The recent reforms to the probation service were examined in the BBC Panorama programme ‘Out of Jail: Free to Offend Again?’ The title of the programme struck me with a clear sense of ‘we told you so’ given the warnings and concerns raised by those working within the probation service and colleagues in criminology departments. Just look at #faillinggrayling on twitter – there you can chart the anxiety as the reforms were proposed and then implemented.
The programme began with the case of Connor Marshall who on a night out with friends was attacked by a stranger, David Braddon who had a history of violent offending, along with alcohol and drug misuse. Sadly, Connor died in hospital a few days after the attack and then, the details of David Braddon’s circumstances were revealed, during the review into Connor’s death. David was on probation, under the supervision of ‘Working Links’, a private consortium who took over running of probation for most of Wales, under the new Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) arrangements in 2015. TR promised radical reforms which would privatise the probation service for low and medium risk offenders, with high risk offenders still being managed under the National Probation Service (NPS). Ian Lawrence, General Secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers (NAPO) spoke on the programme about how they warned the government about the risks, due to the extensive re-organisation, costs to the taxpayer and crucially, the impact on public safety. In addition, an internal memo from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) gave explicit warnings about the danger of the TR failing, citing that an ‘unacceptable drop in operational performance which might lead to delivery failure and reputational damage.’
Connor’s case was described in the programme as an ‘early failure.’ The phrase reminded me of the cold and calculated response when we are told the casualties of war are ‘collateral damage.’ There was a sense of acceptance of failures, given the extent of the reforms. David Braddon had a catalogue of missed appointments and non-compliance, along with becoming increasingly withdrawn, all of which should have been flagged up by those supervising him, and action taken. This reminded me of another pivotal case in probation, which highlighted the impact of over-loading probation officers and not responding properly to those offenders who are clearly at risk and not complying with their supervision. In 2008, Dano Sonnex and Robert Falmer killed two French students in south east London, in a violent attack. The Serious Case Review, focusing on Dano Sonnex, revealed a catalogue of errors, resulting in part from caseworkers in probation being overloaded and inexperienced in dealing with someone with such complex needs as Sonnex. The fact that this occurred in London was worrying when the presenter presented the views of a whistle-blower, working for MTC Novo, a company who was now delivering probation services for low and medium risk cases in London. The premise of TR was that ‘Community Rehabilitation Companies’ (CRCs) would take on expanded caseloads from widening the net for supervision to those on short term sentences, where re-offending rates are particularly high. MTC Novo and Working Links are just two examples of new CRCs now responsible for low and medium risk offenders. The programme then examined the experiences of probation, from the perspective of a service user, probation officers and those involved in inspecting the service.
Sean Grant, out of prison and living with friends reported he had very little contact with MTC Novo, his first appointment took 3 weeks to set up after his release and he had no support to get stable housing in place. He also reported his view was that the service had not improved, compared to his previous contact, and later in the programme, it transpired he was at risk of recall, due to missed appointments which he knew nothing about. This was particularly galling since he had secured work and seemed to be doing everything he needed to do to prevent re-offending, albeit with little help from the probation service.
This experience chimed with the views then given by a ‘whistle-blower’ from within MTC Novo, who reported that the company was now employing fewer fully qualified probation officers, and his caseload had risen from 50 to 76, including some vulnerable offenders who were not getting the intervention they needed. They also cited the problems associated with not having time to build a rapport, with monthly meetings of 20 minutes, asking ‘how will you open up? I don’t know them, they don’t trust me.’ It seems the long held and valued principles of the probation service to ‘advise, assist and befriend’, already eroded by risk management and efficiency drives, were now being further undermined by TR. More worryingly, the probation service as an effective means to reduce re-offending was also undermined, when the same whistle-blower referred to an ‘explosion in re-offending’, including violent offences. For others outside London, probation had become a service which staff described as a ‘mess’ and time spent with clients had fallen from 15 to 2 hours a week, and was also characterised by division and in-efficiency.
Dr Lawrence Burke, Ian Lawrence and Dame Glenys Stacey all agreed that the calls for a rethink on TR were growing louder, the service was in danger of becoming de-stabilised and of putting lives at risk. This feels very much like reform which was imposed on a service which was functioning relatively well – not perfectly – but which is now facing significant issues, all of which were meant to be addressed by TR. The harrowing cases, while still rare events, can cite the failings of probation as contributing to the serious crimes which occurred and therefore, the key aim of the service, to protect the public, is not being met. The rising prison population and especially the continued use of short term prison sentences means the service will continue to be overloaded, while CRC managers continue to cut costs to keep solvent. Therein lies a fundamental problem – making a profit through the management of offenders is not viable, sustainable, advisable or safe. The probation service, much like the NHS, the police and other public services can deliver well and do good work when it is not diverted by concerns over cost savings and trying to deal with increasing workloads.
Senior Lecturer in Criminology