PROBATION SERVICES must show greater consideration and confidence in their work with black, Asian and minority ethnic service users and staff, according to a new report. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation found the probation service’s focus on racial equality has declined since Transforming Rehabilitation reforms were introduced in 2014.

More than 222,000 people are supervised by probation services across England and Wales. Around a fifth of people on probation are from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds.

The Chief Inspector of Probation, Justin Russell, said: “This has been a challenging year for probation staff and I pay tribute to the way they have pulled together to respond to the Covid-19 pandemic. But the service faces other major challenges too – not least, ensuring that every service user, whatever their background, gets proper support and supervision.

“In this inspection, we found very little evidence of probation officers speaking to service users about their race, ethnicity or experiences of discrimination. Some officers – by their own admission – avoided talking about these issues altogether.

“Data about race, ethnicity and religion was missing in almost one in 10 inspected cases. Sometimes staff met with individuals who had experienced discrimination or trauma, but no issues were recorded on their file.

“These are disappointing findings. We have concerns about every stage of probation supervision from the quality of pre-sentencing reports – we found 40 per cent were insufficient in considering diversity factors – to the way that ethnic minority service users were involved in their assessment and sentence plans.

“Probation officers need to find out as much as possible about individuals to support their rehabilitation. How can you help someone if you don’t know what their life is like?”

Some individuals cited previous negative experiences with the police, prison staff or with white people in other positions of authority as a reason for difficulty in angaging with probation. Some service users reported their probation officers were kind and well-meaning but did not understand their heritage, culture or religion. Links with local community organisations are poor and culturally-appropriate services are rarely commissioned. There are also few programmes to address racially-motivated offending.

The report also explored the experiences of ethnic minority probation staff. Key findings include:

  • inspectors heard distressing stories of inappropriate behaviour towards ethnic minority staff including instances of stereotyping, racist and sexualised language, and false allegations.
  • Ethnic minority staff were not always consulted or supported to work with individuals who had committed race-related offences
  • Many surveyed staff did not feel it was safe to raise issues of racial discrimination at work and lacked faith that complaints would be handled appropriately. Inspectors heard serious complaints had been repeatedly downplayed, ignored or dismissed.
  • Of the 30 staff surveyed who had raised an issue of racial discrimination, only two felt the process and outcomes had been handled fairly.
  • Some ethnic minority staff felt recruitment and promotion practices were not open and fair.

The Inspectorate’s report includes 15 recommendations for HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) and the National Probation Service (NPS).

Mr Russell said: “In a little over 100 days, probation services will be unified in England and Wales. This is an important opportunity to reset and raise the standard of work with ethnic minority service users and staff.

“At a national level, we want to see a strategy that sets out how the unified service will work with ethnic minority service users. Data should be gathered and published to identify and address trends, for example if particular ethnic groups are breached or recalled to prison at a disproportionate rate.

“Training gaps across all grades need to be addressed. Training senior leaders and managers will lead to improved understanding and behaviour change. Training probation officers will ensure they understand the impact of racism and discrimination on service users’ lives and on their own practice.

“There is also an urgent job to do to rebuild trust with ethnic minority staff. It was painful to hear stories of discrimination and this was made worse by the fact that staff did not feel heard or believed and were considered ‘trouble-makers’. There is a critical need to review the complaints and grievance process and train managers to deal with discrimination confidentially and sensitively.”

In an unusual move, Mr Russell announced his intention to reinspect this work again in two years. He concluded: “HMPPS and the probation service are now paying attention to this issue but need to keep up the momentum. This work needs to be taken forward at pace, and real and rapid progress to further race equality in probation.”

Commenting on the report, Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust said: “Different elements of the criminal justice system have regressed in their efforts to tackle race discrimination, despite the clearest possible roadmap for change from the Lammy report, and an apparent acceptance by the government of the need to either ‘explain or reform’.  This report highlights the urgent need for a renewed focus on tackling racial disparities across criminal justice agencies. The frequent assertion that we have the finest system of justice in the world simply doesn’t match up to the reality exposed by this and other inspection findings.”

* Read Race equality in probation: the experiences of black, Asian and minority ethnic probation service users and staff here.

* Source: Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation