Failed part-privatisation of probation locks offenders into ‘expensive merry-go-round’

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Failed part-privatisation of probation locks offenders into ‘expensive merry-go-round’

'Ready to rumble': pic by Andy Aitchison from Proof issue 4

The failed part-privatisation of the probation system has locked offenders in ‘an expensive merry-go-round’ and led to ‘no tangible reduction to reoffending’, according to the probation watchdog. The concerns follows last week’s decision by the government to return the supervision of thousands of low and medium-risk offenders to the public sector under the supervision of the National Probation Service (NPS).

Under Chris Grayling’s 2014 ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’ reforms the Ministry of Justice dismantled 35 probation trusts and in their place created 21 community rehabilitation companies (CRCs) to manage low or medium risk offenders and the NPS for those posing higher risks. The probation period for short-term prisoners was extended and so all offenders who sentenced to more than one day and less than two years in prison are now supervised for 12 months. The CRCs are responsible for supervising around three-quarters of short-term prisoners after release.

‘The government introduced this change with the aim of reducing reoffending. In the cases we inspected, we found no tangible reduction in reoffending,’ commented chief inspector of probation Dame Glenys Stacey yesterday. ‘National reoffending statistics show no material change in reoffending either; moreover, almost one in four are recalled to prison.’ She said that the ‘one size fits all’ approach was unhelpful. ‘Many individuals who receive short sentences need intensive support; conversely, just under a quarter of inspected cases were lower-risk so supervision periods could have potentially been shortened or suspended.’

David Gauke, the justice secretary, last week announced that the supervision and management of offenders work done by CRCs would be returned to the NPS in 2021. ‘Delivering a stronger probation system, which commands the confidence of the courts and better protects the public, is a pillar of our reforms to focus on rehabilitation and cut reoffending,’ he said.

‘I want a smarter justice system that reduces repeat crime by providing robust community alternatives to ineffective short prison sentences – supporting offenders to turn away from crime for good.’
David Gauke, justice secretary

The current hybrid set-up of private and public probation services was the brainchild of Chris Grayling, who in 2014 as justice secretary brought about the billion-pound changes creating 21 privately run CRCs. The objective was to drive down reoffending rates of offenders serving sentences less than a year, who prior to Grayling’s changes were released without supervision.

Glenys Stacey welcomed his announcement. Earlier in the year she had called the part-privatisation ‘irredeemably flawed’. ‘Probation is a complex social service, and it has proved well-nigh impossible to reduce it to a set of contractual requirements,’ she said. Any number of reports into the post 2014 probation service, including the Commons public accounts committee reports, indicated that the reforms had left the service in a worse position than before. Parliament’s spending watchdog, National Audit Office, reported that the number of offenders returning to prison for breaching their licence conditions had ‘skyrocketed’ under Grayling’s reforms.

Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said that more offenders were being fined and sent to prison simply due to a lack of communication with the CRCs which had also undermined the confidence of the courts in giving community sentences. She said: ‘The result of it was probation officers who no longer had anything to do with the people who got community sentences standing up in court saying, “I think this person should get a community sentence but I don’t know what is being delivered; I don’t know where they’ll go and I don’t know what will happen to them”.’ NAPO, the probation union, also welcomed Gaulke’s renationalisation announcement reiterating that part-privatisation should have never happened in the first place.

Shadow Justice Secretary, Richard Burgon said: ‘After putting public safety at risk and squandering hundreds of millions of pounds on trying to shore up failing private probation companies, the Tories have been forced to face reality and accept their probation model is irredeemably broken.’

‘The Tories didn’t want to make this U-turn and had been desperately trying to re-tender probation contracts to the private sector. It is right those plans have been dropped and that offender management is to be brought back in-house.” He added: “We will press the government to ensure that probation is fully returned to being the award-winning public service it was before this disastrous Tory privatisation.’
Richard Burgon, shadow justice minister

Janine McDowell of Sodexo Justice Services expressed her disappointment at the decision, speaking on behalf of the four companies which are responsible for 17 of the 21 CRCs. ‘As well as increasing cost and risk, this more fragmented system will cause confusion as offenders are passed between various organisations for different parts of their sentence,’ she said.

Through the gate
In this week’s report, the probation inspectorate identified inconsistencies in the way prisoners were prepared for release. Of the CRCs inspected so far this year, the Inspectorate has rated its ‘Through the Gate’ services provided to offenders on release as ‘requiring improvement’ in seven CRCs, ‘inadequate’ in three; and ‘good’ in only four. Inspectors were ‘shocked’ to find pre-sentence reports had been completed in less than a quarter of inspected cases and prisoners’ needs not identified prior to release in almost a third of inspected cases.

The lack of pre-sentence reports was ‘a national problem’, Dame Glenys said. ‘It is plainly unacceptable for magistrates and judges to sentence a person to custody without the benefit of essential information and advice on why they offended, their current circumstances and any alternative sentence options. Prisons and probation services are also left without vital information to manage the individual’s case after they are sentenced.’ Inspectors found almost one in three people were released from prison with no fixed abode.