Grayling’s much acclaimed (or defamed) ‘Rehabilitation Revolution’ has, once again, forced the world of Probation to revisit the concepts around ‘what works’ in ‘addressing offending behaviour’. The introduction of the private and, marginally at most, the voluntary sector into the delivery of Probation services has been justified by the argument that these new players will bring with them ‘innovation’ and ‘creativity’, offering new ways of working with offenders in ‘addressing offending behaviour’, utilising their ‘expertise’ and ‘experience’ in working with this client group.
In preparing for the new universe, most of the bidders have acknowledged that there is no ‘magic bullet’ whilst simultaneously seeking to convince the commissioners at the MoJ that they have found it. The commissioners will have interviewed the new players, nodding sagely throughout their presentations, and poured over the bids looking for evidence of the promised ‘innovation’ and ‘creativity’ whilst simultaneously seeking to determine which of the bids offers the greatest amount of ‘more’ for the greatest amount of ‘less’. The ‘desistance model’ seems to have been the one that caught their ear. Desistance; yes. We can sell that. Desistance: abstain, cease, stop. The latest ‘magic bullet’ in a market where ‘magic bullets’ are ostentatiously ignored and, simultaneously, embraced.
Tragically, Probation practitioners have known for decades ‘what works’ and have sought to alert their Ministry to the facts but to no avail. The need to airbrush ‘Probation’ in all it’s glory from the history books has been the overriding ambition of a overwhelmingly ambitious Secretary Of State and his Prison Service lackeys, whose distaste for ‘lefties’, prison reformists and social workers in general is a matter of record. It’s all about employment and accommodation now, folks, even if they already had both when they offended. Probation practitioners (I am trying not to use the term Probation Officer as I know that this can be divisive) know what is needed. The list, whilst not exhaustive, begins as follows:
- Immediate access to decent mental health services; and/or
- Immediate access to properly funded and sustainable detoxification and rehabilitation services, both abstinent and non-abstinent in nature; with effective throughcare; and/or
- Long-term counselling for adult survivors of child sexual abuse; and/or
- Bereavement counselling; and/or
- Family Therapy: and/or
- Effective social work services: and/or
- Affordable and secure accommodation (AND floating support, not JUST floating support): and/or
- Secure, long-term employment opportunities: and/or
- Swift and adequate benefit payments, sensitive to interruption: and, most importantly
- The right to fail and to be allowed to try again and again and again.
The requirement to enforce any form of community sentence or period of licence supervision is entirely defensible, given the responsibilities to the victims of further offending, but every Probation practitioner understands the potentially negative effect this can have on the process of rehabilitation. Programmes of intervention are often interrupted and re-engagement can present difficulties for all parties. Services or funding accessed pre-breach may no longer be available and, even if the potential is there, the offender has often had to go to the back of the queue whilst someone else has a ‘chance’.
The use of ‘signposting’ has appeared in the bids. Current wisdom is that we, the Probation Service, ‘do not have the expertise’ to do everything. We are not drug counsellors or family therapist or employment specialists so why not ‘signpost’ our offenders to those agencies who do have that expertise and who are, fortuitously, funded to deal with these issues. It may come as a surprise, to the creative innovators who are now in charge, that we, the public sector Probation practitioners, have been doing this for decades. The problem is, has and always will be that the services listed above, the ones that ‘work’, are massively underfunded and increasingly rationed to a critical few.
The services that work are often simply not there or all but inaccessible, particularly in rural areas. Chronic underfunding often means that the interventions on offer are inadequate (one month’s drug rehab where the assessed need is for nine?) or there are delays in accessing services that mean that periods of supervision lapse or people re-offend whilst on a waiting list. In addition, as a consequence of commissioning models and the ‘race to the bottom’, providers are often staffed with poorly paid workers who are continually leaving to get better jobs and whose replacements, after a gap of a few weeks or months, are just arriving and are not yet properly trained.
The ‘expertise’ of the organisations is as often as not rhetorical rather than real and it is not uncommon to find that an experienced Probation practitioner HAS got more knowledge and experience than the provider on their area of ‘expertise’ (this is not always the case and there are many well established partners that have provided sterling service to Probation for decades. Sadly, they have all been sidelined as well and, despite their genuine knowledge and experience, are facing replacement by new faces).
The question for Probation practitioners is not ‘shall we refer’ but has always been ‘what do we do while we wait’, wait for referrals to generate a response, wait for the service to get up and running or to recruit the lone worker to fill that vacancy in the Probation office. What can we do while we wait and how can the needs of the offender be addressed when the ‘expertise’ allegedly on offer remains inaccessible? This is one of the reasons why Probation Officers were historically trained as Social Workers and why proper professional training is crucial for the management of this client group to be effective. The offenders need support whilst they are waiting their turn.
For some years now, the privatisation of various arms of ‘social/welfare services’, in their broadest sense, has involved a model whereby private providers come in, reduce the staffing levels, reduce the terms and conditions of staff and increase caseloads. They close down small units and create bigger ones, centralise services, ‘cream and park’ service users and place additional pressure on staff and service users alike in order to redirect money from services to shareholders. There is no innovation here. It is an established process which is simply modelled to the specific circumstances at hand. In Probation, this will result in higher caseloads and more superficial contact (if any – watch out for a reporting kiosk opening near you).
The simple truth is, beyond a tiny number of commissioned partners intermittently on site, the referrals will go all but unanswered. The drug user abused as a teenager will continue to self-medicate. The DV victim will continue to drink to get herself through the day whilst the street drinker will do so to get himself through the night. The heroin addict will use whilst waiting for a methadone prescription whilst the mentally disordered offender will self-medicate whilst awaiting an appointment with the CMHT. The support offered by a kiosk or a mentor will just not cut it in this environment. Managing these vulnerable individuals using group-work may work sometimes but, more often than not, the vulnerabilities in question will militate against engagement in this kind of operating model.
The expertise and corporate memory of the Probation Service has been marginalised by the arrogance and ignorance of politicians and civil servants. The offer to use the only evidenced experience of community supervision to manage the under 12-months custody cohort was ignored because the desire to privatise was overwhelming and sufficient to blind the players to the risks. The warnings were unheeded and the ensuing chaos will be ignored for as long as possible. ‘What works’ is a known quantity and will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever achieved anything within the context of community supervision. What doesn’t work, in any industry, is letting inexperienced and untried providers using untested delivery models ‘have a crack at it’.