Probation split and sentencer confidence
A new (28 December 2018) report from the Centre for Justice Innovation continues their work looking at the fall in community sentences, which have are down by 40% since the beginning of the decade. In the course of this research, numerous practitioners and policymakers have expressed concerns that the relationship between sentencers and probation has deteriorated and that this is one reason why community sentences are used less often.
The report, titled: Renewing trust: how we can improve the relationship between probation and the courts follows up on those concerns by exploring what has changed in the relationship between sentencers and probation services over the past five years. The principal findings were:
- The relationship between courts and probation has been buffeted by series of reforms, most notably the split of probation into Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) and the National Probation Service (NPS).
- Court timeliness targets and closures have hampered the ability of probation to deliver high quality pre-sentence advice. For example, the use of the most comprehensive written reports (Standard Delivery Reports) has fallen by 89% in six years and now stands at only 3% of all reports – less than a third of the national target.
- Sentencers’ concerns about the delivery of community sentences are being driven by:
- a lack of information about the services provided by CRCs;
- a lack of transparency about the new Rehabilitation Activity Requirement (RAR);
- barriers to dialog between CRCs and sentencers about community sentence options;
- serious concerns about the quality of the work of CRCs when these are exposed in breach proceedings; and
- concerns about availability of substance misuse and mental health treatment requirements for offenders, the use of which has fallen by 50%.
- Sentencers remain largely in the dark about what happens after they sentence someone to a community sentence and have few opportunities to witness progress and compliance with court orders. There is no routine process by which sentencers’ perceptions of community sentences are gathered.
Perhaps the most significant statistic highlighted by the report is that the past six years have seen a significant reduction in the number of new PSRs being produced. The number of reports has fallen from 185,000 in 2012/13 to 124,000 in 2017/18 – a fall of a third. This is striking at a time when the number of convictions has remained almost unchanged, falling by just 1%.
The Centre for Justice Innovation’s overall analysis finds that there has been a fall in the use of PSRs within an operating environment of fewer resources, a greater emphasis on speed, and greater division between courts and the agencies who are supervising most community sentences. Sentencers are increasingly concerned about a lack of information about what they are sentencing people to and about a seeming lack of treatment provision. The report does not claim a direct causal link between these changes and the falls in the use of community sentences but argues that they have cast doubt into sentencers’ minds about the content of community sentences.
The report also highlights the impact of Transforming Rehabilitation in particularly the changes in how probation provides information to court, through the greater use of oral reporting. The report raises concerns about whether the most appropriate pre-sentence advice is being given for more complex cases. It seems likely that the underuse of SDRs is an unintended consequence of a range of factors including the restrictions put in place in the National Probation Service’s E3 models, a lack of support for professional discretion in format choice and the compounding impacts of a pressure on resourcing.
The report’s conclusion is that the combination of a number of significant changes — not just TR but the courts’ new emphasis on timeliness and efficiency — has led to a substantial dilution of the essential relationship between courts (particularly magistrates) and probation officers. It urges the MoJ to develop a more detailed understanding of sentencers’ concerns and be pro-active in addressing them.