Continuing with the theme of Grayling's legacy, the latest thematic report from HM Chief Inspector of Probation on RARs is an absolute belter and well worth reading in full. We always knew it was mostly 'smoke and mirrors' when a 'day' could be 10 minutes and in the hands of the privateers, little sign of the 'rehabilitation' that was promised. The following gives a flavour of just what a shambles the whole thing has become:-
The problems that have beset other aspects of probation delivery of late were evident on this inspection, but here we have focused on matters particular to rehabilitation activity requirements.
These orders can aid speedy justice, increasing the proportion of cases sentenced on the day. For sentencers to consider the full range of sentence options with confidence, however, they must be given sufficiently comprehensive information about the individual and all the sentence options available, and sound advice on what is most suitable and - where a rehabilitation activity requirement is recommended - the maximum number of days to specify. This is too often difficult or else impossible, in part because of other initiatives in the wider system (such as speedy justice, and Transforming Rehabilitation). We are reviewing probation reports to court in more detail in our thematic inspection of court work, now underway.
Probation services must assess people thoroughly after sentence, plan activities most likely to reduce a person’s risk of reoffending and deliver them within the days available. If they do not do this well then sentencer confidence is undermined. We found significant shortcomings and a noticeable lack of impetus or direction in a good proportion of cases. In over one in ten, there had been no purposeful activity at all. We found early signs of a reduction in sentencer confidence.
There is an uncomfortable tension here, a symbiotic relationship between the making of the order and what is delivered, with the system leaving sentencers to assume services they are not fully confident about. We found a failure to enforce some orders when required, and sentencer confidence was affected by poor attendance in the cases that were returned to court.
A good range of services should be available to cover diverse needs. We found a limited range of services actually available, and so decisions in cases were inevitably constrained, and often pragmatic. Financial constraints are holding back full implementation of some Community Rehabilitation Companies’ wider supply chains. That is understandable, but we found little to bridge the gap pending any change to be brought about by the government’s probation services review.
I have commented before on the dated IT systems prevalent in probation services and do not wish to repeat myself unduly, but the problems are most exasperating here. Rehabilitation activity requirements are a new initiative and the systems struggle to support them in any reliable and consistent way. As a result, records are confused and usually inaccurate.
These orders have great potential. Better IT, more certainty and stability for Community Rehabilitation Companies and more expansive supply chains will all help deliver that potential, but inherent tensions remain, as sentencers must be able to sentence with confidence – with sufficient information, and also sure that probation services will deliver competently in all relevant respects. Ultimately, unless probation services delivery improves materially, government’s policy aims will not be met.
Dame Glenys Stacey
HM Chief Inspector of Probation
Introducing rehabilitation activity requirements
When making a community or suspended sentence order, a court may include a rehabilitation activity requirement – that is, a requirement that the defendant participates in activity to reduce the prospect of reoffending. Rehabilitation activity requirements are commonly known as RARs.
RARs were introduced in 2015. Formerly, court orders used to specify both the nature of an activity to be undertaken and the number of days, but now only the maximum number of days of activity need be specified. This allows for the precise activity to be determined following a more in-depth assessment after sentence and allocation to probation services, and amended subsequently if needs be. An activity day can be of any duration, from less than an hour up to one day, according to the length of the session.
The considerations the court should take into account in deciding the maximum number of RAR days for any individual are not set out in legislation, but the enabling Act makes clear that the primary purpose of RARs is rehabilitation. The court should also take into account the nature of the offending, as RARs can have functions other than rehabilitation, and indeed the order can also include other punitive requirements (for example unpaid work).
In legislating for RARs, the government aimed to ensure flexible and efficient use of sentencing so as to reduce reoffending, as it sought to encourage innovative work under new arrangements for delivering probation services, introduced at about the same time.
Table 1: The Proportion of community and suspended sentence orders made in 2015/2016 with specific requirements included.
RARs in practice
RARs have taken centre stage in community sentencing for rehabilitation, and having superseded supervision and activity requirements, as intended, they are now the vehicle for most rehabilitative activity. Orders requiring specific programmes of intervention (known as accredited programmes, deemed to be effective in reducing the likelihood of reoffending) and also alcohol, drug and mental health treatments are much less common, as Table 1 shows.
