What Works in Reducing Reoffending?
When the New Labour government was elected in 1997, Tony Blair sought to make a distinction between the policies of New Labour and those of the previous Conservative government, on the grounds that his policies were based on empiricism, on ‘what works’, as opposed to the ideologically‐based policies of his predecessors.
The Probation Service stood to gain from such an approach. All the evidence showed that the Service was successful; that it had itself learnt the lessons of ‘what works’ and now surely the Michael Howard view that ‘prison works’ would be properly debunked.
As this article will seek to demonstrate, the opposite proved to be the case. It transpired that New Labour did not literally mean ‘what works’, for example in reducing reoffending. They meant ‘what works’ in appeasing the views that emerged from a simplistic interpretation of focus groups, even if those views meant increasing prison numbers further and meant playing down the success and effectiveness of probation, toughening up its image and its language, despite the negative impact such policies would have on reducing reoffending.
This article will also show how the Probation Service has suffered from structural reform which has also been based on dogma rather than empiricism, the dogma that asserts that public service structures should facilitate ‘contestability’, providing the possibility of a market between different providers of services. This article argues that structural reform predicated on the ability to introduce contestability is having a detrimental impact on the effectiveness, and potentially on the future, of the Probation Service.
Why Should Society be Proud of the Probation Service?
The Probation Boards' Association Annual Report for 2004–2005 (Probation Boards' Association 2005) under the heading ‘Saving a treasure for the nation’ simply states:
In Western Europe the Probation Service of England and Wales is held up as a role model. In Eastern Europe countries are replicating it with enthusiasm, benefiting from the expertise of the service. Major contracts have been secured to deliver our probation model in numerous places across the world.
At any one time, nearly 200,000 people are under the supervision of the Probation Service which provides genuinely cost‐effective solutions for managing offenders, both in the community and in prison.
Work in the courts and with offenders is delivered by highly qualified and committed people. It all works because it is local, professional and integrated. It has survived because, year after year, like any successful business it has trimmed and changed, developed and evolved. And over the years, it has stayed true to its fundamental principle – that rehabilitation of offenders is good for them and good for society too. (p.1)
the Service has successfully achieved its own timeliness enforcement target. (p.21)
Napo, the trade union and professional association for family court and probation staff, published Changing Lives (Napo 2007), to celebrate the centenary of the Probation Service. It contains not only an illustrated history of the Service but also a number of oral histories by retired probation officers. The oral histories time and again refer to the fact that ‘they wanted to make a difference’. The qualities that staff brought, and still bring to their jobs, runs throughout the whole book. These are qualities of which any society should be proud.
The Probation Service is also the custodian of an important value base at the centre of the criminal justice system.
As Winston Churchill said as Home Secretary in 1910:
The mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country.
A calm and dispassionate recognition of the rights of the accused against the state, and even of the convicted criminals against the state, a constant heart‐searching by all charged with the duty of punishment, a desire and eagerness to rehabilitate in the world of industry all those who have paid their dues in the hard coinage of punishment, tireless efforts toward the discovery of curative and regenerative processes, and an un‐altering faith that there is a treasure, if you can only find it, in the heart of everyman, these are the symbols which in the treatment of crime and criminals mark and measure the stored‐up strength of a nation and are the sign and proof of the living virtue in it. (Hansard, House of Commons, col. 1354, 20 July 1910)
Ministers' Treatment of the Probation Service
Despite the proud record of the Probation Service, the past decade and a half has been marked by a significant lack of public support for the Service by a succession of Ministers.
The first real knock to the Service came when Michael Howard, as the Conservative Home Secretary, abolished the probation training qualification in 1995. Although the Labour government elected in 1997 restored a professional probation training qualification, the verbal assaults on the Service have increased in past years.
These attacks came to a head in November 2006 when the then Home Secretary, John Reid, made a speech in Wormwood Scrubs Prison which was a full frontal attack on the Probation Service. He said that the Service was ‘not working as well as it should’ and his recipe was to bring in competition and the skills of the voluntary sector (Reid 2006).
