The proposals in the government consultation, "Transforming Rehabilitation: A revolution in the way we manage offenders?, have caused concern to many in the Probation Service. Of course, we recognise that changes are needed to improve rehabilitation: as the leader of the largest probation trust, I would welcome the opportunity to be more innovative and see improvements in outcomes, to see supervision available for short-term prisoners and to encourage private investment.
Under the government proposals, the majority of community-based offender services will be subject to competition. This will equate to approximately 70% of our work, with medium and low-risk work all going to a new provider.
In London Probation Trust, 73% of domestic violence convictions, 56% of known gang offenders and 20% of convicted sex offenders are categorised as medium risk. Not only would the new provider be managing some complex and dangerous individuals but risk is dynamic and situational so risk can change. For example, it can change if an offender?s relationship ends or their drinking escalates. The level of risk can also alter as a result of information from police intelligence. Such events could trigger a move of supervision from a contractor to the public sector probation service and could disrupt supervision in a way which ? in itself ? increases risk.
My professional view, based on 37 years of working in this field, is that the public sector should retain the case management role for all supervised offenders to ensure the sentence of the court is delivered and that risk of harm is managed appropriately.
Probation success rate
The Probation Service has a track record of delivering all that has been asked of it by government ? and more. We have had 20% cut from our budgets over the last five years but have still delivered on all the targets set, such as improving enforcement of court orders and licences and improving compliance so that offenders are more likely to complete their orders.
Since 2000, both the reoffender rate and the number of crimes committed by reoffenders managed by the Probation Service have continued to fall steadily across England and Wales. The proven reoffending rate for those on court orders is 34.1%. In comparison, the proven reoffending rate for those adults who receive short-term custody and who have no interaction with the Probation Service is nearly double this figure: 57.6%. We all agree that something should be done to improve this group?s chances of being successfully rehabilitated; but not at the expense of destroying a system that is working.
Probation services have focused on strong partnership work to ensure that the resources needed to rehabilitate offenders are available. The proposals will put this work at risk. It is things like housing, employment, mental health and substance misuse treatment that are needed to increase the chances of an offender living a crime-free life. The proposals will make it very difficult for probation to remain locally embedded in the 32 London boroughs and so influence the way offenders can access these resources.
A big question remains about the affordability of the proposals. The government expects an increase of work with the inclusion of the "under 12 month? custody offenders having some supervision. The Ministry of Justice also needs to reduce its budget by 20%. Of course, competition does often mean a greater focus on efficiency but, bearing the sums in mind, it looks as though it will be challenging to avoid adverse effects on quality.
The Probation Service would welcome the opportunity to compete alongside other providers but the MoJ proposals make this impossible. The argument is that, because these new contracts will have an element of "payment-by-results?, the public sector cannot take on this risk. But, in other sectors such as health, this ruling does not apply.
And, of course, there are concerns about how "payment-by-results?, will work in practice. Some fear cherry-picking and behaviour motivated by profit rather than by the welfare of individuals.
Where is the evidence?
Wholesale change is planned: new products designed or encouraged, a new national commissioning and procurement structure, a new market to be developed, a new smaller public sector probation to be put in place, a new requirement to supervise short-term prisoners, and an untried "payment-by-results? approach to be developed ? and all to be achieved in two years. There is no evidence base for these changes; in fact, all the experts in the field believe the changes will affect the real progress made by probation. Our Probation Service is recognised across the world and has developed over 105 years and yet it could be destroyed in two.
Those of us leading probation are not afraid of change ? it?s the basis of our work with offenders ? but let the professionals who are managing a successful service have a greater say in what will make a difference.
Heather Munro, Chief executive, London Probation Trust and vice-chair, Probation Chiefs? Association