In the Media

Time to turn over a new leaf

PUBLISHED January 9, 2007

Helen Edwards, the chief executive of the National Offender Management Service, tells Richard Ford that her organisation?s top priority will be to cut the rate of reoffending. 

IT IS probably one of the most ambitious projects in Whitehall and has had one of the most difficult births. But the creation of the National Offender Management Service (Noms) is intended to tackle a seemingly intractable problem ? the stubbornly high re- offending rates by criminals.

The Home Office is taking a twin-pronged approach to bring about improvements. It involves managing the offender from the moment of sentence to release and resettlement, plus reforming the probation service to allow the voluntary and private sectors to compete to provide services for offenders.  
Helen Edwards, the chief executive of Noms, has the task of making a reality of the theory and reassuring the probation service ? and its supporters in the House of Lords ? that legislation to open up the organisation to ?contestability? is not really about wholesale privatisation.

She admits that the reform is ambitious but concedes that there is no alternative. ?What the National Offender Management Service is about is an uncompromising focus on reducing reoffending, turning people away from crime.

?We cannot be happy that reoffending rates are as high as they are. At the heart of this is managing the offender right through the system, having a clear agreement with the courts that we deliver.?

End-to-end management of criminals will involve an offender manager, usually a probation officer, putting together a sentence plan including what problems, such as alcohol or drug abuse, need to be addressed and the order in which they should be delivered in prison. In each jail a prison offender manager unit will act as the link with the offender manager in the community and ensure that the plans are delivered in the prison.

Edwards, 53, hopes that the changes will bring about a new spirit in jails. ?I hope we can use this to revitalise the personal officer system so that even the officers on the landing feel they are part of an enterprise which is designed to prevent the offender offending again.?

One huge difficulty facing Noms is the record prison population and the level of overcrowding in jails. This has resulted in prisoners being sent all over the country to any jail with a vacant cell. Paperwork about an offender often takes a long time to follow, which will make it more difficult for offender managers because it means disruption to the programmes on which a prisoner has embarked. Edwards says: ?Ideally we would like prisoners to be placed as close to home as possible but we know that in the system we don?t have that and it is made more difficult when we are very overcrowded.?

To ensure that offender managers are not travelling all over England and Wales to check that prisoners receive the help they need, Edwards is looking to technology.

?Offender managers need to be involved at key stages, when progress is being assessed. We need to use technology such as video links with prisons because we don?t want our offender managers spending their lives travelling around the country,? she says.

Edwards also believes that opening the probation service to the voluntary sector, charities and private security firms can drive up performance.

She insists that prison and probation officers will remain at the core of the system but that others should have the opportunity to provide facilities.

?Third sector organisations are very specialised in certain things and the private sector brings a different kind of expertise. The trick is to bring together different expertises with a clear focus on reducing reoffending. My job is to orchestrate that.?