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Recommendations are futile

People working within the Criminal Justice System will have noticed how writing or making recommendations carries little or no weight any longer.  Defined as “a suggestion or proposal as to the best course of action, especially one put forward by an authoritative body”, a recommendation has few or no consequences for those delivering them or for those receiving them.

Yet those who write recommendations have no power to mandate them.

Prisons are bombarded with recommendations from the Prisons and Probation Ombudsman, HM Inspectorate of Prisons, the Independent Monitoring Boards, and a host of so-called arm’s length bodies.

It is remarkable that their recommendations in reality are routinely ignored, albeit officially named differently as you will see in the table. Since there appears to be no recourse and no accountability, why continue to rely on this method of scrutiny which has become ineffective and, therefore, a waste of time, effort and money?

Surely if all No 1 Governors were held personally accountable for enacting recommendations given to them then maybe there would be more action. Instead it is like a carousel, where certain Governors get away with the appearance of activity before being moved to another prison or a newly created role at HQ. After all, why work hard on recommendations when you can use a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card? Meanwhile, the mess they leave behind them is inherited by successive Governors.

On 25th February 2020, I attended the ‘Keeping Safe’ conference organised by the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody (IAP). I’m telling you this because it perfectly illustrated to me how recommendations in and of themselves are futile.

For example, under the section on the agenda ‘Learning from reports and recommendations to prevent future death’ we heard from representatives from four prominent organisations, including Jonathan Tickner representing HM Inspectorate of Prisons who stated that in the last reporting period 14 prisons were inspected and none had been rated “good” in the safety aspect.

In each inspection recommendations are given. I decided to look at recommendations and to analyse how many were achieved. I chose those same 14 prisons inspected in 2019 and noticed huge variations which I’ve summed up in the table below:

 

Sue McAllister, Prison and Probation Ombudsman (PPO), raised some relevant points about policies not being good enough on their own and action plans not being good enough in response to PPO recommendations, like a tick box exercise. However, if there is no follow up on whether recommendations have been adhered to, or no consequences of not following up recommendations, then nothing has been achieved and the whole process is worthless.

Sue McAllister, Prison and Probation Ombudsman

In the 12 months to September 2019 there have been:

308 deaths in custody (6 every week)

90 self-inflicted deaths (1 every 4 days)

8 deaths in women’s prisons

We should be ashamed of ourselves. Those of us working in or for the Criminal Justice System must share a collective burden for the failure to keep people safe, sometimes from themselves.

According to ‘Deaths in prison: A national scandal‘ published January 2020 by Inquest:

This report identifies areas for the immediate reform within and outside of the prison system and concludes with recommendations to end deaths caused by unsafe systems of custody. (Inquest, 2020, p. 3)

As you can see, there is no shortage of recommendations.

Nobody knows which custodial sentence will become a death sentence.

The point is some do but none ever should.

Is it any wonder the MoJ has reformulated its mission statement from:

“Her Majesty’s Prison serves the public by keeping in custody those committed by the courts. Our duty is to look after them with humanity and help them lead law abiding and useful lives in custody and after release”

To how it reads today, portraying itself as a sterile, uncaring, faceless organisation.

“The Ministry of Justice is a major government department, at the heart of the justice system. We work to protect and advance the principles of justice. Our vision is to deliver a world-class justice system that works for everyone in society”

“The organisation works together and with other government departments and agencies to bring the principles of justice to life for everyone in society. From our civil courts, tribunals and family law hearings, to criminal justice, prison and probation services. We work to ensure that sentences are served, and offenders are encouraged to turn their lives around and become law-abiding citizens. We believe the principles of justice are pivotal and we are steadfast in our shared commitment to uphold them”

Source: https://www.gov.uk/government/organisations/ministry-of-justice/about

When you look long enough at failure rate of recommendations, you realise that the consequences of inaction have been dire. And will continue to worsen whilst we have nothing more compelling at our disposal than writing recommendations or making recommendations.

Recommendations have their place but there needs to be something else, something with teeth, something with gravitas way beyond a mere recommendation.

Rt Hon Robert Buckland QC MP, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice. Photo by Paul Sullivan.

Rt Hon Robert Buckland QC MP, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice

Show me a system where action is mandatory, where action has a named owner assigned to it, where action has a timeline attached to it, and where action is backed by empowerment to deliver it and I’ll show you a system which functions better than the one in operation today in the Criminal Justice System obsessed with recommendations.

Culture is what you do when no one is watching.

Integrity is doing the right thing even when nobody is looking.

I found it very telling that the most poignant part of the conference came with the stories and sadness from families who had lost loved ones and to learn that every 4 days a person takes their own life in custody. If the changes being recommended were changes being mandated, who knows how many deaths could have been averted?

Robert Buckland QC MP, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, arrived early enough to have heard from those family members. He talked about working together with shared humanity and wanting to be notified personally of all deaths and the circumstances surrounding each one, which of course he already is. In closing his speech Mr Buckland said:

“As we continue to work together during my tenure as the Secretary of State, please know that my door is always open to those who want to make a difference”

It’s time to put him to the test on that.

But don’t go in with recommendations; go in with a plan for action.

 

~

Credits:

Photos of Robert Buckland QC MP and Sue McAllister, both by Paul Sullivan. Used with kind permission. 

Monopoly Board Game, 2006 Hasbro. Photo by the author. 


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