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Probation chiefs' public protection warning

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 31 August 2010

Exclusive: Probation Service chiefs in England and Wales have issued a clear warning, in a Channel 4 News survey, over their capacity to protect the public if the government goes ahead with plans to supervise more offenders in the community.

Channel 4 News Probation Services survey

If the expected budget cuts go ahead, not a single probation chief said that they would be able to offer the public the required levels of protection from offenders, with half saying they could offer such protection only "some of the time".

In an exclusive survey conducted by Channel 4 News, the Probation Service Chief Executives – responsible for managing around 200,000 adult offenders in the community at any one time - depict a service which is failing to keep up with the current levels of offenders entering the system. 

Most are agreed that resources have been spread too thinly, there is universal agreement that the current commissioning system isn’t working (a "mess" said one chief), and nearly half admitted that they were not able to offer the full range of community orders they are supposed to.

Reacting to the survey Steve Collett, vice-chair of the Probation Chiefs Association told Channel 4 News that this survey is a "wake-up call" for the new coalition and called for more resources.

He said: "I think the chiefs have given a wake-up call to this new government. We have over the last five years been operating within an increasingly complicated, bureaucratic and ever-changing environment and certainly for the last two years, we've been delivering services against reducing budgets.

"We are very supportive of the new government to increase the use of community sentences, but we also believe that we are running very efficiently probation services and therefore the government needs to find capacity from somewhere within the justice system to support this endeavour of theirs."

He said for the Probation Service to help deliver government proposals, more money needs to be made available.

He said: "One chief in particular said we are hard pressed, but just about coping and I think that's what the current position is. I think our concerns are that if we are expected to play a major part in reducing the use of short-term custody by supervising those offenders in the community then we will need some extra resources."

The survey – in which a majority of Probation Chiefs participated - will make grim reading for the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke who wants a move to more community-based punishments to play a central role in his"rehabilitation revolution".

It comes also on the day that the probation union NAPO has claimed staff supervising community payback schemes are experiencing increasing levels of threats and verbal and physical abuse.

Key findings:
Of the 35 probation chiefs in England and Wales, 20 responded to the Channel 4 News survey.

 75 per cent of Probation Chiefs surveyed believe that "neither prisons nor probation have the capacity to keep up with the current levels of offenders entering the system".
 50 per cent of Probation chiefs describe their current capacity to manage offenders effectively in the community as either "average" or "poor".
 Asked whether their services were being commissioned in the most appropriate way, all 20 respondents said no.
 65 per cent say their caseloads of offenders has increased in the last five years.
 80 per cent state resources for community-based interventions are now spread too thinly and nearly half of all those surveyed (45 per cent) admit that they aren not able to offer the full 12 requirements of community sentences.
 Only three out of 20 Probation Chiefs believe the service currently has the capacity to cope effectively with a move away from short custodial sentences to more community-based sentences (a key goal of the coalition government). 
 Just 15 per cent of respondents say they are currently able to offer the required levels of public protection "all of the time" (the rest say they can do so "most of the time").
 All 20 probation heads who responded to the survey expect budgets to be cut in the next two years.
 If budgets were cut by just 10 per cent or more, not a single probation chief said he or she would be able to offer the required levels of public protection all of the time. Half said they would be able to meet the levels "most of the time", the other half only "some of the time".

To view the full Channel 4 News survey click here

The Probation chiefs – whose staff supervise offenders on "community sentences" (70 per cent) or on licence from prison (30 per cent) – are strong advocates of the benefits of community-based penalties (such as unpaid work).

They readily cite Ministry of Justice (MoJ) figures which show that the rate of reoffending following a community sentence (36.8 per cent) is significantly lower than that following a short custodial sentence (61.1 per cent). But just three of the 20 Probation bosses polled said they were in a position to cope effectively with the proposed move away from short custodial sentences to more community-based sentences.

In the Channel 4 News survey, many commented upon the "considerable expertise" and unrivalled "capability" of the service's 20,000 staff to deliver a professional service, but bemoaned the "over bureaucratisation" of the service and increasing "gaps in resources", particularly regarding mental health treatments. "Alcohol and mental health resources are inadequate/inaccessible" commented one, while another pointed to "long waiting lists for domestic violence programmes".

What does the Probation Service do?
The National Probation Service for England and Wales (NPS) is a law enforcement agency which supervises offenders in the community – those subject to a court order and those released on licence from prison. Along with the prison service, it is part of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), which is a department of the Ministry of Justice.

At any one time the Probation Service is supervising around 200,000 adult offenders in the community, of whom 90 per cent are men. It has approximately 20,000 staff in England and Wales. The probation caseload is made up of men and women aged over 18. Of these 70 per cent are on community orders imposed by the courts and 30 per cent on licence from prison.

Offenders may be sentenced by a court to a Community Order with one or more out of a total of 12 "requirements", including "Community Payback" (unpaid work), behavioural programmes, curfews/tagging, mental health treatment and drug rehabilitation.

Protecting the public 'first priority'
Many Probation bosses reiterated that public protection remained their "first priority" and one said the proposed cuts "ought to drive efficiency and innovation". Another commented: "I think the public now gets a much better service in respect of public protection than in the past".

