Probation reform has created a ‘two-tier and fragmented’ system

By Agencies
December 15, 2017

Government reform of probation has created a "two-tier and fragmented" system in which private companies are performing significantly worse than public sector elements, according to the Chief Inspector of Probation.

Unexpected changes in sentencing, severe financial stresses and cutbacks, and IT failings, have undermined the ambitions of private Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) to bring innovative approaches to probation and the protection of the public from harm, Dame Glenys Stacey found.

 Glenys Stacey's first report since she took over the role of Chief Inspector in March 2016, published 14 December 2017, contains some positive findings. Youth Offending Teams (YOTs) are working well and the public sector National Probation Service (NPS), responsible for supervising higher risk offenders, is good overall, though with room for improvement. However, the picture from inspections over the last 18 months of CRCs – the 21 private companies responsible for the majority of 260,000 people currently supervised, those classed as medium or lower risk – was “much more troubling.”

Her report identifies a number of “deep-rooted” organisational and commercial problems which, together, mean the CRC model is not delivering the service the government hoped for. she said: “We find the quality of CRC work to protect the public is generally poor and needs to improve in many respects. Government initially thought the majority of cases to be supervised by CRCs would be categorised as low risk, but in fact they hold a good proportion of medium risk cases.” Around two-thirds are medium risk, requiring more resource and effort than government envisaged.

Most CRCs are struggling. “Those owners ambitious to remodel services have found probation difficult to reconfigure, or re-engineer. Delivering probation services is more difficult than it appears, particularly in prisons and in rural areas. There have been serious setbacks.”

Most CRC owners have invested in new IT systems to support offender management. But the report notes, “They have then wrestled with government data protection and other system requirements and found themselves wrong footed, as the essential IT connectivity long promised by the Ministry of Justice is still not in place, with no clear notion of when it will be. Pressing financial concerns are now making these developments unaffordable for some CRCs.” (Out-dated and “creaky” IT systems were also a problem for the NPS.)

 Glenys Stacey added that for all CRCs, “unanticipated changes in sentencing and the nature of work coming to CRCs have seriously affected their commercial viability, causing some to curtail, change or stall their transformation plans, mid-way. CRCs have reduced staff numbers, some to a worrying extent.” Staff absences and other workload issues, combined with remote offender monitoring “are undermining a central tenet of effective probation work – a consistent, professional, trusting relationship between the individual and their probation worker.”

Her report identified key concerns:

  • CRCs are responsible for delivering the bulk of Rehabilitation Activity Requirements (RARs) but HMI Probation inspectors found poor quality RAR work, with too little purposeful activity for offenders.
  • Some CRC operating models allow up to four in ten individuals to be supervised remotely (for example, by six-weekly telephone contact). She says face-to-face work with offenders was vital.
  • Tried and tested, evidence-based ways of reducing reoffending include ‘accredited programmes’ designed to help individuals with problems such as perpetrating domestic abuse, or else poor thinking skills. “It was not the intention of government to reduce their use, but regrettably few reports to court now propose one, and even fewer are ordered…This is baffling: no one wishes to see a range of high quality services with strong empirical support wither on the vine, by simple neglect, but that is happening.”
  • The change in sentencing (with fewer accredited programmes and more RARs) has had profound, adverse financial implications for CRCs, whose plans envisaged being paid for using a higher number of accredited programmes. The fewer accredited programmes ordered, the longer individuals wait for a place on one, and the less CRCs are able to retain the competence to deliver them well.
  • CRC-provided resettlement services to prisoners being released – known as Through the Gate servicesare generally poor, providing little real help with housing, jobs, addiction and debt. About one in ten people were released without a roof over their heads.

Glenys Stacey said, “Regrettably, none of government’s stated aspirations for Transforming Rehabilitation have been met in any meaningful way. I question whether the current model for probation can deliver sufficiently well.

“In some CRCs, individuals meet with their probation worker in places that lack privacy, when sensitive and difficult conversations must take place, and some do not meet with their probation worker face-to-face. Instead they are supervised by telephone calls every six weeks or so, with some CRCs planning for biometric monitoring systems. I find it inexplicable that under the banner of innovation, these developments were allowed. We should all be concerned, given the rehabilitation opportunities missed, and the risks to the public if individuals are not supervised well.”

Commenting on the report, Frances Crook, Chief Executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said, “The government’s mishandled Transforming Rehabilitation programme was supposed to turn lives around, reduce reoffending and make us all safer. Instead, it has been a public safety disaster, and today’s report is a sober, sensible and quietly devastating verdict on the reform programme. It is also a large and rusty nail in its coffin.

“Breaking up the public probation service, with a large part of it handed to private companies, created a fragmented, two-tier system that was never going to work. As the Chief Inspector has made clear, the problems stretch far beyond worries about funding; this is a fatally flawed model.

“The so-called ‘community rehabilitation companies’ are failing the public. Many are not commissioning the range of specialist services that are needed. Some people do not even meet their probation worker face-to-face, but instead get supervised by phone calls every six weeks or so by junior professional staff carrying workloads of 200 cases or more.

“Each of these woeful developments could be foreseen and was foreseen. The Howard League gave warning time and time again that this would happen.

“It is time for the government to end this dangerous experiment and recreate a single, successful, probation service using the best from the system we used to have.”

Read HM Inspectorate of Probation Annual Report here

* HM Inspectorate of Probation https://www.justiceinspectorates.gov.uk/hmiprobation/

* Howard League for Penal Reform https://howardleague.org/

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