Of course it was Tony Blair's Labour administration that cooked up the daft idea of a forced marriage between the two distinctly differing cultures of prison and probation in the first place with the creation of the National Offender Management Service. Right from the start the dead hand of prison management was put in control as NOMS duly set about introducing the idealistic aspiration of something called 'seamless end-to-end offender management', and supposedly assisted by our much-loved friend OASys.
So, some years down the line, how's it doing? The answer according to this joint report is badly, which comes as no great surprise to probation staff, but makes grim reading never-the-less. However, as academic Rob Allen points out, there may be some that mistakenly feel the report gives succour to Chris Graylings plans for TR:-
Whatever irritation Justice ministers may have felt about the weekend leaking of the risk report on their Transforming Rehabilitation changes , will have given way to delight with today’s inspection findings about the failures of offender management. Why? Because the findings can be used to make the case for the radical changes that they want to introduce to the prison and probation system.
The failings identified by the inspectors are real and need attention but the report does not make the case for throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Prison staff may be insufficiently trained to do the work; there are too few rehabilitation programmes, poor recording and a limited integration of offender assessments into the wider prison experience. But these are capable of fixing through proper resourcing and good management.
The Inspectors may even be right to conclude that the current arrangements should be subject to fundamental review. Where they are wrong is to say that this should be taken forward as part of the strategy of implementing Transforming Rehabilitation. The review is needed before the landscape of offender management is profoundly and irreversibly reconfigured, not when the bulldozers have moved in.
I would agree entirely, but would go further and say that it proves beyond doubt the folly of putting prison managers in charge of NOMS, and hence what is left of the probation ideal.
The joint report makes much of the differing culture, training and supervision between probation and prison staff and in particular how this impinges on the quality of an absolutely vital part of offender management, that of risk. I notice that Russell Webster picks up on this today in his blog post highlighting an article by Professor Fergus McNeill in the latest edition of the British Journal of Community Justice.
Firstly, TR seems to me to be based on several fundamental misconceptions about risk. Many informed commentators have noted the dangers of creating an organisational structure that reifies risk classifications; that assumes people can be easily or sensibly classified for any period of time as high, medium or low risk. They have also pointed out - repeatedly - that most ‘serious further offences’ by people under supervision are carried out by those classified as low or medium risk - not necessarily because the assessment and classification was wrong, but often because risk is dynamic and situational; it is always changing.
My concern with risk is a slightly different one. Ever since NOMS has elected to pursue a policy that resources should follow risk, it has slipped into the assumption that people who present a high risk of harm require the most intensive supervision. In one sense they do – public safety demands that they be closely monitored. But the ‘risk principle’ in the ‘what works’ research said something quite different; i.e. that people who presented a high risk of reoffending - whatever the likely gravity of their crimes - required (and benefited most from) intensive interventions. The reason was obvious. People who offend persistently tend to have very complex personal and social problems and it takes considerable time and skill to address those problems in a way that reduces risk. Yet TR seems to me to be built on the assumption that people who represent a low or medium risk of harm (but who often represent a high risk of reoffending) don’t need skilled and intensive support – that their supervision can be safely delegated to less experienced, less skilled and less qualified supervisors or supporters. While desistance research certainly does suggest a potentially important role for peer mentors, other volunteers, friends and family in supporting change, it also makes abundantly clear that for people who have offended persistently (but not necessarily seriously) desistance is a complex and uncertain process - a long and winding road that requires skilled navigation. TR diminishes the likelihood of skilled navigation (for reasons I’ll elaborate further below) at the same time as making the route between services more complex and elaborate.
This article goes on to completely demolish the case for TR. Indeed we know there is absolutely no academic support for the daft and dangerous idea at all and Professor McNeill concludes his article powerfully in this way:-
Rather, my fear is that by transforming rehabilitation from being a moral good into a market good, something central to justice will be lost. Doing justice is not a task that we should contract out because it is a civic duty that citizens owe to one another. When we seek to sell off our mutual obligations to one another, we weaken the moral bonds between us, because we treat as merely instrumental things that are in fact constitutive of ‘the good society’. Rehabilitation is one such good; it is a duty that citizens owe to one another. Those that offend owe it to those they have offended. Those that punish also owe it to those that they have punished. Is it really desirable that we seek to meet these obligations merely by paying others to do it for us? My view is that rehabilitation is best thought of as being everyone’s concern and no-one’s business. Transforming Rehabilitation risks turning it into some people’s business and no-one’s concern.