Others, however, were less sanguine about the anticipated budget cuts: "Resources can only be stretched so far" stated one Probation boss, while another pointed out: "we would have to fiercely prioritise those offenders who pose the greatest risk. But we know that most SFOs are committed by offenders assessed as low risk".

Ken Clarke has stated that one of the most radical proposals envisaged in the proposed reform of community sentencing involves "paying independent organisations by results in reducing reoffending".

This approach of enrolling the private sector in the work of probation receives a cautious welcome from the Probation hierarchy, many of whom are worried that the most compliant offenders will be "cherry picked" by the private companies. As one put it, there is a danger of the companies "picking the low hanging fruit and not working with the difficult and complex cases eg drug users".

The proposed reform of the criminal justice system will be unveiled in a Green Paper this autumn.

In a statement, a Ministry of Justice spokesperson insisted that any changes would not hit the services it offered:

"Public protection is the main priority for the Probation Service and it will not be put at risk through changes made to the service.

"The coalition government is looking at how private and voluntary sector providers can get involved in running community sentences - to make them tougher for criminals and better value for the taxpayer.

"The Probation Service plays an important role in rehabilitating offenders but we must look at the best options to protect the public and cut re-offending. The Probation Service must, as with all other areas of Government, make savings.

"The savings will look to retain front line services which will ensure the public is protected and re-offending is reduced. We will make the Probation Service more efficient by having more effective working practices."

'Community sentences probably saved my life'
In a moving personal story, Amy Cortvriend, 27, tells Channel 4 News community sentences probably saved her life:

I grew up the eldest child in a loving middle class family. My childhood was a happy one, barring the illness and consequent death of my younger sister. I struggled with her death and miss her, wondering what she would be like if she were alive today. 

I was expected to get good grades at school and go on to college and university. Then at the age of 14, I met a man who was 12 years my senior. He was a heroin addict and plied my friend and I with cannabis and alcohol. I was the one who ended up with him. 

I started skipping school, left home at 15, and started using amphetamines on a regular basis. I somehow managed to get good grades at school, despite being in an abusive relationship with an older man addicted to drugs. 

The first time
The first time I tried heroin was on my 16th birthday. He had taken me out to the local pub and on returning home after a few drinks offered me some. That was a one-off, for a while anyway. I found out I was pregnant a while after and stopped drink, drugs and alcohol.

I started again when I was about 17, upgrading from cannabis and amphetamines to heroin. With my partner selling it, it wasn’t long before I was addicted. He eventually got caught and convicted and I got a methadone prescription. 

For the next few years I was fairly stable, or I thought so at the time. I could go weeks or months without using my drug of choice, although I was working in a pub so I was drinking and using cocaine on occasion.

Things took a turn for the worse when I got into another abusive relationship. This one worse than the last. I was soon using every day and started using crack as well. Eventually I started stealing to help support our drug habits. It was a vicious circle, I was too scared to leave, although I tried many times. The relationship destroyed every bit of confidence and worth I had and the drugs buried everything. All the thoughts and feelings I didn’t want to have.  

Community sentences
My first community sentence was for deception. I had been getting catalogues in another woman’s name. I was given a probation order and had to see my probation worker once a week. I didn’t find it helpful at all. I think I had three probation officers over the year and it was just like a tick box exercise. 

The second was for shoplifting and I was given a supervision order with a drug rehabilitation requirement. This order was a lot more structured than the last. I was allocated a probation worker with whom I get on well and after talking about the circumstances around the offence, she got me a place on the RAMP (Reduction And Motivation Programme) to address my substance misuse, and the Freedom Programme to address my issues with domestic violence. 

I also had to attend appointments at the community drug team and ADS (Addiction Dependency Solutions), and with my probation worker. I was able to cut down my drug use and stopped altogether after a couple of months on my order. I had to attend court once a month for a review and for me this reinforced what I was doing. Each month I got positive feedback from the magistrates.

I still have the same probation worker and she helps me with anything I need support around, for example when my ex-partner turned up at my house recently she liaised with the police, and social services. I have not yet started the women’s programme but I expect it will support and add to what I have learned so far in my journey.

My biggest challenge I think was learning to trust the system and my workers. I had hidden from the authorities for so long, terrified of being honest with them when in fact honesty was the very thing they wanted from me. It was when I got honest with myself and my workers that my life started to change for the better.

'Community sentences saved my life'
My life today is better than I could ever have imagined. By getting clean and remaining single I have earned the right to be a mother again and I’m grateful to have this second chance. I did a detox from methadone in February and I choose not to drink alcohol today. I have started a degree in modern languages with the Open University, do voluntary work at a drug service for young people and I am actively looking for work. My relationship with my family has improved enormously and I am grateful to have them back in my life. I never understood how my life affected theirs until I got clean.

For me, community sentences probably saved my life. They give me the support I need when I need it.  If I had gone to prison I think I would still be stuck now in that revolving door, in and out. I don’t think I would have got clean and my daughters wouldn’t have their mother in their lives.

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