her Victims’ Law consultation. We lobbied for legislation to enable greater access to restorative justice and more support for young and Black, Asian and minority ethnic victims. The Victims’ Commissioner has now published her proposals for the Victims’ Law, which we have commented on.
We are planning to launch the second briefing in our Responding Restoratively series at an event on 28 April, as well as a special edition of the British Journal of Community Justice focused on restorative justice. More details to follow shortly.
A Fit for Purpose and Diverse Workforce
Our Lived Experience Expert Group recently met with the Probation Workforce Strategy team and the Going Forward into Employment (GFiE) civil service recruitment team. The expert group advised them on how they can recruit more people with lived experience into the criminal justice workforce, drawing on the recommendations in our Change from Within report. It is heartening to see more paid roles for people with lived experience being advertised, GFiE widening their criteria to include people on licence as well as leaving prison as we suggested, and the prisons minister committing to recruit 200 people with lived experience into the probation service.