In part one of this 3-part blog, I put forward some thoughts on how shifts in patterns of crime might affect governments in the coming year. But the truth is that many countries will still be predominantly focused on coping with the consequences of past policy decisions and tightening budgets. This piece provides a lightening-quick run-through of common challenges across developed countries. Essentially, there isn’t much money around but workloads remain as challenging as ever.
In 2017, there will be few countries whose criminal justice budgets are rising in real terms. Canadian federal spending is continuing to fall slowly and slightly in both the Department of Justice and Department of Public Safety, and the picture at provincial level is rarely much rosier. Fathoming U.S. trends is a challenge given its multi-layered public safety governance but there are no signs of major spending increases there either.
The UK will likely see flat spending in real terms but this is after a sustained period of spending reductions. Home Office budgets fell around a fifth or nearly a quarter in real terms between 2010-2015. The Ministry of Justice suffered even more, signed up to cuts of nearly a third in real terms in 2010-15 – which it didn’t quite achieve and now won’t have to. The image below shows the MoJ settlement at the 2015 spending review, which in fact shows further falls coming from 2018, though whether government sticks to these commitments is debatable, given the full-blown crisis in UK prisons is another
New Zealand seems to have ended its long-term ramp-up of police officer numbers and with a stabilising prison population spending is unlikely to increase there either. The major outlier is arguably Australia. Most states there will be spending more in 2017, both to fund the build and management of prisons that are bursting at the seams, to protect police numbers and kick off new projects on issues that remain of higher public concern than countries more deeply affected by the post-financial crisis crash. Austerity will hit Australia sometime – but for now everyone should look at the UK to understand what can and can’t be done when belts tighten sharply.
As noted in part one, falling cash comes at a time when demand from certain crime types is increasing but other crime types will likely decrease. In truth, however, justice system demands are not driven solely by underlying crime patterns. It is policy and practice across the justice system that drives volumes – with policing strategies (and numbers), sentencing, bail policies, drugs laws and stances on courts and probation administration all playing their part. I think it’s now fair to say that most English-speaking developed countries are creaking at the seams as a result of past policy decisions, particularly the long-term ramp up of police activity and toughening sentence frameworks. Only a few European states, such as the Netherlands, have shifted their policy settings in a way that supports, rather than fights against, budget reductions.
Correctional services sit at the downstream end of what we call a justice ‘system’ but which almost everywhere is still managed as a discrete set of separate – and sometimes competing – institutions. Unfortunately, prisons have rarely been resourced to deal with the increased workload that more police and tougher sentencing have gifted them – so are now under intense strain.
US, New Zealand, and UK prison numbers have all stabilized but after decades of expansion, driven by increased police activity and tougher sentencing. Australia is still on a rapid trajectory of increasing prison numbers, despite falling crime, while the picture in Europe is more mixed.
The prison environment has become a difficult place to work with rising staff to inmate ratios but few improvements in pay or job satisfaction. Recruitment shortfalls are an inevitable consequence, particularly in countries where private prisons have created fiercer wage competition and reduced job security.
The boom in prison was accompanied by a boom in ‘community corrections’ (community sentences, probation and parole), though US probationer numbers at least are now falling and the number of UK community sentences has actually fallen in recent years, as magistrates appear to have lost confidence in them. Always the poor cousin of prisons in terms of resourcing, many probation services responded to recent pressures by becoming ‘light-touch’ and focused primarily on ‘risk management’, with limited funding for rehabilitative work except in pockets and for higher risk offenders. Some services now face additional strains. The UK is still reeling from the impact of an excessively hasty and probably ill-conceived set of probation reforms that simultaneously cut budgets, increased caseloads, and brought in providers who had never done the job before.
2017’s only good news in corrections may be a continued fall in the number of juveniles incarcerated. The phenomenon of falling youth crime and incarceration is not well understood, however, so learning about it must be high on the agenda this year for anyone who wants to ensure the success is sustained.
In the first post in this series, we talked about sex: sexual offences are dominating the work of higher courts everywhere due to their complexity and because defendants are still far less likely to plead guilty than for other crimes. In some (but by no means all) places, the shift has led to case backlogs in the higher courts, longer waits for justice and an increased the number of ‘cracked’ trials. Yet higher court backlogs often sit alongside clear over-capacity in the physical court infrastructure, particularly in lower courts, where broader caseloads are often falling. The UK is closing down underutilised facilities rapidly and other countries will soon have to follow in order to free up resources to invest in new technologies and the specialist court facilities that appear to offer benefits for specific offender cohorts, such as mental health patients and drugs users.
Police forces face their own challenges. They are upstream of prisons and courts but officers everywhere still feel like they are on the receiving end of decisions made elsewhere. The main reason police feel overwhelmed appears to be the ongoing demand for support from the public even where no crime has taken place – and where problems are more properly dealt with by mental health or social services. Only a few of the best police forces have a good understanding of where demand truly comes from and how to prioritise it. And fewer still have yet been given the political support needed to make the tough prioritisation decisions that falling budgets will necessitate – particularly in countries that maintain antiquated and in some cases generous officer terms and conditions.
Leicester’s attempt to respond to attempted burglary cases selectively, was criticised by the Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC), Sir Clive Loader. More positively, Northumbria’s PCC, Dame Vera Baird, has publicly backed giving victims the option of not having a physical police response to car crime. Such tough choices are needed – so the politics of policing is set to remain in the spotlight this year, both for this reason and due to ongoing debates about police legitimacy, which will play out most starkly around issues such as armed response, stop and search, and undercover policing tactics.
Overall, 2017 feels like another year in a period of transition within justice systems across the developed world. It is a period when countries will have to work out ways of dealing with the legacy of decisions made some time ago but perhaps no longer affordable given competing priorities such as healthcare for an ageing population and limited public appetite for higher taxation. In part three of this series (published next Monday), we will look at what countries can – and must do – to manage their way out of these tricky situations.
This piece first appeared on Russell Webster’s website, a valuable resource for information on UK crime, justice and drugs policy and practice news. Do take a look and subscribe for his updates – he can also be found on twitter.