The arts can easily be caricatured as a fluffy non-essential. Yet, at the Arts Alliance, the UK’s national body for arts in criminal justice, we know that the arts are uniquely powerful as a means of transforming lives. To convince others we have often needed objective evidence to make the case. Our new report, Re-imagining Futures, offers a compelling new source of qualitative evidence for practitioners, managers and policy-makers who use – or are thinking of using – arts in the field of criminal justice. It also highlights the value of rich qualitative data that is so important to many arts and voluntary-sector organizations trying to demonstrate the value of the vital work they do.
This research and approach is particularly significant in light of the current whole-scale reform in the criminal justice system and cuts across the art sectors. The Transforming Rehabilitation agenda, along with other government reform, which is opening up the market to new providers, may present opportunities for innovative arts organizations working with offenders to work in new ways, but it may also present a risk to small organizations as the focus shifts towards ‘re-offending’ outcomes linked to a Payment by Results (PbR) approach. Small arts organizations that work in the criminal justice system are therefore potentially at risk for a number of reasons:
- Arts organizations services are much more closely associated with achieving ‘intermediate’ outcomes such as improved self-awareness, communications skills, positive sense of self or improved relationships with family. Re-imagining Futures, along with other research, shows that these are good proxy indicators of the likelihood of eventual desistance from offending, but the PbR mechanism is unlikely to consider these as a measure of success.
- There is also a danger that small arts organizations won’t be large enough to carry the financial risk (eg lack of upfront service delivery fees, delayed payments) that will be required by the new contracts.
- There is also likely to be less grant funding available from both the Arts Council and the Ministry of Justice.
While commissioners may recognize its value, reduced resources means making the case for arts interventions becomes even tougher.
So why does looking at ‘soft’ or ‘intermediate’ outcomes in relation to offenders matter?
Measuring soft or intermediate outcomes enables us to capture the steps towards desistance from crime or the process of rehabilitation. Desistance is the process of personal growth through which offenders become non-offenders. Researchers describe desistance as ‘a highly individualized process, experienced differently by different people and is very likely to involve an individual relapsing, before they stop offending altogether’ (see the 2011 report ‘Inspiring Change’ by Anderson, Colvin, McNeill, Nellis, Overy, Sparks and Tett). Re-offending data shows simply that an offender has or has not been caught committing a crime during a particular time period. It does not usually take into account the frequency or severity of the offending, and cannot say how likely the offender is to commit crimes in the future. Desistance research looks for change on a more profound and permanent level, in which an offender ultimately achieves a new identity – a selfhood free from crime.
While welcoming the government’s drive to commission evidence-based services it’s important that they don’t lose sight of the full picture. Through both statistical, qualitative and rich narrative research, we can fully understand a person’s journey away from crime and the complexities and nuances of interventions.
So how do we capture this impact?
The recent National Offender Management Services (NOMS) Commissioning Intentions Document (October 2013) acknowledges qualitative data collection methods. The Ministry of Justice has also recently published a series of papers exploring intermediate outcomes, which is extremely encouraging for the arts and voluntary sectors. This type of rich data along with re-offending data, (which is being currently opened up to VCSE organizations by the government via the data lab initiative) starts to provide an informed picture of the complex rehabilitation process, helping us to understand ‘what’ and ‘how’ interventions works with offenders to get results.
The next few years are going to be tough for small arts organizations delivering artistic and creative opportunities to offenders as the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms deliver unprecedented levels of change, but the arts have an important role to play in rehabilitating offenders to reintegrate successfully into society.
The Arts Alliance is now looking to commission the biggest ever study of arts with offenders. This will examine both social and cultural outcomes from a set of projects in different criminal justice settings. A community of arts and criminal justice practitioners will seek to raise quality and showcase the resulting arts products to the public – through innovative exhibitions and performances. Re-imagining Futures is a crucial first step towards this ambition.
Tim Robertson is Chair of the Arts Alliance and Chief Executive of the Koestler Trust