How can we make working in our Justice System, workable, in times of increased demand?

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Last year, the House of Lords Public Services Committee published a report entitled Fit for the future? Rethinking the public services workforce describing current vacancy rates in public services and the scale of future challenges - ‘The inescapable demographic fact is that demand for services will rise far faster than the working-age population. The proportion of the population with multiple and complex needs will rise further, even as the labour market available will be smaller[1].’

In the Criminal Justice System, as an example, the rising demand is clear. The latest prison population projection for England and Wales forecasts that by March 2027 the prison population will increase to between 93,100 (a 9.7% increase from current levels) and 106,300 (+25%). This also implies a marked workload increase for the Probation Service who supervise both individuals leaving prison and those that receive a community sentence.

In February, the Ministry of Justice published HM Prison and Probation Workforce Statistics showing a 2.9% increase in FTE in post since December 2021. Much has been done to attract new entrants to work in the Justice system through a variety of programmes including Unlocked Graduates; Advance into Justice or Justice Leaders, and the Probation Workforce Strategy 2023 – 2025 sets out a range of actions to increase staff retention and satisfaction. However, managing this increased demand with a workforce that cannot expand at the same rate will require new ways of working.

Our experience of delivering transformational change suggests that adopting a mixture of both tactical and strategic activities will be critical to supporting the existing and future workforces. In our experience, three areas are crucial to deliver successful transformation:

Holistic Planning

A core task of an effective Criminal Justice System is rehabilitation – stopping the cycle of reoffending. This requires behavioural change at an individual level, but also really good logistics.

An individual entering the criminal justice system needs to be assessed for the risk of harm they may present to both themselves and others; mental and physical health needs addressed; meaningful activity and/or education provided; post-sentence needs planned in terms of accommodation, employment, community supervision etc.

This requires input from a wide variety of professionals, differing settings, and a great deal of planning, particularly if demand does increase by up to 25% as the prison population projection currently forecasts.

Putting in place digital capabilities to efficiently manage and plan these complex logistical transactions involving multiple public and voluntary sector professionals, locations and needs, will be key. Work that Sopra Steria is conducting with a number of health trusts and social care organisations - which are also facing increasing complexity of need - supporting them develop and adopt digital tools providing a single holistic view of staff skills, equipment, and demand may also be relevant to the Criminal Justice System.

Digital Tools

Justice is a complex ecosystem. Differing agencies must share information promptly to enable safe assessment of need and risk. However, this currently means that large amounts of complex information, often initially captured on paper, are re-keyed into multiple systems. This can be time consuming, leading to delay and frustration, with even simple processes like appointment booking needing to be replicated in separate systems.

Streamlining and digitising core processes, so they can still be completed with rigour but more swiftly, will be important to enabling better use of justice professionals’ time and skills.

A successful example of this is at the Northern Ireland Prison Service with whom Sopra Steria developed a suite of officer apps digitising core prison processes, accessible from a variety of mobile devices even in a Wi-Fi-free environment, providing more effective delivery of custodial care.

This innovation is credited by both managers and frontline officers with having driven significant operational benefits, freeing up time to be spent working on rehabilitation with inmates rather than on administrative processes. Giving frontline professionals up to date tools and technology will enable them better to respond to increasing demand.

Find out more about how Northern Irish Prison Service transformed and digitised their core prison processes enabling more effective delivery of custodial care.

Read the case study here

Employee Proposition

Rising demand in the Criminal Justice System is not simply about overall volume but also about complexity – recent reports flag the challenges:

  • ‘The number of prisoners aged over 60 has increased by 82% over the last decade.’[2]
  • ‘Percentage of inspected probation cases (2018/2019) where mental health needs and disorders were identified as a disability – 36%’[3]

What criminal justice professionals are asked to do in assessing risk and harm and developing effective rehabilitation activities is changing, and the training and skills to do this work should evolve too. Future career paths in terms of promotion routes and specialisation need to adapt if we are to support retention and meaningful career progression within public sector workforces.

We have recently undertaken work with the Border Force to consider the roles needed in 2025-30 and beyond, based on the technology, threats, and changes to the border that officers will be required to navigate.

Within justice, such an approach could be augmented by focusing on two additional priorities early in such a process.

Firstly, ensuring that staff roles are of a size and workload that can be performed effectively. Secondly, consideration needs to be given to what support staff may themselves need. Practical enhancements to the employee proposition might include additional support for professionals working in specific roles or on emotionally challenging cases.

Modernising core aspects of how work is arranged could also significantly enhance satisfaction and retention. For example, the flexibility of work that many of us now take for granted is not common in many areas of justice, with prison officers, for example, often working a 39-hour week across a shift pattern which includes a changing mix of nights, early, late and public holiday shifts, typically receiving their schedule around a month in advance. Swapping shifts to accommodate caring responsibilities or planning annual leave can be challenging. Developing more dynamic and human-centric rostering processes could enable prisons to manage 24/7 provision while giving officers greater flexibility, enhancing staff retention and the personal resilience to deliver crucial work.

In summary

The workforce challenges that our justice system is facing are not new, nor are they wholly unique to justice, but they are becoming more urgent as workforce expectations evolve. The Ministry of Justice is undertaking the biggest prison building programme in more than a century[4]- so it would be timely to also rebuild the structures that support the professionals who deliver rehabilitation in those buildings.



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