Big rise in deaths of offenders on probation

More people under probation supervision are dying

A very sad post today, summarising information from a Ministry of Justice statistics bulletin: Deaths of Offenders in the Community 2016/17 published just over a week ago (26 October 2017).

Before looking at the figures which cover people under supervision by the probation service (both the National Probation Service and 21 Community Rehabilitation Companies) on a community order, suspended sentence order or on post-release licence, it is important to clarify a couple of things.

While probation services should certainly be encouraging the offenders they supervise to address health and wellbeing issues (particularly substance misuse and mental health concerns), they do not hold prime responsibility for the healthcare of the people they supervise and their accountability cannot be considered the same as it is for prisons who have a duty of care to people in custody.

This statement does not of course suggest that the deaths of offenders in the community are in any way less sad, or distressing for their families and friends, than those who die in prison. The two Community Rehabilitation Companies — Humberside, Lincolnshire and North Yorkshire & Norfolk and Suffolk — should be ashamed of their failure to submit returns about the number of people who died whilst under their supervision.

Main findings

The MoJ summarises the main findings of this statistical bulletin:

Thirteen of the offenders who died last year, did so while residing at a probation hostel (approved premises).

Post-release supervision

There were 748 deaths of offenders in the community in 2016/17, the highest in the time series despite missing information from two Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs). This is an increase of 7% (47 deaths) from 701 deaths in the previous year, after adjusting 2015/16 figures to account for the two missing data returns.

The increase in deaths in the community is due to the rise in number of offenders who died under post-release supervision, while deaths of other offenders have been falling. There was an increase of 82 deaths (28%) during post-release supervision compared to 2015/16.

The  proportion of deaths in the community that occurred during post-release supervision has increased from 16% in 2010/11 to 50% in 2016/17. This is less surprising since the introduction of the Offender Rehabilitation Act (ORA) on 1 February 2015 led to a large increase in the number of offenders on post-release supervision. However, this does not explain the substantial increase in deaths amongst released prisoners in the last year.

Cause of death

There were 258 natural-cause deaths in 2016/17, a 10% increase when compared with adjusted figures for 2015/16. Deaths due to natural causes accounted for around a third of all deaths in the community across the time series, although natural-cause deaths accounted for a higher proportion of all deaths of offenders supervised by NPS (44% in 2016/17) compared to CRCs (29% in 2016/17).

This difference may be explained partly by the age of offenders at the time of their death. For 2016/17, around 39% of offenders supervised by NPS were aged 50 or over when they died. Offenders in this age group are more likely to die of natural causes than any other reason.

In contrast, only 20% of offenders supervised by the CRCs were aged 50 or over when they died. There were 233 self-inflicted deaths in 2016/17, a decrease of 9% from 2015/16 and this accounted for 31% of all deaths.

In 2016/17, the proportion of self-inflicted deaths in the NPS was lower than the proportion of deaths due to natural causes. The opposite is true of the CRCs, where self-inflicted deaths accounted for a higher proportion of deaths than natural causes. This is only partly explained by the different age distributions of the supervised offenders. When comparing on a like-for-like basis, CRCs had a drop in the number of self-inflicted deaths compared to the previous year, whereas the NPS saw an increase.

There were 33 apparent homicides in 2016/17, 13 in NPS and 20 in CRCs. While this is the highest in the time series, it accounted for only 4% of all deaths, and is broadly consistent with previous years.

Gender

In 2016/17, 40% of male and 19% of female offenders who died in the community were under the supervision of the NPS. There were 649 male deaths, accounting for 87% of all deaths, with 36% due to natural causes and 30% for for self-inflicted. This is in contrast to females where the main cause of death was self-inflicted (41%) and natural causes accounted for 25%. At the time of death, 29% of males were aged 50 or over compared to 17% for females. This age group is more likely to die of natural causes, which partly explains
the higher proportion of natural-cause deaths amongst males.

For males, 2015/16 was the only year in the time series to have higher numbers of self-inflicted deaths than natural causes. In both of  the last two years, females have recorded more self-inflicted deaths than those due to natural causes.

Conclusion

The fact that the report makes for sad reading is inevitable given its subject. However, there are real concerns to be raised around the increase in the number of deaths and the sad but compelling fact that more offenders supervised by CRCs will kill themselves than will die of natural causes.

We can only guess at the impact that the changes in the probation system brought in under the government’s Transforming Rehabilitation programme and the reduction in access to health services (particularly substance misuse and mental health treatment) which has accompanied the cuts in public funding over the last nine years, have contributed to these figures.

 

 

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