Apart from such specific attacks by government on the Service, it has missed Ministerial championing and support when it has been faced with unjustified assaults from the tabloid press. Individual service leaders have regularly claimed that they were unable to speak out because of Civil Service protocols.
In December 2005, the murder of John Monckton by Damien Hanson and Elliott White, both of whom were under probation supervision at the time, led to the vilification of the Service in parts of the national press. It was correct that the Service be held to account in such cases, but explanations which sought to put the case in context were left to Napo, and the Probation Boards' Association.
To probation staff, it seemed that Ministers, who changed the Probation Service's role to include public protection, had then failed to resource the Service adequately and refused to explain or accept responsibility for the consequences of their actions.
The government's lack of public support for the Service also reflected its unease with probation as a social work entity. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s there was a move towards the Service being more about enforcement and punishment. The incoming Labour administration built on Michael Howard's ambivalence about the Service and changed it finally into being an agent of public protection. Whatever the merits of that decision, it has been seen by most practitioners as ‘setting the Service up to fail’.
The press attacks, coupled with lack of Ministerial support, have undermined the self‐confidence of the Service.
Rod Morgan, the Probation Service's former Chief Inspector and former chair of the Youth Justice Board, said in Napo's (2007) Changing Lives:
For various reasons much of the service's self‐belief and the public understanding it enjoyed was lost in the run in to and immediately following the new millennium. The service was cast adrift in a sea of structural uncertainty, incoherent management speak, ideologically‐driven poor leadership and political vacillation. (p.93)
He also spoke of the opportunities for probation to be recognised again ‘as a confident and respected profession’ (p.80).
There were times in 2007/08 when it seemed that Ministers would once more speak up for the Service. Jack Straw addressed the Howard League AGM in November 2007, saying: ‘Today we have a Probation Service which is delivering more and delivering it better than I suggest, it has done in its history’ (Straw 2007, p.3).
In the spring of 2008, Secretary of State, David Hanson produced the booklet, Community Sentencing: Reducing Reoffending, Changing Lives (Ministry of Justice 2008a). Its purpose was to promote community sentences to the public.
Barely a week after this booklet was produced, however, it was to be another report which received all the press attention. Louise Casey, a former civil servant and former head of the Government Respect Unit, produced her review of criminal justice: Engaging Communities in Fighting Crime (Cabinet Office 2008). This review stated that the government faced a crisis of confidence in the justice system. It put forward that the public thinks the system is remote, opaque and stacked in favour of the ‘offender’, it does not believe crime is going down, and 55% say it is the most important issue facing Britain.
The Casey Review urged Ministers to make justice more visible, by putting offenders doing community ‘payback’ in uniform, displaying ‘conviction posters’ in neighbourhoods, outsourcing unpaid work from the Probation Service and appointing a commissioner to press the interests of victims across government.
The Review ignored the fact that prison numbers in England and Wales continued to break all records, being higher per head of population than, for example, China, Burma, Sudan, Syria, Saudi Arabia and Zimbabwe.
Prison numbers in England and Wales stood at 82,682 in May 2008 (NOMS 2008a, p.1), and increased by 30% in the ten years from 1997 to 2007 (Ministry of Justice 2008b, p.82). To quote the Prison Reform Trust's 2008 Bromley Briefing:
When Labour came to power in May 1997 the prison population was 60,131. Previously it took nearly four decades (1958–1995) for the prison population to rise by 25,000. (Prison Reform Trust 2008, p.4)
Prison numbers continued to rise because people were being imprisoned for longer. Sentencers were imposing longer sentences and there was an increase in the actual time served in prison, mainly as a result of new laws – mandatory life terms, indeterminate sentences. There has also been more criminal justice legislation since 1997 than in the whole of the previous century. The Labour government created 3,605 new criminal offences between 1997 and 2008 (House of Commons 2008, para. 13).
Criminal justice policies based on talking tough and the language of punishment have been the flavour of the decade. These policies have been pursued in the name of the victim and the law‐abiding citizen. But to what end? According to Louise Casey most people cling stubbornly to the view that crime is rising and blame the government. A minority accepts that it has fallen, but does not give the government credit. New Labour has, it seems, been hoist by its own petard, becoming the victim of its own expectation‐raising and criminal justice system‐bashing rhetoric.
