Charities are calling on the government to strengthen the law so that anyone being considered for a prison sentence must have a pre-sentence report before a court can imprison them. The call made by Revolving Doors, Centre for Mental Health, Prison Reform Trust, the Disabilities Trust and Transform Justice follows a recent report by HM Probation Inspectorate which revealed that three-quarters of people given short sentences did not have any report on their needs prior to sentencing.
The new report (In Ten Years Time) marks the 10th anniversary of Lord Bradley’s landmark report on improving outcomes for people with mental health conditions and learning disabilities in the criminal justice system. It argues that excessive numbers of people are being imprisoned despite major psychological vulnerabilities.
In May probation inspectors found that in most cases judges and magistrates did not appear to make an assessment of why someone reoffended, their current circumstances or the potential for community sentences as an alternative to custody. Indeed, the Ministry of Justice found that there has been a 29% fall in the number of pre-sentence reports completed from 2013 to 2018. ‘We were shocked to find that pre-sentence reports were prepared for the courts before imposing a short prison sentence in less than one in four cases in our sample,’ said the inspectors.
Lord Bradley flagged up the government’s implementation of liaison and diversion services which he claimed were approaching full national roll-out: ‘By 2020 no matter where you live in the country, these vital services will exist to identify, divert or better care for people with vulnerabilities,’ he said. Sarah Hughes, chief exec of the Centre for Mental Health, called this an ‘enormous achievement’ on the part of the NHS but noted that this must be ‘matched by wider reform to the criminal justice system to prioritise wellbeing and effective rehabilitation for people with mental health difficulties’.
The report notes that the 2013 White Paper, Transforming Rehabilitation, has failed to deliver on the promise of rehabilitation and has been criticised, in particular, for the failures in supporting people with multiple needs, including mental ill-health.
The report makes a series of further policy recommendations for the next decade. Chief among these is for the criminal justice system to adopt a common, comprehensive definition of vulnerabilities which includes a diverse range of conditions from mental ill-health, learning disabilities and autism to personality orders and brain injuries. This needs to be complimented with a protocol to screening, assessment, information sharing and care across the whole system. Furthermore, the roll-out of the ‘Transforming Justice’ court digitalisation programme should be reviewed to ensure robust evidence is available on the impact on people with mental vulnerabilities.