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Fears for offender rehabilitation as Britain embraces US-style probation

Getting out of jail may no longer be free. from

One of the most dramatic and radical changes the last coalition government made to criminal justice went almost unnoticed. In 2014, the probation service that had stood for more than 100 years was broken up. It was split into a National Probation Service, responsible for about 30% of the previous probation workload, and community rehabilitation companies responsible for the remaining 70%.

These companies were outsourced, and in February 2015, ownership was transferred to an array of different organisations. Some have become joint ventures between private, public, and third sector organisations.

It is difficult to foresee the impact of these changes. However, politicians have in the past looked to the USA for criminal justice and penal policies: David Cameron’s attempt to learn from the USA’s zero-tolerance policing in 2011, for example, and the introduction of mandatory minimum sentences. This is despite US imprisonment rates outstripping any other country, and significant tensions between police and citizens playing out repeatedly in a number of US states – from Ferguson, Missouri to New York and Texas.

Paying for probation

So, is there anything to learn from how probation is run in the USA? Probation in the USA is decentralised and this results in a highly fragmented system. In many US states – for example Arizona, Georgia and Illinois – those under probation and parole supervision have to pay a supervision fee. A 2014 Human Rights Watch report found that in some areas probation officers act like “abusive debt collectors” enforcing a private sector business model based on offender-funded probation.

The US Supreme Court ruled in 1983 that offenders should not be jailed for failing to pay a probation fine that they cannot afford. But there are still concerns that supervision fees mean that some of the poorest offenders of often minor crimes end up in prison for failing to pay their debt. This is a silent crisis but one that is important to recognise.

The US imprisons more people than anywhere else in the world. WFIU public radio, CC BY-NC

Probation in the UK

In England and Wales, the outsourcing of probation started under New Labour. Marketisation of any public service is based on the belief that competition will encourage better and more efficient services, value for money, and innovation. But in contrast to the tendering processes for prisons, probation trusts as entities were disbanded and no public sector organisation was able to compete for the new services.

One possible argument for the changes was that probation was not performing well, but in 2013/14 the National Offender Management Service rated all probation trusts as performing well and four trusts as performing exceptionally well. Merseyside Probation Trust won the 2012 UK Excellence Award, from the British Quality Foundation.

Probation staff have raised concerns about problems witnessed in the USA as a result of prison privatisation. Closer to home, concerns over practices of private sector companies delivering criminal justice services in England and Wales are well rehearsed. The Serious Fraud Office launched investigations against G4S and Serco in relation to their electronic monitoring practices in 2013, and this lead to significant repayments by both companies in 2014.

The landscape of probation service providers is complicated. The community rehabilitation companies are dominated by private sector companies but we also see a small number of partnerships involving third sector organisations, such as Nacro, Addaction, and the St Giles Trust; and public sector organisations such as Innovation Wessex – a probation staff mutual – and Manchester College.

Addaction – a substance misuse charity – withdrew from its partnership running five companies in April 2015. Sodexo Justice Services which runs six companies announced job cuts for September 2015, and allegedly mooted the introduction of reporting “cashpoints” in an apparent transfer from the US model.

Changing lives

Those working in probation have withstood numerous attempts to undermine their ethos in the past; now as much as in the 60s and 70s, new staff join with the desire to support offenders to change their lives in order to prevent further crime and victims.

Many believe that offending is caused by social structures and decisions to criminalise as much as individual choice. As a result, offenders are regarded as having a right to be given opportunities and support to reintegrate and contribute to society.

It is that belief which may cause tensions with a perceived organisational profit motive. It is also that belief that may ensure that offenders get the support they need for successful desistance from crime, preventing the creation of more victims and more hardship.

It is unlikely that offenders will have to pay for their punishment in England and Wales in the near future. But if only for once, it may be worth heeding the warnings from the USA before probation services are too badly damaged.

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