So what was Loiuse Casey's solution? More punishment, more humiliation, more populist measures to appease an apparently angry and anxious public – a vicious and never‐ending cycle.
When people like Lousie Casey speak out, there should be voices of reason and common sense that Ministers can listen to and take advice from; voices of what actually works in reducing reoffending. There should also be voices speaking out publicly to explain where Loiuse Casey was wrong, as well as where she was right. There should have been public voices pointing out that so much of what she was recommending was already in place, including visible unpaid work, and legislation for a victims' commissioner: (legislation passed in 2002, but not, to date, enacted).
Napo spoke out, and Napo's press release read:
Any moves to increase the involvement of the community and magistrates in the oversight and planning of community penalties is to be welcomed. However, putting offenders in uniforms, naming and shaming them on billboards and making community service as demeaning as possible will not reduce crime. The proposals will humiliate offenders rather than rehabilitate them. (Napo 2008)
Following the publication of the Casey Review in June 2008, Ian Loader, Professor of Criminology at Oxford, wrote in The Guardian on 19 June that there has been a:
shift in the meaning of political responsibility. No longer can criminal justice be left to experts who, as they see it, ‘effectively’ and ‘humanely’ manage the crime problem on the public's behalf. Nor is it the task of government to restrain education or lead opinion on criminal justice matters. Not any more. Paternalism has been replaced by a political disposition that holds it to be the task of government to elicit the experiences of customers and act accordingly – to be a translator of consumer will. Hence the predominance of populist measures, the care taken to avoid appearing ‘soft’, and the advent of a penal system in which a right, but unpopular course is pursued with trepidation and by stealth. (Loader 2008)
Penal populism comes at a cost however. It costs approximately £39,000 a year to keep someone in prison (House of Lords 2008) and approximately £2,400 to supervise an individual community order (House of Lords 2007). Probation is more effective in reducing reoffending, with 50.5% of those released reconvicted after two years, compared with 64.7% for prisons (Home Office 2007b, p.11). So why is it that logic does not prevail; why is it not recognised that there could be huge savings from not just investing in probation but by promoting probation? Proper investment in the Probation Service could lead to the achievement of even lower reconviction rates.
Politicians do their opinion polls, and what research shows is that when you ask people their attitudes to crime, if you ask crude simple questions then people are punitive and want punishment. If you ask more nuanced questions, if you talk about individuals and individual crimes, if you actually talk to victims themselves, then what people really want is something that works, something that reduces reoffending.
Unfortunately it seems that in opinion polls politicians are not very nuanced, and Ministers conclude that penal populism is where the votes are. Speaking up for the Probation Service is therefore not seen as a vote winner.
It seems that Ministers believe that more votes are to be had from attacking the Probation Service than from praising it. Attacking the Service has also enabled it to justify its never‐ending structural reforms, undertaken to enable contestability and competition to be introduced. Continuous structural reform over recent years has also taken its toll, not only on the confidence of the Service but also on its ability to have a spokesperson at a senior level, whose advice Ministers will heed.
The full history of the Probation Service during the years 1907 to 1997 is documented in various books including Whitehead and Statham's (2006), The History of Probation. The history of the Service shows that despite an increased centralisation and introduction of managerialism that came in with the election of the Conservative government in 1979, local probation services continued to have much local power.
In 1997 that changed, and in Martin Wargent's (2002) Bill McWilliams Memorial Lecture, which he delivered in June 2001, on ‘The new governance of probation’, Martin spoke about the implications of the 1997 Prison and Probation Review (Home Office 1998) and I quote:
the process of modernising the probation service and its governance began formally on 16 July 1997. (p.184)
As Martin Wargent noted in that lecture it was: ‘by no means a bad example of review process’ (p.184).
