By Chris Fox
For those of us in interested in public policy when we hear mention of ‘Manchester’ our first thought over the last year or so has tended to be ‘devolution’. While devolution in health and social care is now well established, justice devolution is still at an earlier stage of development. While we know the outline of the justice devolution agreement in Manchester its implications have yet to become clear.
What is justice devolution?
The Cities and Local Government Devolution Act (2016) has allowed for the creation of ‘metro mayors’ who are able to undertake the functions of Police and Crime Commissioners – a model implemented in London several years earlier. Local areas who create metro-mayors can also negotiate with central government for the devolution of a different areas of public spending.
In its 2016 budget the government announced justice devolution in Greater Manchester, Lincolnshire and Merseyside. Greater Manchester has negotiated one of the most far-reaching justice devolution settlements. The outline agreement announced in July 2016 covers a number of areas including
- A greater role in the commissioning of offender management services, alongside the National Offender Management Service (NOMS.
- Linking adult education and skills training provision in the community with education provision in prisons.
- Potential for a new resettlement prison to serve the Greater Manchester area.
- The government, Youth Justice Board and Greater Manchester working together to better align, commission and deliver services for youth offenders including secure schools for under 18s in the region.
- Considering options to devolve custody budgets for female offenders, young offenders, and those sentenced to fewer than two years in prison.
Justice devolution is in its early stages but already some of the challenges are clear.
In a recent report on The Union and Devolution the House of Lords Committee on the Constitution while cautiously welcoming them raised concerns about the increasing complexity of bespoke ‘devolution deals’, their asymmetry across the country and the pace at which they were taking place. The Committee’s most critical comments were about a perceived lack of public and community engagement:
“The lack of public and community engagement around the ‘devolution deals’ is a weakness in the current policy for the governance of England. There should be a requirement for informing and engaging local citizens and civil society in areas bidding for and negotiating ‘devolution deals’. Local politicians seeking ‘devolution deals’ should lead this engagement.”
While justice devolution is still being developed, it is useful to look at what has happened to similar initiatives in the past and ask what we can learn from them. One very relevant precursor to justice devolution was Justice Reinvestment (JR). The JR movement started in the US with analysis identifying ‘million dollar blocks’: certain communities where states were spending up to a million dollars per block to send residents back and forth to prison each year. Early JR projects explored whether some of this million-dollars per block might be better spent on other criminal justice or, ideally, broader social justice interventions including education, housing, healthcare, and jobs. However, as JR has spread across and beyond the US it has changed. When we wrote a book about Justice Reinvestment in 2012 we noted that Justice Reinvestment started with aspirations to deliver social justice but, over time has come to focus more narrowly on system ‘re-engineering’. Brown and colleagues in their recent book Justice Reinvestment: Winding Back Imprisonment reach a similar conclusion and argue that the original model of Justice Reinvestment has lost its focus on local neighbourhood reinvestment in favour of “predominantly back-end efficiency reforms to parole and community corrections aimed at reducing recidivism and revocation rates”.
The criminal justice sector in the UK is complex. It involves public, private and not-for-profit organisations working across different geographies with complex lines of accountability and governance. Justice devolution potentially adds to that complexity. However, it is also a potential ‘game changer’ providing opportunities to do things differently and address long-standing problems.
The lesson from Justice Reinvestment is not to lose sight of the potential to deliver real progress towards social justice and settle for the worthy, but less ambitious goal of greater system efficiency. Brown et al. suggest three strategies to keep social justice at the heart of JR:
- political commitment to local decision-making and governance;
- developing and strengthening local capacity to respond to criminal justice problems; and
- actual financial reinvestment in neighbourhoods to allow these changes to occur.
Colleagues in the UK might well find these useful tests to apply when evaluating the success of justice devolution initiatives.
 Greater Manchester Combined Authority 2016
 Select Committee on the Constitution (2016) The Union and Devolution, London: House of Lords
 Tucker, S. and Cadora, E. (2003) ‘Justice Reinvestment’, Ideas for an Open Society, Vol.3(3) New York: Open Society Institute
 Fox, C., Albertson, K. and Wong, K. (2013a) Justice Reinvestment: can it deliver more for less? London: Routledge