Thursday, 14 December 2017

Probation- The Shape of Things to Come?

The Chief Inspector of Probation's Annual Report published today may not be the nail in the coffin of Transforming Rehabilitation – the 2014 reforms which have fundamentally changed the way offenders are supervised in the community. But it probably marks the start of the reading of the last rites for an ill conceived and hastily implemented programme designed, but failing, to improve the punishment and reform of offenders.

In one sense there’s little new in the report. The media focus may be on the tens of thousands of low risk offenders supervised via a short six weekly phone call but the new system’s many other shortcomings, particularly those of the privately owned Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) have already been highlighted in individual inspection reports. Whether it’s individuals turned away from poorly organised unpaid work sites, rehabilitation programmes requiring little of offenders, or the supposed flagship “Through the Gate" services reduced to little more than form filling, the aggregate picture is not pretty. It not only bitterly disappoints those of us who want to see effective community sentences replace the unnecessary and damaging use of prison. It confirms the worst fears of hard liners who argue that probation puts the public in danger by failing to assess and manage risks properly.

There are oases of good CRC practice noted in Kent, Cumbria, South Yorkshire, West Mercia and Durham- and the publicly run National Probation Service (NPS) seems to be doing an acceptable job. But the titbits of praise in the report are seldom unqualified. Courts might be getting timely pre-sentence reports from the NPS but recommendations for suitable people to undertake accredited treatment programmes as part of their community sentence have plummeted. Contrary to what’s sometimes thought, probation staff are not over-eager to return non-compliant offenders to court and most breach decisions are taken wisely. The problem is the reverse with  case management so weak that  CRCs "may not know when enforcement is called for". 

All in all, 18 months’ worth of data has left Chief Inspector Dame Glenys Stacey with no option but to conclude, as was widely predicted at the outset, that “regrettably none of the government’s stated aspirations for Transforming Rehabilitation have been met in any meaningful way”.

What is new is that Dame Glenys today openly questions “whether the current model for probation can deliver sufficiently well”. It’s one thing to find fault with the performance of probation services up and down the country- but quite another to call into question whether the fundamental way those services have been arranged is fit for purpose. Implicitly or explicitly, the report blasts the split between the NPS and CRCs which sees organisations compete for staff and haggle over the provision of and payments for specialist services for offenders; and the funding model which has left CRCs  with way less cash than they anticipated, forcing them to pare down staff numbers repeatedly and leaving some remaining junior staff with caseloads of 200 plus. She is certainly worried that the sweeping aside of national standards in the name of innovation has allowed not only large amounts of remote supervision but some face to face  interviews to be conducted in places lacking privacy. Dame Glenys must wonder too about the way that the performance monitoring framework developed by Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service gives the debacle the Inspectorate describes a largely clean bill of health.

In truth, this quietly devastating report makes it clear that all of these dimensions need to be changed.  And knowingly or not, it may suggest how. In their 140 odd Youth Justice Inspections, the Inspectorate found  that  Youth Offending Teams (YOTs) perform to a good level and  "can be rightly proud of the work they do". These local authority based multi-agency teams, developed in Tony Blair’s first term, partly in response to a damning critique from the Audit Commission, have by and large proved an effective model for diverting young people from crime, from prosecution and from custody. 

This is surely the sort of approach we now need for adults. There’s scope for discussion about the role Police and Crime Commissioners might play in any new system and whether Adult Offending Teams should form part of a broader devolution of justice responsibilities and budgets to a more local, and locally accountable, level. But we have plenty of time to have that discussion.

The current probation arrangements may have to limp on for three years but there is nothing to prevent serious work on succession arrangements to begin next year. Justice Secretary David Lidington should establish some form of inquiry or commission to look dispassionately at what to do next.   He may want to see what the Justice Committee comes up with in its investigation first.  But one thing is certain. The future shape of probation services must not be driven by the ideological dogmas which have brought them down to the sorry level we see today.

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