This is a guest post by Jake Phillips, Reader in Criminology at Sheffield Hallam University.
More sad reading
Last year, in my analysis of government statistics about people who died whilst under probation supervision, I found that the number of people dying increased at a faster rate than the caseload. The latest statistics were published last week (31 October) and I decided to take a look to see what has changed in the last year. In this post I explore the extent to which the data published by the Ministry of Justice can be used to compare the mortality rate of people over time, and with the general population. I also look at what has happened in terms of self-inflicted deaths.
Comparing mortality rates over time
In 2017/18 there was a slowdown in the increase in the number of people dying whilst under probation supervision. I had hoped that this would turn into a downward trend. Sadly, this appears not to be the case, with a jump in mortality for people under probation supervision in the current year.
In 2018/19 1,093 people died whilst under probation supervision – up from 964 in 2017/18. At least one third of those deaths were self-inflicted (one third are, as yet, unclassified and so may include further self-inflicted deaths). When we break that down by gender, the proportions remain similar. One point which stands out is the number of men dying as a result of homicide: this number increased from 27 in 2017/18 to 47 in 2018/19 giving a homicide rate amongst men on the probation caseload of 204 per million; almost ten times that of the highest risk group in the general population.
If we calculate the mortality rate – and so take into account changes in the number of people on the caseload – we can see that the crude mortality rate has increased for both men and women in recent years.
There has been a steady increase in the mortality rate since 2015/16 when the caseload increased as a result of the introduction of post-sentence supervision (PSS) for people leaving prison following short custodial sentences. Although the mortality rate – shown in the chart above – takes account of the increased numbers of people on the caseload it does not account for a more qualitative change in the caseload. One would expect people serving short sentences – who are now under probation supervision – to face different risks around mortality than those serving longer sentences. For example, people serving short sentences may be more likely to use drugs and alcohol – which is linked to increased mortality – but they may also be younger, which changes the nature of people’s risk of dying. More work needs to be done around investigating the qualitative changes to the caseload which have occurred in recent years in order to fully understand why the mortality rate has been increasing.
Comparing mortality rates with the general population
Because the age profile of the probation caseload is very different to the general population (see below) it is not possible to compare the mortality rate of people on probation with the general population. Thus, whilst we would expect the mortality rate amongst people on probation to be different to the general population (we might even expect it be higher, as recent analysis in the US has shown) we cannot calculate this accurately with publically available data.
These changes in the caseload make it difficult to compare rates over time, especially if we go back to before the implementation of the Offender Rehabilitation Act and the effect this had on the caseload. Taking this into account, the following chart shows the rate of self-inflicted death amongst people on probation between 2015/16 and 2018/19. The crude self-inflicted mortality rate for both men and women under probation supervision has increased. The rate for women increased from 146/100,000 to 200/100,000 and the equivalent rate for men went from 104/100,000 to 125/100,000. Again, we need to be careful about making direct comparisons with the general population but it is worth pointing out that the suicide rate in England and Wales is 5.4/100,000 for women and 17.2/100,000 for men.
We need to know more
I made the call last year for more in the way of investigation and scrutiny when people die under probation supervision. I should stress that this is not about pointing the finger at individual practitioners: high workloads, constant structural reform, staff shortages and many other factors going on in peoples’ lives means that probation officers are unlikely to be directly responsible for someone’s death.
However, probation services hold a statutory obligation over peoples’ lives (and are obliged to assess and manage ‘risk to self’). Moreover, being on probation brings with it certain pains and adverse consequences. Thus providers should, in my view, take some responsibility for finding out what occurred in the run up to someone’s death, and whether anything could have been done to prevent it. My guess would be that if more investigations took place when people died we would uncover a pattern of inadequate mental health provision, poor housing, low staffing levels and high workloads (similar issues to those we find in the prison). These investigations will shed light on what is contributing to people dying in increasing numbers and then we can start to work out what to do about it.