Duncan Shrubsole: Why we're investing to help specialist charities fix a broken criminal justice system

Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales can give a voice to charities making a positive impact in the criminal justice system writes our Director of Policy, Research and Comms Duncan Shrubsole

The criminal justice system has always had its pressures, weaknesses and failures with those working in it under huge strains. But these days more and more headlines are emerging revealing the scale of what is going wrong. In prisons staff shortages, overcrowding and poor conditions have led to soaring violence, suicides and a lack of safety, with increasing lockdowns making rehabilitation less likely and no doubt contributing to isolation and mental health problems.

In the courts our legal system is fraying with too many victims and defendants poorly served. Underpinning this has been a lack of focus by Government, not helped by a revolving door of Ministers, huge cuts in resources and the diversion of effort into the disastrous part-privatisation of the probation system.

Yet we know a better world is possible if only those with power would listen to the specialist charities working in criminal justice. At the Foundation we have always funded specialist, grassroot charities committed to helping offenders improve their lives and move away from a life of crime – we have invested nearly £6m into criminal justice charities since 2015.

They continue to demonstrate what is possible and that offenders can, with the right help, encouragement and support, transform their lives. They achieve incredible results in spite of the criminal justice system rather than because of it.

As NPC captured in research last year charities are facing ever tougher conditions for them and for those they are trying to help. Too often denied the resources they need, denied access to prisons to reach those who would most benefit from their support and denied help from other key parts of the system so vital to help people move on. In response some funders have reflected that with the climate so tough they would rather invest their resources in other sectors and other issues.

At the Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales we take a different view. Influencing others is in our DNA. We believe passionately that small and specialist charities are key to fixing a broken system and believe that it is vital that they are able to share their expertise to influence the powers that be. We believe it is our job to invest in ensuring such charities have the capacity to gather evidence, speak up and use their expertise and understanding to help influence policy and practice across the new probation and wider criminal justice system.

That is why we are committing funding to 17 specialist charities and partnerships – a new programme with big ambitions shaped by experts in the sector – aiming to help them shape and influence policy and practice at a national, regional or local level within five years. The projects funded are each working around one of three key issues:

  • making the case for better alternatives to prison, by intervening earlier to prevent crime and reduce the number of people going to prison;
  • improving how groups disproportionately affected by the criminal justice system are treated, such as BAME prisoners, young people and women;
  • Improving how the prison and probation service work, in particular by ensuring that specialist and small charities are properly involved and funded.

Some of the charities we are supporting are well known in the sector with a strong track record of influence but for others it is relatively new. However, all those selected are tackling key and important issues and have strong plans for how they will set about influencing those in power.

But we are not naïve and context is critical. The 2019 election saw a blue wave sweep across the nation and returned a confident and strengthened Conservative Government who have made explicit commitments about locking up more people for longer.

It is easy to be despondent. But now is the time to step up not step away. At the start of a new Parliament, now is precisely the time to review and refresh old approaches and build new alliances and positions to influence and shape this new Government and political settlement. And whilst Whitehall and Westminster will always be critical now is the time also to devote more effort to influencing policy and practice regionally and locally and across the system – Police and Crime Commissioners, courts, the new probation arrangements.

We have to build on the successes achieved in getting the government previously to u-turn on Transforming Rehabilitation, to commit to bringing the supervision of offenders back in-house and to better support specialist charities, to consider ending short sentences, commissioning the Lammy Review, reviewing education and employment services and the female offenders strategy.

Whilst the implementation of all these initiatives has been set back or is now uncertain, the fact that they were won is a sign that with determination, resilience and smart advocacy the policy climate can be changed. And this is what we hope our funding will help charities achieve.

To help, we aim to be a partner alongside those we are funding, providing advice and additional support, including around particular needs or issues where it will help strengthen the work or the charity itself. And where appropriate we will seek to add our own voice to calls for change. Key to the programme will be bringing together the charities we are supporting to learn from each other, share insight and expertise – drawing from a similar approach we have taken to support charities influencing the domestic abuse sector.

We cannot give up on those in the system, their families, charities, victims and taxpayers. The tragedy of criminal justice has always been that we know what needs to change to improve things, we just need those with control over the levers to listen to the experts and make those changes. We look forward to playing our part in helping that to happen.