The Review's original proposal, to combine the Prison and Probation Services, received very loud and vocal opposition from nearly all those involved in the criminal justice system, and the government heeded that advice. This Review was an example of proper consultation; Ministers and civil servants listened to the points that were made and introduced a structure that was broadly welcomed by all key players.
Hardly was the ink dry on the establishment of the NPD and the changes of 2001 however, than the report by Patrick Carter (2003) was published in January 2004 proposing the National Offender Management Service (NOMS). The Carter Report proposal was to bring prisons and probation under a common umbrella in order to facilitate a purchaser/provider split. The proposals were based on introducing a structure that enabled the government's new philosophy of contestability to be introduced. Seemingly, the government that came to power in 1997 on the philosophy of ‘what works’ was now to be driven by the dogma of introducing marketisation into public services.
There was no consultation on the substantive proposals in Patrick Carter's Report. The same day that the Carter Report was published, the government's response (Home Office 2004), by David Blunkett, the then Home Secretary, was produced, accepting its recommendations.
Implications of a Weakened Service
The fact that the Probation Service does not have a clear and loud voice at the centre of NOMS has many implications. The lack of a loud and powerful probation voice must inevitably impact on criminal justice policy as it affects the advice that Ministers receive. The lack of a probation voice at the centre also impacts on many aspects of the Service itself, including resources, professional standards and value and diversity and inevitably the very nature of the future of the Service.
The lack of a probation voice at the centre of NOMS, inevitably questions who speaks for the Service when it comes to the regular negotiations with the Treasury over resource allocation. In recent years the resources allocated to the Service have palpably not kept pace with workloads and the demands placed upon it. While the whole of the public sector is currently facing cuts, it does not explain why Ministers and senior civil servants do not publicly recognise that the extra resources that have gone to the Probation Service since 1997 have been more than matched by extra workloads and the increased complexities of the caseload.
Napo commissioned its own research from the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies on the subject of resources. Dr Mark Oldfield and Dr Roger Grimshaw produced the report Probation Resources, Staffing and Workloads 2001–2008 in April 2008 (Oldfield and Grimshaw 2008).
The researchers found that despite the increase in spending on probation in recent years, there had been reductions in service's budgets and many areas had been struggling to cope with balancing growing caseloads, involving more complex working practices, with a decline in resources. The report considered budgets, staffing levels and workloads. It recognised that probation caseloads had increased by almost a quarter since the creation of the National Probation Service in 2001. It accepted that over the same period the number of staff had increased, with a 77% increase in the number of probation service officers and a 70% increase in the number of managerial staff, but also recognised that the number of qualified probation officers had fallen by 4%, and the number of people training to be probation officers had also fallen by 30%.
The report noted:
• the extra complexities of probation work;
• the lengthy assessment tool;
• the various new forms of interventions;
• the nature of working with people who had offended;
• the spiralling costs of NOMS and information technology.
Their summary ends with the quote:
Our overall impression is that a period of stability, reflection and objective analysis would be beneficial for the Probation Service. We are doubtful that this is likely to be the case.
Professional StandardsThe professional standards of the Service are under threat again as a result of the revived threat to the probation training qualification.
The diploma of probation studies has been under review since 2006. It was originally planned that a good, modular based, qualifying training arrangement would be introduced at about the same time that the ‘new’ NOMS Agency came into being in April 2008, Nonetheless, plans for its introduction were aborted at short notice seemingly because there were questions about its cost, its affordability and flexibility.
It is critical that the Probation Service retains a high level of professional training. It is sensible to make it modular and inclusive, to cover all staff, and to ensure the proper provision of training for probation service officers as well as probation officers, but it's got to be a training that is effective, that ensures the highest standards of professionalism, as well as underpinning the ethos and the values of the Service.
A large‐scale campaign based on speaking up for the importance of probation training was fought in the mid‐1990s when Michael Howard abruptly stopped the probation officer training qualification. The campaign involved not only Napo as the trade union and professional association, but also the employers, the chief officers, and the higher education institutes. With the election of the Labour government in 1997, the Service had a professional training qualification, based in higher education, restored.
