The Future of Digital Justice
“In sharp contrast to so much else in this strangest of years, the criminal justice system (CJS) did not pause or stop because of COVID-19. Indeed, it could not” - Criminal Justice Joint Inspection, 2021
COVID-19 came at a time when the UK probation system was undergoing significant reforms. It has put added pressures on our already stretched prison system resource, and impacted our courts and tribunals system resulting in backlogs. Now more than ever, it is clear the vital role technology can play in supporting the justice system in building back better.
Courts and Tribunals
COVID-19 has necessitated a significant increase in the role of technology in supporting the justice system. We have seen our courts adopt remote hearings where possible, with statistics showing the number of cases heard per day via audio and video technology increased from just under 1000 in the last week of March 2020 to over 3000 by mid-April 2020.
Capita’s Al Murray, Managing Director and Client Partner for Justice, Central Government & Transport highlighted that in March 2020, within days of the nation going into lockdown, the Court of Protection in England conducted the UK’s first “trial by Skype”. Explaining that
“along with the rest of the country, the UK courts faced a slew of unprecedented demands and extreme restrictions. For a justice system that’s traditionally conducted within a designated courtroom, and in person, following stark regulations such as ‘stay at home’ and social distancing recommendations was fraught with difficulty”.
Courts stepped up to the challenge, investing in remote and digital technologies that would enable proceedings to be conducted safely and within the law. According to data issued by HMCTS, by 24th April 2020, 90% of court and tribunal hearings involved audio and video technology. There now must be assurance that this was not just a sticking plaster for the more systemic challenges that still need to be addressed. As we move forward with a more digitally enabled justice system, we must ensure longevity in these changes. Long term investments in digital technology must be made to truly transform the system and serve all citizens.
Whilst digital adoption was accelerated as a result of the pandemic, we were seeing a phased approach from HMCTS as they started to digitise services. One example includes the work with Cloud Gateway as they implemented digital transformation at pace by securely integrating legacy infrastructure and Virtual Desktop Infrastructure. This has resulted in cost savings and operational efficiency leading to a more modern, scalable and responsive justice system.
“Providing education and rehabilitation to prisoners should be regarded as a major public priority” - Digital Technology in Prisons, Centre for Social Justice 2020
When the national lockdown was introduced in March 2020, this severely impacted our prison system. We saw prisoners leaving their cells less, non-essential visits cancelled, employment suspended, and education opportunities significantly reduced. Sadly, The Howard League wrote that the “conditions endured were consistent with, or very close to, international definitions of solitary confinement (22 hours or more alone each day)”.
There were clearly lessons learned from the first lockdown and this included what should be done to accelerate the implementation of digital technologies across the prison system to support inmates, staff and daily processes, such as updating prison infrastructure to allow for greater broadband, rolling out in-cell devices for low-risk prisoners or introducing video conferencing technology. You can hear about the value of this technology in a report techUK supported released by the Centre for Social Justice exploring Digital Technology in Prisons.
Access to devices to support rehabilitation programmes is essential. The Commons Education Select Committee was told that learning by inmates had been hamstrung by a requirement for all their studies to be undertaken with pen and paper. Rod Clark, former chief executive of the Prisoners’ Education Trust, said: “It has been very striking since lockdown just how disadvantaged prison learners have been compared to every other sector in society, where remote, virtual learning has been the absolute bedrock of provision.”
techUK supported the recently published Digital Technology in Prisons Report in which its argued that the installation of broadband technology, secure access for prisoners is necessary and the need for this has been intensified by specific pressures due to the lockdown prison environment. Prisoner access to devices can empower them on their rehabilitation journey, allowing them to upskill in their own time, complete training and education programmes, manage their day to day lives and maintain in contact with family and friends. Unilink Software’s Francis Toye recently said,
“Those prisons that embrace self-service technology for prisoners via kiosks and, more recently, in-cell devices such as laptops and tablets are beginning to deliver rehabilitation programmes direct to prisoners. These courses are tailored to meet the specific needs of the individual including education, health and wellbeing advice and access to appropriate entertainment to alleviate boredom.”
