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Cracks are growing in the UK’s prison and probation service

The Transforming Rehabilitation policies introduced by the government in 2014 were supposed to “drive down the rate of reoffending and deliver better value for the taxpayer”. These aims have yet to be realised and the arrangements for managing prisoners’ rehabilitation are not working. In fact, serious cracks are beginning to show which are evidence of a system in serious decline.

After scrapping the Probation Trusts in England, the government put the care and support of low-risk ex-offenders into the hands of private sector companies. These organisations are called Community Rehabilitation Companies and they had to tender to the government for contracts to provide these services. They operate on the basis of striking deals, or contracts, with rehabilitation support services within the voluntary sector at the lowest possible cost.

So far, the consequences of this part-privatisation of the probation services have proved disastrous. There have been large scale redundancies of probation managers, prisoners receiving insufficient support for their resettlement, and reoffending rates remain high.

Prison cell. Paul Faith/PA Archive/PA Images

A profit-driven approach

One of the many failings of these new companies has been to trim to the bone the range of support services available for offenders. Consequently, a high proportion of local specialist agencies (mostly small charities) have lost work because the rehabilitation companies do not view them as value for money. Small charities simply do not have the resources to compete in this ruthless, profit-driven environment.

As a consequence, the future of many of the smaller support organisations – which provide specialist rehabilitation services for offenders – is looking bleak. The crucial work they do in supporting ex-offenders does not come cheap and because the rehabilitation companies are looking to cut costs, this vital support work is in danger of disappearing altogether.

The Criminal Justice Partnership at the University of Central Lancashire hosted a “Have Your Say” event in July 2017 for voluntary (or not-for-profit) organisations who provide rehabilitation support. The focus of the event was a presentation of the “State of the Sector” report by Angela Lucas from CLINKS (a national charity that supports voluntary sector organisations working within the criminal justice sector).

The report revealed some grim home truths. Many voluntary organisations working within the criminal justice sector are now suffering serious financial losses, which are impacting on their ability to carry out their work.

Delegates at the event were asked to share their professional experiences of the new commissioning landscape and how this has affected their work and income. On the whole, their responses echoed many of the negative issues raised in the CLINKS survey.

The verdict from delegates

1) The new structure favours the larger, national charities when it comes to awarding contracts. Smaller, local and more specialist service providers are struggling to remain in business.

2) An increasing number of research based reports are showing that effective rehabilitation services in the criminal justice system are being hampered, rather than encouraged, by the current reforms.

3) In many instances, the smaller not-for-profit organisations are considered to be “too small” to be awarded contracts and supporting offenders has become target-driven in order to qualify for the bonuses the government pays for reducing reoffending rates.

4) The traditionally held professional values of small not-for-profit organisations are being threatened by the profit-and-loss business approach of the rehabilitation companies.

5) The quality of leadership and management in these companies came in for a high degree of criticism. Inadequate leadership and management was said to be reducing the quality of support services to a “box ticking” culture of hitting targets.

Overall, these responses are a far cry from 2011, when The Probation Service was awarded the British Quality Foundation gold medal for excellence and a number of Probation Trusts were individually awarded four and five star status for excellence.

The new world of private commissioning appears to value efficiency and economy above quality, innovative services that prioritise the individual needs of offenders. It has come as no surprise that the Justice Select Committee has announced an inquiry into these rehabilitation reforms. The reason given is “the poor performance of the new private probation companies”.

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