The impact of coronavirus on probation

Justice Committee finds that Covid-19 has exacerbated already present staffing issues within the probation service.

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An exceptional delivery model

This Monday, the Justice Select Committee released a report on the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on Her Majesty’s Probation Service and at the same time launch an inquiry into ongoing reforms in the service.

The report, ‘Coronavirus (Covid-19): The impact on the probation system in England and Wales’ sets out how the pandemic has profoundly affected the way probation services are delivered.

Many former prisoners and those serving community sentences are now supervised remotely by Probation Officers – through phone calls or Skype. Released prisoners who would often need help finding accommodation or accessing Universal Credit benefits may well find physical offices dealing with these matters closed, with staff working from home. 

The delivery of probation supervisory services in the wake of Covid-19 is officially known as an ‘exceptional model of delivery’. High risk offenders are supervised by the National Probation Service (NPS) through a combination of remote methods and doorstep visits. Medium and low-risk offenders are currently supervised by private sector organisations called Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs).  

The National Association of Probation Officers told the Committee that there was some inconsistency in the way the model was delivered across the NPS and CRC systems. This led, the Association said, to anxiety among staff about their own safety. Another witness said the inconsistency led to concerns among individuals trying to adhere to their licence conditions to avoid potential recall to prison.   

The Justice Committee report said it was concerned about these inconsistencies and recommended that the Ministry of Justice and HMPPS set out what guidance had been issued to CRCs and how they are monitoring the models being delivered by different CRCs. 

Resettlement

The resettlement needs of those released from prison were also a concern to the committee which acknowledged that the transition from prison to the community is crucial in terms of addressing risk and reoffending. For those leaving prison, society may be very different to how it was when an individual may have entered prison; probation offices, and other services that often provide crucial support have mostly closed their offices, and many staff are working from home. The Justice Committee was unclear what additional measures have been put in place to support prison leavers to transition into the community under the current circumstances.

Helen Berresford from NACRO provided evidence on the situation during the pandemic:

“It’s an incredibly different situation out there. Almost all support is being provided remotely at the minute, so we need to make sure everybody leaving prison has access to a mobile phone. They will also need to have enough money to get them started. To be honest, they will need some of the essentials like soap, a toothbrush and some basic food and drink to get them through the first few days. They may be released to somewhere they do not know. They may be released having to take public transport – which may or may not be running.” 

In terms of financial support for prison leavers, the Committee welcomed the increase in the Subsistence Grant available to those who have been released early under the End of Custody Temporary Release Scheme, and recommend that the same increase be made to the Discharge Grant, for those released in the ordinary course of events. Both cohorts of prisoners will have resettlement needs that may be more difficult to achieve in current circumstances.

Housing is often a particular resettlement challenge for those leaving prison, and the Committee also praised measures in place to find accommodation and prevent homelessness upon release from prison. The Ministry have set up seven Homeless Prevention Taskforces (HPTs) to coordinate the sourcing of accommodation for offenders released early and have secured up to £8.5 million to support individuals at risk of homelessness on release—a scheme initially due to run eight weeks, but extended by five more weeks to 31 July. 

Backlogs and staffing

The Committee’s report also said it was concerned about the backlog which the lockdown measures have necessitated – for example the unpaid work which some people have been sentenced to has stopped. The Committee said it recognised why this had happened but recommended that the Ministry and HMPPS set out how the probation service intends to address the backlogs. 

Finally, the report also looked at staffing issues in the NPS. It found that even before the pandemic, there were over 600 vacancies across the service in England and Wales and that workloads were heavy. Since Covid-19 hit, around 20% of the NPS staff of 11,000 have been off work each day, putting considerably more stress on remaining employees. The Committee recommended that government and HMPPS set out what existing and additional measures are in place during this time to support staff well-being.

The coronavirus pandemic has severely affected the probation service at a time when it was already in the throes of its second major restructuring programme in the past five years. In addition to its report on the effect of the pandemic, the Committee is today launching an inquiry into the latest proposed reforms, which are due to be in place by 2021. 

Inquiry into new probation model

The Justice Committee inquiry being launched today will ask for written submissions and take oral evidence from stakeholders on the new model for the delivery of probation services. 

The deadline for written submissions, which should be sent via the Committee’s website will be September 7. It is anticipated that a report will be published in February 2021. The Chair of the Justice Committee, Sir Bob Neill, outlined the remit of the inquiry: 

“We’ll want to know if this new model will work and whether it will be capable of clearing the backlog of probation work caused by the pandemic. We’ll be asking whether private sector providers were consulted about these proposals, whether there were counter-proposals, and how the new model will supply the necessary services. 

But above all we will want to see improvements in the rehabilitation of offenders, improvements in probation service staff morale and robust protections for the public.   

In short, we want to make sure these latest reforms do not repeat the errors of the past so that the Justice Committee will, in future years, be scrutinizing a Probation Service fit for the twenty-first century.”  

Thanks to iMatt Smart for kind permission to reproduce the header image which is published on Unsplash.

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