COVID-19 came at a time when probation was in the midst of its second major reform programme. For our probation services, March 2020 included not just the publishing of the Draft Target Operating Model, setting out the proposed future model of probation services in England and Wales after June 2021, but it also saw the nation entering lockdown. For a service that relies heavily on face-to-face contact, significant changes to how services were delivered had to be introduced. On March 24 the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Rt Hon, Robert Buckland QC MP told the Committee:
“We have moved to an exceptional delivery model. That means we are making sure that priority is placed on offender management and risk supervision. In other words, we are focusing the attention of the probation service on offenders in the community and the way they are monitored. “
So how did technology play a key role in the COVID-19 response? In the first instance we saw face-to-face supervision ‘go digital’ with sessions taking place via phone, skype and messaging for low-risk individuals. Probation services faced a number of challenges from staff levels and issues surrounding the resettlement of prison leavers to backlogs of unpaid work.
Having explored the value of digital technology and better access to data supporting courts and tribunals and prison estates, as we look to digitise probation services, it is important to explore how digital can enhance service delivery whilst preserving the centrality of human relationships between individuals in the criminal justice system and probation officers. It is widely researched the value face-to-face contact has across probation services. It is also important to bear in mind that any technology introduced needs to be done so with appropriate training for both staff and prison leaver. Better access to data and better data quality will help identify training needs and support probation officers in the development of tailored programmes to help prison leavers on their rehabilitation journey to discourage reoffending. Whether this be, for example, support into employment or education opportunities.
A fantastic example of how the Ministry of Justice is engaging with the tech industry is through the launch of the Prison Leavers Innovation Challenge (PLIC), the digital and technological strand of the Prison Leavers Project. A £20 million innovation programme aiming to develop solutions to reduce reoffending rates. The project aims to work with and support prison leavers across four key areas – health and wellbeing, community and relationships, employment and skills, and day of release. We are seeing the Ministry of Justice reaching out to industry and partners to understand the issues surrounding reoffending, and the technological solutions as a response. Solutions which are novel, scalable and can deliver meaningful impact. This project highlights the importance of collaboration for prevention and the value of technology to address the challenges surrounding recidivism.
techUK’s Education, Skills, Prevention and Rehabilitation workstream are working closely with representatives from MoJ’s Prison Leavers Project team on the PLIC but also the role of the tech industry to support the wider aims of the Prison Leavers Project, the role of technology and data to enhance probation services and, how the wider adoption of digital technology across prison estates and probation services can specifically support prison leavers as they re-enter society; a society more reliant on technology than ever before. With the adoption of technology, the group is also exploring how education capabilities are scaled for both prisoners and staff.
Secure access to data and technology can deliver the right services for users by improving efficiencies and supporting rehabilitation. A digitally enabled end-to-end justice system will not just reduce manual processes and inefficiencies but also support a joined-up user experience that can guide the citizen from start to finish. Underpinning this vision, there is a need for;
- access to the right data at the right time to make informed decisions and improve efficiencies
- better access to and sharing of data to support the user journey through the justice system
- improving data quality and data standards as a foundation to deliver justice more efficiently.
The justice system must reform, and data must be at the heart of it. Better access to data for courts, prisons and probation services is crucial as we start looking ahead at the road to recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. It is clear, we have seen digital adoption accelerated across the criminal justice system, but we still have a long way to go. With the impact of COVID-19, shifting demands, fewer resources and constrained finances; change must happen from better data sharing to support staff and understanding the user journey to standardising the use of new technologies. Investment and adoption of new technologies will improve efficiencies and will result in better joined up services across the criminal justice system.
Now is an opportunity for MoJ, HMPPS, HMCTS and CPS to collaborate with industry to unlock innovation and transform services through the adoption of digital technology. There has never been a better time to come together to future gaze the ‘art of the possible’ but also work together to understand the existing challenges and barriers to digital transformation. techUK is that platform for collaboration and we encourage industry and justice stakeholders to reach out.