In the Media

The problem with privatising probation services

PUBLISHED May 22, 2012

What does a modern effective probation service look like? This is the question being asked by a Ministry of Justice consultation paper. If adopted, government proposals would result in arguably the most significant changes to the probation service since the 1925 Criminal Justice Act established probation committees and the appointment of probation officers became a requirement of the courts.

The proposed model has commissioning at its heart and a purchaser/provider split. The plan is for probation trusts to take on a stronger role as commissioners of competed, outsourced probation services that could be provided by private firms, voluntary sector organisations, social enterprises and even staff mutuals. The number of trusts may reduce from 35 with the need to develop competence in commissioning.

Certain functions, such as advice to the courts on appropriate sentences for offenders, initial assessments of risk, and responsibility for high-risk offenders are reserved for the public sector. But the consultation proposes "opening to the market" the management of lower-risk offenders.

The proposed model fails to recognise that circumstances can change abruptly. Thus, someone who is deemed to be of low or medium risk could suddenly become high risk, and staff in the contracted organisation may not be equipped to recognise that and, even if they did, would then presumably need to arrange a hurried transfer back into the public sector. This could be a bureaucratic nightmare, with public safety under threat. The Probation Chiefs Association has recommended that the public sector retains the offender-management role for all those who are subject to court orders and post-custody licences. This would provide the infrastructure for a seamless service and continuity of supervision.

The proposals also fail to understand the complexities of accountability in the criminal justice system. If a judge or magistrate has concerns about the supervision of a contracted-out court order, with one or more organisations involved, who do they ask to appear before them? If the public sector retains the offender-management role, responsibility is clear.

So what is the case for this overhaul? The paper cites reoffending rates as the reason for wholesale reform. It tells us that half of all adult offenders reoffend within a year of leaving custody, and the figure rises to three-quarters for those sentenced to youth custody. Reoffending by those sentenced to less than 12 months in prison is estimated to cost the economy up to £10bn annually, it adds.

Crucially, however, it does not use its own research to highlight the fact that community sentences for 18- to 24-year-olds outperform prison sentences by 12.8 percentage points in reducing reoffending. Even when offenders of all ages are closely matched in terms of criminal history, offence type and other significant characteristics, the performance gap remains a robust 8%. So why not invest instead in delivering community court orders rather than fragmenting the probation services through this proposed privatisation?

? Geoff Dobson is company secretary to the Prison Reform Trust. He was a chief probation officer and chaired the Association of Chief Officers of Probation