This is a guest post by Jake Phillips, Reader in Criminology at Sheffield Hallam University.
On 25 October, the Ministry of Justice published data on ‘Deaths of Offenders in the Community’ for the year 2017/18. As with last year’s figures, the headlines make for sad reading, with the number of people dying whilst under probation supervision increasing by 17% from 819 to 955. I have been looking at the data to discern what we can, and cannot, learn from the figures.
The all-important caseload
We cannot fully understand what is happening with these deaths if we don’t also understand changes in the probation caseload. The number of deaths amongst the CRC caseload went up by 24% in the last year whilst the caseload itself decreased by 5%. In the NPS, both the number of deaths and the caseload increased by 1%. The trends over time suggest there has been a relative increase in the number of deaths since 2010 and especially since 2015. The Ministry of Justice suggests ‘the trend in the deaths of offenders in the community followed a similar pattern to the total caseload of offenders supervised in the community at the end of each financial year’. However, if we map these changes on to the same chart using percentage changes we get a different picture. Following a sharp rise in 2015, due to ORA 2014, the caseload has been dropping or levelling out, whilst the number of deaths has been steadily increasing.
If we examine the figures for people on post-release supervision (see below) we see that the number of people on post-release supervision has almost doubled since 2010. At the same time, the number of deaths amongst the cohort increased by a factor of almost four, despite a marked downturn in the last year.
If we move the baseline to 2014/15, to take account of the rapidly changing caseload after the implementation of ORA 2014 and the new requirement to supervise people following short sentences, we still see that the number of deaths increased at a faster rate than the caseload. This worrying trend, in which the number of post-release deaths is increasing faster than the caseload itself needs more investigation, especially in light of the condemnation of the performance of probation providers post-TR and the poor implementation of through the gate provision.
Cause of death
Another way to make sense of the data published by the Government is to look at mortality rates for specific causes of death. The mortality rates for different causes of death amongst people under supervision is shown in Table 1.
Crude mortality rate (deaths per 100,000)
National Probation Service
Community Rehabilitation Companies
All probation providers
The Ministry of Justice does not break CRC and NPS caseloads down by gender but we can calculate the mortality for different causes of death across the NPS and CRCs (see Table 2)
Crude mortality rate (deaths per 100,000)
Age is the main factor in someone’s risk of dying and these figures do not take age into account. Ideally, we would calculate the age-specific suicide rate because the age profile of the general population is very different to the probation caseload and the age profiles between the NPS and CRC caseloads is different. However, the Ministry of Justice dataset does not allow for this.
Nevertheless, the all-cause mortality rate for the CRC caseload is considerably higher than that of the NPS. This may be explained by the higher rate of self-inflicted deaths which, in turn, may be down to people on the CRC caseload being more likely to have problematic drug use and, thus, a higher incidence of overdose (be that accidental or intentional). The mortality rate for natural causes is higher amongst the NPS caseload. The Ministry of Justice puts this down to the older age profile of the NPS caseload. The category of natural causes is too broad for any meaningful analysis. However, we know that people on probation will, in many cases, have had experience of prison which leads to people ageing more quickly. So, whilst people on probation (and in prison) may be dying from natural causes, those deaths might be premature as a result of their involvement with the criminal justice system.
Women on probation appear to have a higher mortality rate than men for self-inflicted deaths, and natural causes. Considering women in the general population have a much lower suicide rate than men, could it be that probation is more toxic for women than men, mirroring the situation in prison?
Before discussing self-inflicted deaths in detail, a note of caution around the definition. The definition of suicide used by the ONS is ‘Deaths where the underlying cause … is intentional self-harm … and events of undetermined intent.’ The definition used by the Ministry of Justice for a self-inflicted death is ‘Any death of a person who has apparently taken his or her own life irrespective of intent.’
The Ministry of Justice definition therefore would include, for example, deaths from an unintentional drug overdose but the ONS data would not. Therefore, the self-inflicted death rate will always be higher than the suicide rate calculated by the ONS. We do not know by how much the self-inflicted death rate is inflated by this broader definition.
The self-inflicted death rate amongst people on probation is 108/100,000 whilst the suicide rate amongst the general population is. The suicide rate in prisons is prisoners. On the face of it, people on probation are at a higher risk of suicide than people in the general population and people in prison. But age is particularly relevant when it comes to risk of suicide. Men in their 40s are most likely to die by suicide, with a suicide rate of . The risk of suicide is greatest for women in their 50s: the suicide rate for this group is . When comparing the suicide rate of the highest risk groups in the general population with people on probation the difference is less stark.
Even so, the self-inflicted death rate amongst men on probation is around four times that of the highest-risk age group in the general population. When it comes to women we need to be careful due to low numbers – 30 women on probation died from a self-inflicted death last year. Nevertheless, the rate of self-inflicted deaths amongst women under probation supervision is 12 times higher than the highest risk group of women in the general population.
The homicide rate is measured in terms of deaths per million, because of the small numbers of deaths. If we calculate the homicide rate amongst people on probation per million we get a mortality rate of 103 per million: a rate that is ten times higher than the general population. Again, we cannot account for age but we do know that males aged 16 to 24 are at most risk of dying due to homicide, with a homicide rate of 24 per million population. The homicide rate of the probation caseload is four times higher than the homicide rate amongst the highest risk group in the general population.
Sadly, the number of deaths amongst people on probation, in absolute terms and relative to the caseload, is increasing. Moreover, the data suggest that people on probation are more likely to die than the general population.
There have been changes to the way these deaths are recorded and so it is possible that some of the increases are down to improvements in the reporting of deaths. Nevertheless, considering what we know about the needs of people on probation, along with the turbulence faced by probation providers in recent years, some of this, can be expected. If nothing else, these figures demonstrate, in stark detail, the vulnerable nature of people on the probation caseload.
These statistics provide a broad overview and so cannot definitively identify which people on probation are more likely to die. In order to know this, we need to take age and other factors such as socio-economic status, physical and mental health into account – this would be a considerable, but important, piece of work.
In any case, these figures only tell a partial story. When someone dies on probation there is next to no investigation about what happened or what could have been done better. The Prisons and Probation Ombudsman can investigate deaths of people on probation, but they never have. Very little is known about what ‘learning points’ come out of reviews between case managers and their managers. We need to be careful about attributing blame, as the Ministry of Justice highlights:
The main responsibilities of offender managers in the community are to assess, supervise and rehabilitate offenders … the level of responsibility and accountability of the probation service for the health and well-being of offenders is substantially different from that of the prison service in relation to deaths in custody.
As Prof Appleby said recently ‘Every suicide could be prevented, though that is not saying that someone is to blame when it doesn’t happen.’ The difference is that every death in prison is investigated. Indeed, some might now say that ‘we don’t need more suicide research, rather, we need to apply what we know’. Deaths in the community, on the other hand, are never investigated and rarely researched. Thus, we simply do not know whether they could have been prevented or not.
These statistics are part of the Ministry of Justice’s work to ‘identify possible means to reduce the risk of such tragedies occurring in future’. It’s true that they can contribute to this work. But they cannot achieve this alone. Rather, there needs to be much more in the way of systematic lesson learning and better identification of at-risk groups and individuals. People on probation are already vulnerable and only once the high mortality rate is taken seriously can the real work to start reducing it begin.