When it comes to protecting the public, information matters. In the decade to 2015, 505 prisoners were released from prison in error. One prisoner, Martynas Kupstys, was on remand but later convicted of murder in 2015. In another case, a prisoner was released after a mix-up with another inmate with the same surname.
These are extreme examples of how poor information can undermine prisons’ ability to keep the public safe. According to Ian Mulholland, former Director of Public Sector Prisons at the National Offender Management Service, “very often prison governors know almost nothing of the person remanded in custody.”
This month, David Gauke, Secretary of State for Justice, called for prisons to be “a route to a better life” through rehabilitation. The government estimates reoffending to cost the economy £15bn a year. Better information could help prisons and probation services, which work to integrate prisoners back in to society after custody, reduce this.
The first step is to understand offenders’ needs. Prisoners often face complex social, health and educational challenges which affect behaviour. According to Reform think tank research, prisoners are 130 times more likely to receive treatment for drug or alcohol abuse than the public, 3.5 times more likely to have a learning disability and 1.5 times more likely to suffer from mental ill health.
Access to information can enable prisons and probation services to tailor rehabilitation services to different offenders. For example, a rehabilitation pilot in Peterborough in 2010 used data to identify patterns that led to reoffending. For one offender, who had been imprisoned 150 times and displayed anti-social behaviour on the anniversary of his wife’s death, increased support around that date helped keep him out of prison. The pilot drew on 10 different services, such as employment services, mental health services and behavioural change support, to offer tailored rehabilitation.
Not only should this information be “relevant and recent,” in the words of Russ Trent, Governor of HMP Berwyn, but also easily accessible. Today, this means digital. As Katy Bourne, Police and Crime Commissioner for Sussex, argued last year: “We all depend on 21st century digital technology to communicate, shop and conduct everyday business, so why does the criminal justice system appear to be stuck in the 19th century?”
A new IT framework, with easy but secure access to relevant and recent information, could provide this, according to research by Reform. Elsewhere in the criminal justice system, the Crown Prosecution Service is working with police forces, the courts and judiciary to build a “Common Platform,” which includes a digital case-file system through which information and evidence is shared. The government could extend the information sharing element to prisons to provide governors with a better understanding of the needs of prisoners.
Basic information could help avoid the types of mistakes that have led to prisoners being released in error. Digital databases can be tied to research and evidence as to what works for reducing reoffending, enabling prison staff to link best practice to the characteristics of prisoners. In healthcare, IBM’s Watson, which can read 40m medical documents in 15 seconds and provide up-to-date medical knowledge to practitioners, offers a model that prisons could follow.
This would be a radically different prison environment. It would be one well-placed to meet Gauke’s aims to rehabilitate offenders. This could reduce the reoffending bill, but, most importantly, help protect the public from crime. Yesterday’s poor data sharing could be replaced by tomorrow’s rehabilitation revolution.
Reform’s Report, Crime and information: using data and technology to transform criminal-justice services, is available at www.reform.uk