Theo Clay: What ‘high-vis chain gangs’ gets wrong about charities in the justice system

There is a danger that charities become seen as partners in the punishment agenda as opposed to the rehabilitation agenda

Theo Clay
Theo Clay

The Ministry of Justice recently announced talks with several major charities as partners in its community payback scheme. 

The positive contribution of these charities was somewhat undermined by the Prime Minister’s reference to such work as “fluorescent-jacketed chain gangs”.

It’s a comment which reveals something telling about the government’s approach to justice, and to charities more specifically.

Few who work in the criminal justice system would argue that alternatives to prison are a bad idea. 

We know that custody, particularly short sentences, is often a dead end. 

Two thirds of the people who go to prison for less than six months reoffend within a year, because prisons rarely tackle the causes of crime. 

We desperately need alternatives which do not waste human potential but instead support people to be productive members of the community.

To be clear, the community payback scheme has been operating for years, with some evidence of achieving positive impact. 

Crucially though, you only benefit if you see the work as rewarding, if you can build employment-related skills, and if you feel involved, respected, and treated like an individual.

Rebranding a positive rehabilitative scheme as a ‘chain gang’ to shame those involved is not helpful for reducing reoffending.

It fits neatly, however, with how our government seems to see our justice system: as having only one role—to punish.

John Bache, former head of the Magistrates Association, recently spoke out against short sentences as another example of “the age-old English obsession with punishment”. 

There is a danger here that charities become seen as partners in the punishment agenda, as opposed to the rehabilitation agenda, which sorely misses the unique value charities bring to our justice system.

In NPC’s 2019 Beyond Bars research, we explained the unique value charities add to the justice system. 

Charities provide hope and purposeful activity. They are independent from the state, which builds the trust necessary to bringing about change for individuals. 

They increase wellbeing, they support families, and yes, of course, they reduce reoffending.

Now, we’re building on this research to visually map the voluntary criminal justice system and the funding within it. 

In doing so, we can see how vital this work is, but also that none of these charities can succeed if they work in isolation.

To bring down reoffending, initiatives like the community payback scheme need to be linked to building individuals’ aspirations and goals.

They should have close connections and referral pathways to other interventions, such as accommodation, relationships, and mental health support.

Yet mapping the voluntary criminal justice system reveals how the vast majority of funding goes to just a few places, with little regard for the wider systemic issues a person may be facing. 

We’ll soon be publishing new analysis which shows where funding in the criminal justice system is going, to understand if it really is targeting the areas that will do the most to reduce reoffending.

If you’re a funder, it’s important to consider how issues interlink, and which are overlooked, so you can achieve real systemic change. 

Consider investing earlier in the cycle, such as helping at-risk young people build skills and relationships, or in areas which may at first feel intractable and unfamiliar, such as policy change. 

Yes, it can be more difficult, outcomes are less clear and experimentation and new thinking will be necessary. 

But people trying to turn their lives around deserve more than to be jeered at whilst painting walls, and communities deserve more to tackle the real problems they are painting over.

Theo Clay is a policy manager at the think tank NPC

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