Today’s (12 May 2023) report by the National Audit Office “Improving resettlement support for prison leavers to reduce reoffending” makes for predictably grim reading. The report not only concludes that the government is not consistently supporting prison leavers in resettling into the community but finds that the quality of services has declined in recent years.
The NAO notes that HM Inspectorate of Prisons did not rate any prisons as ‘good’ for rehabilitation and release planning in 2022-23, compared to 3% in the previous year and 30% in 2019-20.
The report highlights the impact of a severe shortage of probation officers with the inevitable consequence of high caseloads which means that HMPPS is not completing all the resettlement work it recognises is essential. For example, between April 2022 and January 2023, key handover meetings between prison and probation staff and prisoners did not happen as intended in around half of cases.
In December 2022, 29% of probation officer roles were vacant while 92% of probation sub-regions were operating at or above full caseload capacity in August 2022. The NAO makes the important point that this under-staffing is a chronic problem. We shall see from next week’s HMPPS workforce figures whether the situation is improving.
The report also sets out the challenges caused by HMPPS’s reorganisation of probation services and the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on prisons and probation services.
The NAO found that important resettlement outcomes for prison leavers have been mixed. From April 2022 to January 2023, accommodation outcomes have remained stable, with 76% of prison leavers in settled accommodation after three months. Employment outcomes have improved in this period, with more than a quarter of prison leavers in work after six months, up from 17% in the previous year. However, substance misuse treatment outcomes have remained poor, with just 37% of prison leavers with a substance misuse treatment referral engaged in community-based treatment in 2021-22.
The NAO was disappointed to report that HMPPS does not know why different groups of prison leavers have very different resettlement outcomes. NAO analysis found that, in 2021-22, 8% of female prison leavers were employed after six months compared with 18% of male prison leavers, while 11% of black or black British prison leavers were in work compared with 18% of white prison leavers. Disappointingly, HMPPS has not performed analysis to identify the causes of this variation.
The NAO identified several strengths or recent improvements in the service and welcomed steps that HMPPS has taken to address unmet need such as launching a new accommodation service in July 2021 for offenders at risk of homelessness.
In their interviews with staff, the NAO observed a strong commitment to turning prison leavers’ lives around. HMPPS has also made good progress recruiting people to help prison leavers find a job. By March 2023 it introduced employment leads in 92 eligible prisons to support prison leavers into work, although it is too early to determine their impact.
The impact of (re-)unification on resettlement
The NAO found that following unification, resettlement is working in different ways in different regions. While some aspects of the new resettlement model were mandatory, regional probation directors had flexibility to adjust delivery to suit local circumstances. HMPPS found regions that kept their existing resettlement teams in place during transition have reported better working relationships. However, in some prisons, resettlement teams were reduced or removed and not properly replaced.
Support for prisoners serving short sentences also varies. HMPPS’s aim is for dedicated teams in each probation region to provide more flexible and prompt support to those serving 10 months or less in prison. By March 2023 the Wales probation region had fully established short sentence teams as part of its “early adopter” model, while in England implementation was in progress in nine regions, one region had paused implementation due to staffing pressures and one region had not started implementation due to staffing pressures.
With the prison population forecast to increase by as much as 25% between March 2023 and March 2027 – mainly due to an increase in police officers and longer sentences for serious offenders – the NAO urges HMPPS to plan how it will manage higher demand for resettlement services. It estimates that the Probation Service may need to supervise around 5,900 more prison leavers by March 2025, an increase of around 10% compared with caseloads in September 2022.
Among its recommendations the NAO urged government bodies on the Cross Government Reducing Reoffending Board to publish a report in 2024 defining clear roles and responsibilities in the resettlement system.
The NAO also calls for better data: HMPPS cannot currently demonstrate whether its Commissioned Rehabilitative Services contracts are making a positive difference to offenders, while its baseline audits of these contracts showed poor performance.
Thanks to Andy Aitchison for kind permission to use the header image in this post. You can see Andy’s work here.