9 May 2013

Grayling’s probation plans: untried and unnecessary’?

Senior Home Affairs Correspondent

Is the coalition right when it claims that, despite spending increases, reoffending rates have barely changed? And does it justify selling off much of the probation service to the private sector?

“Last year around 600,000 crimes were committed by those who had broken the law before.

“Nearly half of those released from prison went onto reoffend – in many cases not just once but time and again. Despite increases in spending under the previous government, reoffending rates have barely changed. This can’t go on.”

The opening words in the introduction by the Justice Secretary Chris Grayling today in the final version of the coalition’s “Rehabilitation revolution” strategy following months of consultation.

But is it true?, asks Channel 4 News Home Affairs Correspondent Simon Israel. And does it justify selling off two-thirds of the probation service to the private sector?

Rehabilitation service

We went to look at a rehabilitation programme that covers the whole of Avon and Somerset.

It’s called IMPACT, run jointly by probation, police and local authorities. There is no private company involved, no payment by results system, and no additional funding.

Its performance over the last five years seems to belie government claims that reoffending rates haven’t changed.

In Bristol alone, the project’s handling around 700 prolific offenders, mostly burglars and robbers, 20 per cent of whom have served sentences of less than 12 months.

Since 2008 five years total acquisitive crime in the city has dropped nearly 40 per cent. Reoffending has been cut by two-thirds.

‘Millions affected’

These are impressive figures in anyone’s book, but they do not earn a page in the government’s strategy document. It doesn’t fit the plan.

We met one of the project’s clients, Will – a 30-year-old self-confessed heroin and crack addict whose introduction to drugs was LSD at the age of 11.
He’s been with the project for several months.

If everything is reshuffled right in the middle of where I am trying to get, that’s like having the rug pulled out from under your feet. Will, heroin and crack addict

Probation officers are trying to steer him away from shoplifting and stealing to fund his habit.

He views the prospect of the government’s privatisation plan with fear.

“If everything is reshuffled right in the middle of where I am trying to get, where I am going, that’s like having the rug pulled out from under your feet.

“There’ll be millions of people affected just like that – some in a lot worse situation and more likely to trip up”

Serious concerns

Probation chiefs are also expressing serious concerns.

Sally Lewis, from the Probation Chiefs Association , said projects like IMPACT are built on very detailed relationships that go beyond simply passing bits of papers or data between each other. That will have to start from scratch when a private provider takes over in 2015.

Ministers hope that by then two-thirds of the probation service will have been contracted out to private providers, leaving only the highest-risk offenders under the responsibility of the state

Avon’s Police and Crime Commissioner Sue Mountstevens says the government has not properly considered sudden escalation in the traffic light system of risk.

She argues an offender considered low risk on one day can, by the end of that day, suddenly become high risk, and the government proposals do not address that escalation of danger to the public.

Prisons minister Jeremy Wright denies there’ll a greater risk to the public.

He says probation will make all the assessments and private providers will have a contractual obligation to keep probation up to date with offenders circumstances and behaviour.

He acknowledges it will be a complex system, but there’s a simple principle at the heart of these reforms: that those who turn offenders’ lives around should be rewarded.