If the Service was to face another training gap, and potentially another attack on the quality of the training provided, it is not clear whether the current probation employers and probation chief officers would be as robust as their counterparts in the mid‐1990s in standing up and speaking up for the Service.
Values and Diversity
David Calvert Smith (2005) the former head of the Crown Prosecution Service, who led the Commission for Racial Equality (2005) Inquiry into the police in 2005, spoke at a conference in 2005 where he stated that the criminal justice system was explicitly about moral issues and that, as the State imposes its will in judging right and wrong, it is the most important institution in British society in promoting race equality.
In other words, clarity about values and recognising the importance of anti‐racist practice and anti‐discriminatory practice generally, in a service such as the Probation Service, should not be seen as an optional extra. Nevertheless from the publication of Patrick Carter's original report recommending NOMS in 2004, through the various consultation papers that have emerged since, all have been silent on the implications of any proposed structural changes for diversity and anti‐discriminatory practice.
At the time of researching for this memorial lecture, in May 2008, I looked on the NOMS website for ‘values’ and all I found was a reference to ‘best value’. When I asked NOMS officials about NOMS values the week before the lecture, I was told that ‘the current lack of a values statement had been identified at an away‐day the week previously’.
Hindpal Singh Bhui (2006) gave the Bill McWilliams Memorial Lecture in 2005, highlighting the threat of NOMS to anti‐racist practice. Hindpal's argument was that anti‐racism was not perfect in either the Prison Service or the Probation Service, but that:
the conditions for long‐term anti‐racist practice are more established in Probation, and they are in danger of being fatally undermined within the new structure unless there is serious and sustained consideration of the importance of probation culture and ethos to the journey towards race equality. (p.186)He recognised that the Prison Service has the advantage of a tighter management structure providing for the control and command model, which has some benefits in promoting specific practices. He argued however that without the necessary ethos and values on the ground in the Service, the control and command model alone could not maintain anti‐racist practice. The lecture also identified the importance of training for an organisation's ethos and values, and contrasted the inadequacy of the eight‐week training for a prison officer, compared with the two‐year professional training for probation officers.
The Bishop of Worcester spoke at the service to mark the centenary of the Probation Service in Westminster Abbey in June 2007. He spoke of the Probation Service needing qualities of solidarity and mutual support. He went on to say:
If the environment in which you are to work puts persons of compassion in competition with each other for work – and it starts to look that way – then the vision of human flourishing for which the Service stands, involves as never before the disciplines of mutual support and supervision that will enable disappointment when it comes not to debilitate and embitter. And if there is, as it seems, to be no National Probation Service to represent to our society the vision of human flourishing which this Service represents, then it will be for you in your National Association to continue to hold before us all a vision of what it takes for human beings to grow and change. (Worcester 2007) Clearly Napo has, and will continue, to speak up for the Probation Service. Given the continuing current lack of public support from Ministers, it is necessary for all those who care about probation being prepared to stand up and be counted in its defence.
In many ways the annual Bill McWilliams Memorial Lecture is part of that campaign to speak up for Probation. The lecture keeps the ideal of probation that Bill McWilliams embodied alive and it's that flame of commitment to the probation ideal that Napo seeks to promote and it's what's kept the Service going for the last 101 years.
Napo's campaign against NOMS since 2004 has been based on the slogan ‘Keep Probation, Keep it Local and Keep it Public’. It is difficult to envisage the future of a Probation Service if it is dependent on a mixture of private and voluntary sector bodies to speak up for it. To remain ‘a treasure for the nation’, as described by the Probation Boards' Association, the Probation Service must necessarily remain as a coherent public service, based on local boards, with a clear spokesperson for the Service at a senior organisational level.
Ultimately it can be argued that the Probation Service is about people more than structures. It's about people continuing to join the Service, a public service, who are committed to the probation ideal, who use their head, their heart and their passion and their professionalism and their values to make a difference, to reduce reoffending, to change lives.
Ultimately we have to rely on the fact that the people who will continue to join the Probation Service, future generations of probation workers, hopefully future Napo members, will be the people who will have to join forces, to speak up loudly for probation.