The probation service has many friends and I thought it might be worth seeing what some are saying in relation to our present predicament.
Here we have Geoff Dobson OBE former Chief Probation Officer and chair of the Association of Chief Probation Officers, now of the Prison Reform Trust, and an article published in the Guardian in May 2012:-
"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."
He expanded on the article when speaking at NAPO's 100th anniversary AGM in October last year:-
"Probation has a long track record of outstanding partnership work with other agencies.
Probation is the lynchpin of multi-agency public protection arrangements (MAPPA) and
the many well organised integrated offender management services, drawing together
Probation, police, prisons, local authority services and community resources, have an
impressive record of impacting on recidivism by prolific offenders.
The Justice Select Committee’s thorough examination of the role of the Probation
Service, published just over a year ago, concluded:
'We believe that responsibility to the courts and the community for offender management must remain with a publicly accountable probation service. However, there is plenty of scope for specific services and facilities that support offender management to be offered by a range of providers. Examples include the provision of (non-approved premises) accommodation, electronic monitoring, curfews, mental health support, drug and alcohol treatment, learning and training, and family support. These services should be delivered by whichever provider can facilitate them most effectively with the greatest economy.'
The current proposals would result in arguably the most significant changes to the
Probation Service in more than 80 years. They ignore MoJ research which shows that
community sentences for 18-24 year olds currently 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 between community sentences and short prison sentences
remains a robust 8%. So why not build on this evidence base by investing in and further
strengthening the delivery of community court orders, rather than creating a fragmented
system that places the public at risk?"
Mike Guilfoyle worked as a probation officer in London for 20 years and recently wrote a reflective piece for the Left Central Blog asking if the probation service has a future:-
"The Probation Service that met all its targets in 2011/12 and indeed won a Golden Award for Excellence in 2012 is now being expected to reorganise twice in the next 6 months and many see these moves as wrong headed, poorly evidenced policy driven wanton ideological vandalism, likely to fragment service delivery and compromise public protection. After 105 years the demise of the Probation Service now looks ever more likely if these proposals proceed unamended. It is with some historic irony that a service founded at a time of progressive liberal reform now faces its endpoint under a Coalition Government. It maybe that Nick Clegg ‘s prescient words when he spoke to Napo at the time of the centenary in 2007 could well serve as its swansong ’it is crucial that the unglamorous, painstaking, yet hugely important work of the service is cherished, not undermined, by both government and opposition parties'. We shall see."
Mention of Nick Clegg in Mike's piece serves to highlight the difficulty many liberal democrats have in relation to the coalition's privatisation proposals. Writing on the Liberal Democrat Voice blog here is another retired probation officer using the name Sandra James:-
"They will be paid by results – i.e. they must demonstrate a fall in re-offending. Low risk means low risk of harm, but these offenders are often prolific, cause endless public nuisance with their drug and alcohol related offending, shop lifting and vandalism. Remember for every low risk offender there is also a victim. Low risk offenders are frequently difficult, dysfunctional and occasionally violent. Working with them takes skill, training and experience. Exactly the kind of experience the existing Probation Service has."
Finally, here is Tim Newburn, Professor of Criminology and Social Policy at the London School of Economics:-
"The sense that the reforms are at least partly ideologically driven is reinforced by the absence of evidence in support of much that is proposed. Whilst reoffending rates are fairly high, the focus of much of the Justice Secretary’s express concern has been on the reconviction rates of short sentenced prisoners – i.e. precisely those that are not currently supervised by the probation service. Indeed, data from the Ministry of Justice show that the probation service met most of its targets in the last year and that reconviction rates have been improving. What of the private sector? The G4S Olympics shambles appears quickly to have been forgotten, despite the Home Affairs Committee suggesting as recently as September 2012 that a rethink of the role of the private sector in the provision of public services ‘would be a wise thing to do’. Then there is the issue of delivery. In future, work in this field will be delivered via ‘payment by results’ (PbR) despite the initial pilots established to test such systems not yet providing any conclusions. Worse still, last October the Justice Secretary suspended the remainder of the pilot programmes because of the potential change of strategic direction in their use in relation to probation and reoffending. Given a decision has now been made to institute PbR across the board in this field, it seems unlikely that genuine pilot programmes have much of a role."
"As with some other policy developments in the criminal justice and penal fields (Police and Crime Commissioners – PCCs – being the best known) there is once again a sense that radical changes are being proposed, and most likely made, without the consequences being fully thought-through. In relation to this week’s announcements, there are at least three areas where this is the case. First, there seems some confusion about where responsibilities will lie. Crudely it is anticipated that the probation service will retain responsibility for high risk offenders whereas those deemed as medium or low risk will be supervised, in the main, by other providers. This assumes a level of certainty and stability that doesn’t exist. The divide between high risk offenders and others is by no means hard and fast and, furthermore, is subject to change. Who should supervise, and who has responsibility, may consequently be less clear that it seems at first blush. A second area where there is a lack of clarity concerns costs. A core part of the rationale for the changes is cost-cutting, yet the proposals envisage a very substantial expansion in work to cover all short sentenced prisoners not currently receiving supervision post-release. Very similar plans were envisaged in the Carter Review commissioned under New Labour. Custody Plus it was called then. The reason it never happened? Expense."
"The final major area where the full implications of the changes seem somewhat unclear concerns structure and geography. Enormously far-reaching changes have recently been instituted in police and crime prevention delivery. The introduction of PCCs was part of the government’s attempt to increase local involvement in delivery and accountability. A mere matter of months later the most significant changes to probation in a century are ostensibly moving in the opposite direction. Commissioning will be handled nationally and delivery will occur in 16 ‘contract package areas’. Though it is anticipated that these areas will be contiguous with combined PCC districts, the eventual outcome will almost certainly be a complex mix of providers, partners and political masters. Already there are signs that the PCC reforms are leading to some unexpected difficulties and conflicts. Sadly, we should not be surprised if the rehabilitation reforms did so too."