Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Do we really need a market for probation services?


If there was a prize for 21st century organisational meddling and ineptitude, despite a strong field, the Home Office and then Ministry of Justice would win hands down for their treatment of the Probation service. Successive ministers have been unable to reach a settled view or workable policy about the proper balance of national and local accountability, the nature of probation’s relationship with prisons or the extent to which probation services might be outsourced to private and voluntary sector organisations.

On the last of these, Lord Carter’s 2003 review of Correctional Services, accepted without consultation by David Blunkett, expected that within five years, contestability – Labour’s word for competition- would have been introduced across the whole of prisons and community interventions, with outcome based contracts. But it is only now, ten years on that there look like serious intentions to contract out large chunks of probation supervision to private companies and charities, although legislation permitting this has been in place since 2007. 

A range of practical objections have, and no doubt will , be raised to the dismantling of a hundred year old service, not least about the  fragmentation or atomisation of  offender supervision the success of which depends crucially on  cooperation between agencies, reliable exchange of information about risks and needs and partnership working to address them.  Some scepticism is also in order about the viability of introducing a whole new tranche of work –  the supervision of short term prisoners on release.  So called custody plus- Labour’s  attempt to do this -   was only removed from the statute book last year, never having been implemented because of costs . Are the savings from privatisation really likely to be able to fund this new work, and meet MoJ austerity targets?

There are however two broader questions which have not received so much attention. The first relates to the legitimacy of supervisors in the eyes of those made subject to community sentences.    Chris Grayling might be right that there's no-one better than a former offender turned good to help someone turn their life around and the brave new world may provide more opportunities for initiatives like peer mentoring. But what of the bread and butter supervision requirements that form part of almost all community sentences, all of which are to have a punitive element in the future. How will offenders react to being punished for profit?   Recent Cambridge research has modified earlier  claims that the private sector offers a more courteous prison environment than the public sector  in the light of findings that   public sector establishments were better   at ‘getting things done’; a distinct component of respect in prison, according to prisoners . It is plausible to think this is important to those on probation too. Comparative research also found that in the public sector prisons, officers are confident and knowledgeable, delivering routines that are safer and more reliable than in the private sector.

The second question relates to how magistrates and judges will relate to the implementation of sentences by profit making companies. Their sentencing decisions will suddenly take on a commercial dimension. Work at Rethinking Crime and Punishment a few years ago gave judges and magistrates the chance to visit community based programmes to try to boost their understanding and confidence about what’s involved when they impose a particular sentence.  But the context of a corrections market may inhibit these kinds of endeavours. The Guide to Judicial Conduct makes it clear that the requirements of a Justice’s office and terms of service place severe restraints upon the permissible scope of his or her involvement with any commercial enterprise.

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