Rehabilitation Activity 29%
Accredited Programme 8%
Alcohol/Drug/Mental Health Treatment 8%
RARs in context
As RARs were introduced, established Probation Trusts were disbanded and new organisations – Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) and a National Probation Service (NPS) – created to deliver probation services. The transition has been challenging, and performance so far is variable. In our routine inspections we are finding the quality of NPS work acceptable by and large (but there are notable exceptions and shortfalls) whereas CRCs are often struggling to deliver quality work consistently well.
Generally, we are finding CRCs with high, variable or changing caseloads for some professional staff, and insufficient attention given so far to staff supervision and quality assurance. Other common shortcomings include inadequate assessment or subsequent management of the risk of harm to others, inadequate or inconsistent supervision of service users, and – of particular relevance here – insufficient purposeful intervention likely to reduce an individual’s likelihood of reoffending.
The change to new arrangements has been very demanding, and to compound matters, workload shortfalls have led to financial constraints and uncertainties for CRCs and a reluctance to commit to the settled arrangements with other providers needed to support RAR and other delivery. Information is not collected on the distribution of RAR orders (as between CRCs and the NPS) but the CRCs carry the bulk of these cases.
This is the context for our inspection of RARs.
Sentencing of RARs – court liaison
In most inspected cases the court received a pre-sentence report – as it should – before making a RAR. Only a small number were made without a report. The majority of reports were of sufficient quality to inform the court about the offending-related factors that need to be addressed. They did not, however, always include the information the court needed to decide whether a RAR was the best way to achieve this, or informed advice on the maximum number of RAR days to include, should the court decide to make a RAR.
We found no simple correlation between seriousness of offending and the number of days ordered. Ideally the number of days should relate to the anticipated activity, but it was difficult for liaison staff to give the court an accurate estimate or guide. Court liaison staff were working without any rationale for the factors they should consider, and lacked clear guidance on how to decide the maximum number of days to propose. To compound matters, they were often unaware of the actual projects that could be used in a particular case, and so their time requirements.
In practice, we found the maximum numbers of days being ordered slightly higher than that proposed, and in some cases both were considerably more than we considered were necessary. When the type of offending and the nature of the rehabilitative task were considered, in the majority of cases we inspected the number of RAR days was reasonable, and almost always sufficient to allow completion of the amount of work required.
We found scope for the potential over-use of RARs in place of accredited programmes and treatment requirements. The increasing proportion of cases assessed and sentenced on the day coupled with workload pressures meant that staff did not always have time for the more detailed assessments necessary for some other requirements. As a result there may have been a tendency to propose RARs in preference. The reduction in availability of accredited programmes in some places was also likely to have led to an increase in RARs.
Management of RARs – planning and delivery
RARs require that detailed assessments will be undertaken after sentence and following allocation of the case to a CRC or the NPS. We found those assessments insufficient in too many cases. These are pivotal as they confirm the offending-related needs of the service user and determine a plan of activity and intervention to be delivered through the requirement. They are particularly necessary in those cases where only minimal information about the offender is received from the court liaison process.
The nature of the service users’ offending and the reasons for it were mostly identified correctly, but decisions about the work to be done tended to be pragmatic and influenced more by the activities available rather than the factors most clearly linked to the offending, yet this was not the policy intention of government. Factors less related to offending were sometimes prioritised. On occasions no activity was planned to address the factors most directly related to the offending, and in the majority of cases insufficient progress had been made in addressing them.
There was a need for greater attention to public protection issues in planning and delivery of RARs. Many of the cases we looked at had been sentenced for behaviour that was harmful, and often this received insufficient attention.
Sentence plans completed in the relevant IT record (the Offender Assessment System) were often minimal and rarely included enough detail of offending-related factors, their relevant activity, and how many activity days would be used. This partly reflected the structure of the sentence planning function in the software, as it was not designed to provide the type of plan needed for delivering RARs. The best plans were those that were completed using stand-alone documents.
