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Russell Webster

Russell Webster

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

Designing the future of Probation

First in a new series responding to the MoJ's consultation on the future of probation. Can we design a more integrated service?

Responding to the MoJ consultation

It was no great surprise when the Justice Secretary finally acknowledged that Transforming Rehabilitation wasn’t working last Friday (27 July 2018). There has been a broad consensus across the sector from the very beginning that:

  • TR was flawed, being designed in haste with the original pilots abandoned.
  • Funding, particularly for CRCs, was insufficient for a quality service to be delivered.
  • The decision to design a split model created inherent difficulties of co-ordination and communication.

The main challenge in addressing TR’s failures which many of us have been wrestling with over the last two-three years has been:

How do we get a proper probation service again if we have to start from here?

The simple answer has always been, of course, to re-nationalise and return to an integrated service. Politically, that has always been unlikely for three reasons:

  1. The seven year contracts for CRCs made it legally and technically difficult to put the system into reverse.
  2. Austerity – National Probation Service employees are now civil servants with the benefits that go with that position, could the MoJ afford to bestow those rights on all probation staff?
  3. How could a Conservative government which privatised probation both admit it got it wrong and disavow its commitment to the superiority of the private sector?

So although last Friday’s announcements included the curtailment of the CRC contracts from seven years to five, only Wales is to get an integrated service and the Justice Secretary is keen to remind us of the government’s commitment to the private sector: “I believe there is strength in this mixed market approach.”

Nevertheless, the MoJ says it wants our views on how best to re-design probation and asks 17 key questions in its consultation document.

This is the first post in a new series which will run over the next 5-6 weeks teasing out the key issues asked by the 17 consultation questions, examining three questions once a week over the next few six Thursdays. My goal in discussing these questions in turn is to highlight key concerns and, I hope, to promote positive ideas about how the MoJ can design a better probation service.

Please do take issue with me and set out your views and thoughts in the comments section below.

Let’s begin.

Question 1: What steps could we take to improve the continuity of supervision throughout an offender’s sentence?

The first question is perhaps the most fundamental. In introducing it, the consultation paper notes the importance of a positive relationship between offender manager and the person they are supervising and that the probation inspectorate found that in half of the cases they inspected, there were changes in probation officer.

To be frank, this is also the hardest question to answer within the MoJ’s parameters. Clearly , the best way to have more continuity would be to have an integrated system with one organisation responsible for supervising offenders; both on community orders and release on licence.

There has been a great deal of practice focus in  other social care sectors (particularly subtance misuse) on the importance of engaging service users at the first opportunity, rather than confronting them with a series of (mainly duplicated) assessment processes which tends to alienate people — especially those who have been habituated to being processed through government systems, such as people who have been in care.

The probation service moved away from this continuity of care many years before TR; I have to go back almost thirty years to my own probation practice to find a time when it was the norm for a probation officer to prepare the initial pre-sentence report on a person and then be responsible for their supervision.

Continuity of supervision will need more than administrative tinkering to the interface between NPS and CRCs;  it will require a fundamental cultural change which encourages the NPS and ten new CRCs to think of themselves as jointly constituting the probation service, rather than two organisations with separate goals, as it has so rapidly become. Whether the MoJ’s plan to appoint an HMPPS overseer of the joint probation service in each of the ten new areas will achieve this sense of delivering a common service (which is how sentencers, offenders and stakeholders such as prisons should experience probation) is doubtful.

It may be that initiatives such as  peer-led induction groups (piloted by some CRCs), are more important in demonstrating to offenders at the start of their orders that probation is as much about helping them desist from crime than processign them through a confusing administrative system.

Question 2: What frequency of contact between offenders and offender managers is most effective to promote purposeful engagement? How should this vary during a period of supervision, and in which circumstances are alternatives to face-to-face meetings appropriate? Do you have evidence to support your views?

This question goes to the heart of the TR project. When bidding to win CRC contracts, many providers transparently set out an approach which prioritised work with those most at risk of reoffending, releasing resources by offering minimal levels of supervision (often by telephone or biometric reporting) to those assessed as low risk. This was judged to be an appropriate approach by the MoJ procurement team awarding the contracts.  However, HMI Probation strongly (and, in my view rightly) criticised this practice on the basis that risk levels are dynamic and if a CRC offender manager never saw an individual face-to-face, how could they notice an increase in risk? 

The MoJ’s initial solution to this issue is to “change CRC minimum requirement for providers to offer monthly
face-to-face contact with the responsible officer for the first 12 months of an offender’s order or licence.”
I was pretty amazed to read this. Given that one of the MoJ’s main goals is to promote sentencer confidence, I can’t imagine many magistrates being impressed by being told one year’s community supervision is a robust alternative to a short custodial sentence because an offender would have to be seen 12 times by his/her probation officer. 

The challenge here is for the MoJ to balance a national minimum quality of service which will secure the trust of sentencers without re-introducing national standards which will stifle innovation and undermine professional judgment. 

Question 3: How can we promote unpaid work schemes which both make reparation to communities and equip offenders with employment-related skills and experience?

Well, at least on this question, I feel able to make some positive suggestions. The opportunity to make unpaid work a real chance for offenders to develop skills and improve their chances of finding a job has never been comprehensively embraced by the probation service, despite many examples of excellent practice in a number of different geographical areas. The delivery of unpaid work (like through-the-gate resettlement) has been an area of considerable concern for TR with very many orders in some CRC areas uncompleted because offenders were not given sufficient sessions to do their hours within the stipulated 12 month period.

This is surely an area where current CRC providers such as Working Links can combine their roles as both CRC and Work Programme providers to good effect. If CRCs could start offering proper employment opportunities via unpaid work, this could be extended to people being released from custody — currently just 27% have a job to go to.

This is the sort of issue where TR was supposed to make a difference, giving providers the chance to come up with creative solutions which leveraged in resources from other sectors to offenders’ advantage.

 

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