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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

Criminal Justice & substance misuse expert and author of this blog.

The voice of probation

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The voice of probation - the Probation Institute enters the debate on prison reform arguing for a reinvestment in community sanctions.

The Probation Institute comes to the party

One thing that has been missing from the recent discussions of penal reform has been the voice of probation.

Not only has the Justice Secretary Michael Gove rarely mentioned the probation service, but it has been hard for the probation service itself to get its views heard in the media.

Of course, the modern probation service is a new animal, split into the statutory National Probation Service which services the courts and deals with high risk offenders and the 21 new (almost all) private Community Rehabilitation Companies who manage low and medium risk offenders.

This divided nature makes it even harder for the probation voice to be heard.

So, I was very heartened to see the Probation Institute contribute to the debate via a new (4March 2016) position paper on Penal Reform.

Prison reforms not deep enough to be effective

The Probation Institute welcomes the government’s commitment to penal reform but questions whether the rather limited concrete changes announced so far will have any real impact.

The PI paper highlights the following three key issues:

1: The Prison population is unsustainably high

The PI argues that with crime having fallen so much over the last two decades, the prison population should not be anywhere near as high as it is.

It highlights the number of non-violent offenders and those with addiction and mental health issues as prisoners who do not need to be in prison and states that overcrowding is also making a proper rehabilitative focus in prisons increasingly difficult.

2: Governor autonomy on its own is not enough to reduce reoffending rates

The PI agrees that governor autonomy is a good thing but says that this flexibility is unlikely to make much difference because:

  • Population management of an overcrowded system cannot be done at an individual prison level.
  • Resettlement services need to be informed by detailed knowledge of the local community into which their inmates will be released, which, the PI contends, is difficult for governors and their staff to acquire.
  • The PbR pilots at Doncaster and Peterborough Prisons show that tying performance on re-offending to prison-based services is problematic, to say the least.
  • It does not help address the key failing of poor co-ordination of services between prison and the community.

3: Justice Reinvestment is required to achieve reductions in re-offending

The PI argues that only by cutting reoffending and the numbers of people in prison can resources be released to:

  • Allow governors to run proper regimes which support a resettlement approach and
  • Facilitate a reinvestment in community sanctions which are more likely to “bring re-offending rates down further, faster and more cost-effectively.”

probation institute 2016


The Probation Institute concludes its paper by reasserting the value of probation and an evidence-based approach to tackling reoffending:

The justice community has known for at least 20 years what the evidence says about what needs to be done. And yet policy that is in line with the evidence on reducing reoffending seems very difficult to implement. We would urge government to pay heed to the evidence and act accordingly.


Please note, the image at the top of this post is taken from the Probation Institute report and is the copyright of Mark Harvey (

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