Sunday, 13 January 2013

A Raised Eyebrow

The British are well known for having virtually invented the concept of understatement. I'm sure I heard a story from the Korean War when urgent help was not forthcoming from our American allies in response to radio messages that referred to things 'getting a bit sticky'. I guess only a Brit would realise the significance of such a statement meaning that things were actually dire.

Well, thoroughly in keeping with this spirit, I notice that the Probation Chiefs Association have responded to Chris Grayling's decision to virtually abolish Probation as we know it by saying that they have 'significant concerns'.  The sort of verbal equivalent of a 'raised eyebrow'. Their statement reads as follows:-

Probation Chiefs have expressed significant concerns about proposals for the future of probation work in England and Wales, outlined by the Secretary of State today (Wed 9th January).

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said: “The public sector Probation Service will retain ultimate responsibility for public protection and will manage directly those offenders who pose the highest risk of serious harm to the public.”

We believe that these cases will be the 50,000 offenders, of the 240,000 currently managed by probation, assessed as high risk of harm.The Justice Secretary also said: “The great majority of community sentences and rehabilitation work will be delivered by the private sector and voluntary organisations, which have particular expertise in this area.”

Although these offenders are deemed medium and low risk of harm, they include child protection cases, violence against the person and domestic violence cases. This group also includes offenders at high risk of reoffending, such as prolific burglars, chaotic drug users and gang members. These are all complex and potentially dangerous individuals who require professional expertise in their management.
The Government’s model will also require significant movements of cases between the public sector and new providers, as around a quarter of all offenders change risk during the course of their sentence. Moving cases between different organisations could increase the risk to the public due to a lack of clarity over who is accountable for the management of the case. The assessment, case management and ongoing risk management of cases should not be split in this way. Public sector probation should continue to deliver this function in its entirety – otherwise clear lines of accountability and an ability to protect the public from changing levels of risk will be lost.
The Secretary of State has used the high reconviction rates for short sentence   prisoners as justification for reforming probation, when, in fact, probation has never been given any responsibility for managing these sentences. While we welcome the new focus on community licence conditions in relation to short term prisoners, our expertise in reducing reoffending by 10% since 2000 provides clear evidence that we should be central to the Government’s plans. Probation reduces reoffending as well as protecting the public.

The MoJ competition for Community Payback in London took two years. This was a single service in a single area.  These new proposals, with national coverage and multiple contracts, dwarf the London outsourcing. We must question the feasibility of this scale of reform within an 18-month period.
We will use the six-week consultation period to both explore critical risk issues and to establish how these plans will fit with the plethora of local commissioning arrangements that probation currently leads. Discussions with Sentencers, Police and Crime Commissioners and other key local partners will be a priority in the coming weeks.
The Probation Association have gone in for a bit of understatement too, saying they 'have issues' with the government's proposals:-

We support the Government's identification of the major gap in post-sentence supervision and interventions for prisoners released after sentences of less than 12 months and have long believed that plugging this gap should be a matter of priority. This group has the highest reoffending rates. The Secretary of State has used this high reconviction rate as justification for reforming probation, but, in fact, probation has never been given responsibility or funds to introduce these services.

We very much support the Government's focus on rehabilitation. This has long been the raison d'ĂȘtre of probation. The latest MoJ figures show that re-offending by those on probation has continued to steadily fall since 2000. The Secretary of State is also expecting his changes to make no more than a steady year-by-year decline in reoffending.

The Secretary of State has put his proposals out for consultation for six weeks. We want to to work with Government to overcome many significant issues the proposals raise, including:

  • Meeting the ambitious - given recent comparable experience - timetable for change, while at the same time ensuring that the public continues to be well-protected
  • Securing a safe, efficient and accountable way to achieve the Secretary of State's vision of probation protecting the public and managing risk, when delivery of the great majority of community sentences and rehabilitation work is in the private sector and voluntary organisations
  • Ensuring the public is protected under a system that moves cases between different organisations, depending on the level of risk. A quarter of all offenders change risk during the course of their sentence
  • Ensuring that the increase in national commissioning does not replicate the failures and poor service from current national contracts
  • Fitting the plans with the Government's localism agenda, including the newly elected Police and Crime Commissioners and the plethora of local commissioning and partnership arrangements with which probation is currently involved, or leads
  • Explaining to staff, probation stakeholders and others how these changes will improve the current system, in the absence of evidence from, for example, specific pilots or research

Details of the proposals and consultation document can be found here. You have until 22nd February to make your views known. This article from the Guardian gives a bit more background and analysis, including Graylings admission that 'reductions in reoffending cannot be expected overnight'. Maybe not till he's moved on to his next post even.


  1. Of perhaps equivalent concern, and maybe a reflection of how naive I am, but have we really got 50,000 people on probation who are a high risk of harm to the public?

    So, why are they not still in prison? Have they really been released prior to the end of their sentence if they are high risk? Can they be held past their sentence if they are considered to be at high risk of re-offending?

    Frankly, sod the cost of keeping someone in prison, just what is the rationale of letting someone out we expect to re-offend?

    If it is rehabilitation, by classifying them as high risk we don't think they will be rehabilitated to we?

    I know this is assuming uniformity across all offenders, but still ...

    1. Well Marc the short answer is 'yes'. There is no legal means to keep a person in prison beyond their release date, whatever level of risk they might pose. The situation is different for indeterminate sentences such as IPP or life sentences and the Parole Board will only release when risk levels are deemed to have reduced.

      When a person is felt to be of high risk of harm to the public, then MAPPA processes should enable a high degree of monitoring and information exchange between agencies that should help reduce any possible harm and initiate speedy recall for those on licence. For those on probation not licence, speedy arrest if offences are committed.

      However, as I've said many times before, measuring risk is not a science, judgement has to be used. In my view OASys has hindered this process enormously. It's also not static and can go up or down due to many factors and the bloody paperwork created by risk movements in OASys is simply a nightmare.