When it came to delivery, there was a general lack of impetus and actual progress during the sentence, with arrangements and actual delivery much looser than anticipated by government as RARs were introduced. We found a lack of discipline in setting, reviewing and keeping to plans, insufficient access to required interventions, and poor management of the order. Taking into consideration the length of time since sentence in the cases we reviewed, more of the planned RAR activities should have been delivered, and more progress made towards the intended outcomes. In some cases, RAR activities were not likely to be delivered by the end of the sentence.
Provision of RARs – strategy and content
Provision of RARs – strategy and content
RARs are being delivered in similar ways to previous supervision and activity requirements, in that we found more than half of the offending-related work delivered by responsible officers as part of their regular supervisory contact. Some of this was structured and purposeful and in places where this was the clearly anticipated model for delivery we found it was well organised. Elsewhere, few resources had been dedicated to developing group or one-to-one work packages to be delivered internally. This left the quality of work dependent on the skills and experience of the individual practitioner, with no library of individual work material readily available to draw upon.
Some CRCs planned for most RAR services to be provided externally, but not all of these services were in place, and in any event these models still envisaged that some issues would be addressed on a more individual basis. Little attention had been given to interim alternatives, and staff were in need of a more supportive and systematic approach to delivering RARs.
We found the range of external services overall narrower than we anticipated, in part due to partnership arrangements or contracts expiring before others were in place. Much of what was available was comparable to that in place in Probation Trusts. We did see examples of creative, well thought out and useful services, albeit they were driven by the external suppliers themselves, rather than CRCs.
We found no specific quality control of activities used in RARs, or any current national activity to evaluate RAR effectiveness.
Management of RARs – engagement, enforcement and recording
Insufficient attention was paid to diversity factors and engagement with service users.
Not enough RAR activity days had been delivered in the orders we looked at. An insufficient number of days were arranged, yet sentencer confidence can be undermined if the number of activity days attended is regularly and significantly lower than the maximum ordered.
The response to missed appointments was wanting, with too much discretion exercised in relation to missed attendance and enforcement. This led to a lack of sufficient progress in delivering planned RAR activities and achieving intended outcomes, and had a negative impact on sentencer confidence about orders being properly enforced.
Insufficient attention was given to effective offender management, in part due to changing staff caseloads and insufficient local guidance to responsible officers on how RARs should be delivered and recorded. The high level guidance issued by the National Offender Management Service and the National Probation Service was helpful, but the impact of this and any local guidance was often lost among other more important or immediate changes and pressures.
We found much confusion about the management and recording of RARs, and this was diverting the time and effort of practitioners. The replacement of supervision and activity requirements with a single rehabilitation activity requirement embodying both functions has complicated the legal framework, at least insofar as it is understood by many service users and probation staff. The different categories of contact (RAR activity days and RAR appointments) do not map easily on to the realities of probation activity, and so do not lay the ground for more effective delivery of rehabilitative interventions.
These problems are made worse by lack of functionality in the main case management system, nDelius. It predates RAR legislation and so is not designed to capture the new pattern of contacts. Modifications and improvements have been made but still more are required. Guidance has been issued, but it has not been effective in helping practitioners maintain accurate records.
5.7. Conclusions and implications
5.7. Conclusions and implications
The lack of sufficient progress in delivering the planned RAR activities and achievement of intended outcomes we found, along with insufficient levels of contact and too much discretion in relation to missed attendance and enforcement, was not caused by the availability or quality of RAR activities, but insufficient attention to effective offender management. This had the potential to undermine the confidence of sentencers.
The lack of attention to offender management was caused in part by the disruption to staff roles and caseloads brought about by organisational change, and insufficient guidance to responsible officers on how RARs should be delivered and recorded.
In particular there had been insufficient guidance for responsible officers as to how required case management activity that was not rehabilitative (such as the management of Child Protection risks or problems with attendance) should be carried out, albeit that the legislation provides the authority for a responsible officer to undertake such activity.
There was confusion surrounding the management and recording of RARs, and this was clearly diverting the time and effort of some practitioners from more efficacious work.
Tune in to the next blog post on how we ended-up saddled with RARs.
Tune in to the next blog post on how we ended-up saddled with RARs.