Guest blog: Restructuring Community Justice in Scotland

Guest blog: Restructuring Community Justice in Scotland

As the Scottish Parliament's Justice Committee commences its Stage 1 considerations of the Community Justice Bill, Jamie Buchan considers reform of community justice in Scotland.

Under legislation recently introduced by the Scottish Government, community justice in Scotland is to be reorganised for the second time in about a decade, after the previous reorganisation left it with serious structural flaws – but even if these problems are removed, challenges old and new will remain.

Scottish criminal justice has seen some interesting developments recently; most encouraging was the January decision not to build a new women’s prison at Inverclyde and instead to pursue a model of small local centres, as recommended by Howard League Scotland and the Commission on Women Offenders (the Angiolini Report).

Less well-known are the Angiolini Report’s recommendations on community justice. This is an important part of Scotland’s criminal justice system – in 2013-14, over 20,000 offenders received a community sentence. These sentences combine punishment and rehabilitation – they can include unpaid work requirements, probation supervision delivered by criminal justice social work (CJSW), and interventions aimed at the offenders’ ‘criminogenic needs’ (such as mental health, housing or employment). This vital work goes beyond community sentences – these same structures contribute to the reintegration of offenders released from long prison sentences.

Community punishments are cheaper, less disruptive and overall more effective at tackling reoffending than imprisonment, and the Scottish Government has accepted this for some time. Nonetheless, community justice features only rarely in media and public discussions. As Rob C. Mawby and Anne Worrall wrote in Doing Probation Work (2013), community justice doesn’t have the pop-culture prominence that novels, news media, TV and films have imparted to the police, prisons and the courts. Notwithstanding the reality of sentencing, we tend to think of prison bars when we think of punishment – and to think of community punishments as ‘alternatives to imprisonment’ rather than punishments in their own right.

The distinctive structure of the Scottish system was developed almost fifty years ago, following the Kilbrandon report into youth offending. That report, which famously led to the creation of the Children’s Hearings System, also made recommendations about adult social work and criminal justice. Scotland’s probation service was abolished, and its functions were folded into new generic social work departments within local authorities.

The position of CJSW as a local authority social work institution, rather than a national criminal justice institution, has shaped its development in Scotland – but community justice issues don’t stay neatly within the institutional boundaries of social work departments. They involve police, courts, prisons, the NHS, social housing and the many charities that work with offenders. That makes community justice a matter of partnership, and the current system aims to reflect this. It’s structured around eight Community Justice Authorities (CJAs) – regional bodies established in 2006 after hurried compromise between local government, social workers and the Scottish Executive.

CJAs were set up to reduce reoffending in their regions by allocating CJSW funding, promoting partnership and holding social work departments to account for meeting reoffending targets. The members of each CJA are councillors from the constituent local authorities, who vote on area plans which detail how resources will be allocated. In practice, these plans are prepared by CJA employees – the Chief Officer and their small support staff – and rarely come to a vote. CJA Chief Officers also coordinate activity between various partners: local authority CJSW, the Scottish Prison Service, the NHS, the Crown Office, Police Scotland, Victim Support Scotland and various charities.

Despite the efforts of CJA employees, the current model has serious structural flaws. A CJA has no operational control and only limited strategic control, and it can’t hold the NHS or the courts accountable in the same way it can social work departments. My own ongoing research suggests that CJA staff feel a conflict of aims – reporting a failing social work department to the Government would hinder partnership working, so this power has never once been used. With no control over non-CJSW partners, the success of a CJA partnership has often come down to personality, not policy.

Despite being restricted by these structural factors, CJA staff have often played important roles in developing innovative approaches to rehabilitation. Reoffending has fallen and partnership working has improved since CJAs were established. The system has not been a total failure, but by the time of the Angiolini report it was clear it had to change.

The consultation for redesigning the system was unusually long (about two years), which suggests the Scottish Government wished to avoid the rushed decision-making and implementation that produced the CJA system. Initially the consultation presented three options: keeping CJAs but enhancing their power, handing responsibility to local authorities, or setting up a single national Community Justice Service (the latter recommended both by the Angiolini report and by Howard League Scotland).

None of these options was accepted – instead a compromise between local and national was agreed, but not a regional middle way like the CJAs. Instead the Community Justice (Scotland) Bill, recently published and now in its first stage, will replace CJAs with a new two-tier system.

Local Community Planning Partnerships (CPPs) will be responsible for coordinating partnerships and developing local plans for reducing reoffending – as they already are in many areas outside justice. Alongside these a new national body, Community Justice Scotland, which will be responsible for promoting knowledge exchange and public awareness of community justice.

It’s likely to be a turbulent time for CPPs as they assume these new responsibilities. The upcoming Community Empowerment (Scotland) Bill is intended to strengthen CPPs in light of criticisms of their performance; the Scottish Government is also requiring local authorities to integrate health and social care provision structures, and there’s a growing division within the local authority umbrella group COSLA.

Promoting public awareness and developing public interest could be an even greater challenge for Community Justice Scotland. The Inverclyde decision suggests Scotland could forge a path to a more effective and humane criminal justice system, centred on rehabilitation and reintegration. Getting there requires us to challenge the narrow conception of community punishments as ‘alternatives to prison’, and to develop locally engaged structures which can deal in a multifaceted way with the complex problem of rehabilitation.

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Jamie Buchan is a third-year PhD student in criminology at the University of Edinburgh. His research focuses on the development and effects of the restructuring of the community justice systems of England and Wales and Scotland, with particular reference to practitioner opinions, experiences and adaptation in Scotland. He writes here in a personal capacity.

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