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Throwing good money after bad? Probation today

Penelope Gibbs
22 Jun 2017

There is a broad consensus about how to support people on their release from prison.  Its common sense and it’s summed up in the recent inspection report on “through the gate services”.  They need

– a safe place to sleep, from the day of release
– access to enough money to meet basic needs including food, clothing, and transport
– a sense of hope for the future
– active links into services that can assist with other needs, for example addiction and mental health services.

“Only when the basic necessities of life are in place, will people start to make some of the behavioural
changes that will support a life without further offending”. 
Behavioural changes are difficult to make and those released will also need the support of families, friends and mentors to turn their lives around.

These services have always been provided badly on release. So when Chris Grayling decided to replace the old probation service with a new system, we all hoped that these basic needs might be provided for. But, unfortunately, the new system tends to focus on contract compliance, rather than in turning lives around. Most probation services were contracted out to private companies, who need to make a profit, or at least break even. To get paid, they need to prove they have completed certain processes – only a small payment is reserved for achieving good outcomes.

The poor performance of probation (particularly the new CRC companies) is shocking, and would receive more coverage if the prisons weren’t in worse state. Two new inspection reports – on Though the Gate services and probation services in Suffolk – bare reading if you can bare to do so.

Through the gate services were set up under the new probation system to ensure that those on release were supported. CRCs took over from prisons to deliver this and many subcontracted the service to charities. But according to the inspectors, they are not achieving anything worthwhile:

“Through the Gate services as delivered now are not likely to reduce rates of reoffending. For technical and legal reasons it is impossible for CRCs to track any difference Through the Gate has made for the prisoners they have worked with, such as finding accommodation or work… The staff we met in prisons working for Through the Gate were keen and committed, and were clearly very busy writing resettlement plans to meet contractual targets. Many of them, and some of their managers, were unaware that the work they were doing was having little or no impact on the eventual resettlement of prisoners”.

The problem is that the companies are paid for producing plans, not for actually giving any help. So, when resources are tight, they just write plans. The inspectors found no cases where Through the Gate services had assisted a prisoner to get employment after release. Nor did they find CRCs promoting links to local colleges or education providers.

Housing help was hardly better. 10% of prisoners were homeless at the point of release and those that did have accomodation were too often set up to fail. “One prisoner told us that he was only earning £100 a week, but the rent for his BASS (government provided) accommodation was £194 a week. He was told that he has to pay this in full, and also knows if he gives up employment he will incur a benefits sanction. In another case a prisoner returned to previous work in the building trade but after three weeks of living in the cheapest bed and breakfast accommodation he could find, some distance from the site he was working, he lost the job for poor timekeeping”.

Those leaving prison are supervised by probation. High risk people are supervised by the public sector National Probation Service, and lower risk people by the CRCs. But if you hope that probation services pick up the pieces scattered by Through the Gate services, think again.  At least if the latest inspection report on Suffolk is a template.  For both the CRC and NPS, the quality of work was “generally poor”. This is a flavour of the inspectors’ assessment of their impact on reducing reoffending

“The CRC was dilatory in completing assessments. We found assessments were generally superficial and sentence planning was poor. The delivery of interventions was correspondingly patchy, and poor overall….The quality of (NPS) work was poor across the spectrum of work to reduce reoffending. The majority of court reports did not provide sufficient information to help the CRC undertake good, comprehensive planning. Plans were not delivered well enough. There had been insufficient progress in most cases”.

Of the CRC supervised cases, 8 out of 29 had been convicted or cautioned for another offence since the start of their supervision or licence period.  The reality of what this means comes alive in some of the cases of poor practice cited.

“Len received a suspended sentence order with a requirement to carry out a domestic abuse groupwork programme. The assessment had not included an analysis of why he had reoffended against the same victim, or of the circumstances of the end of the relationship and the current situation. There was no planning for the 40 RAR days or to monitor or address his alcohol consumption, despite this being a feature of his offending. Due to health reasons the programme had not commenced for over eight months and no other domestic abuse work had been carried in the meantime”.

“When Damien was released from prison he was homeless. He had a history of class A drug misuse and violence towards partners and family members, including child siblings, as well as members of the public. No initial assessment, sentence plan or risk management plan was ever undertaken. Management oversight, including the MAPPA eligibility forum (MEF), had failed to pick this up. (There had been no assessment since 2015, despite two other prison sentences). Contact was reactive and ad hoc and did not respond to risk of harm indicators, for example, reporting in the company of a new partner or being arrested for robbery. Damien had since been convicted of a new offence and was serving a 44 month custodial sentence”.

The tragedy of the situation is that most people who get in trouble with the law do want to turn their lives around and they are positive about their probation workers. The latter are busting a gut, but have too much work – one CRC worker in Suffolk was supposed to be supervising 236 people!

The inspections show that the whole system needs reform. It is not the fault of individual Through the Gate and probation staff that things are not working. The new probation system is focused on contract compliance (ticking boxes) because government feels they have to be able to measure the performance of contracted out services – to prove the tax payer is getting value for money.  And the new probation services have been isolated from the local public services which are essential to their success.  For example, local councils have no incentive to provide housing for those released from prison. So those trying to find housing for ex-prisoners have their hands tied behind their back. Until the whole of the public sector is financially or otherwise incentivised to help those with convictions, I fear we will make no headway with reducing re-offending.  There are many ways forward, but I feel delegating criminal justice budgets to local government is the best answer to the current chaos.