Reflecting on England’s Privatized Probation Two Years On


probation_optAt least since the time of Jeremy Bentham the idea of punishing someone for a crime has been leavened with the idea of rehabilitating the offender. And yet, individual cases aside and despite numerous attempts all around the globe, no system for routinely achieving rehabilitation seems to have been achieved.

“Too many offenders go through the justice system, serve their sentence and simply pick up where they left off,” reads a 2013 report from Britain’s then-Secretary of State for Justice, Chris Grayling. “The statistics bear this out.”

Britain’s Ministry of Justice provided some startling statistics about the need to transform the system. Looking just at adult offenders convicted or released from custody in 2010, the report noted that “within just 12 months”:

  • 57.6 percent of prisoners sentenced to less than 12 months had re-offended, with 17,560 re-offenders committing 83,107 further offences;
  • 35.9 percent of prisoners sentenced to 12 months or more (excluding Imprisonment for Public Protection and life sentences) had re-offended, with 9,170 re-offenders committing 28,244 further offences; and
  • 34.1 percent of those starting a court order had re-offended, with 49,636 re-offenders committing 157,796 further offences.

It added that even those who didn’t immediately get caught re-offending were still likely to strike again down the road; looking at those released in 2000 the report said 46 percent reoffended within a year; 66 percent within three years and 73 percent within five years. Meanwhile, the cost in cash from re-offending was estimated by The National Audit Office at between £9.5 billion and £13 billion.

The authors of “Transforming Rehabilitation: A revolution in the way we manage offenders” wrote that in an attempt to describe a “tough but intelligent” way forward and the idea of transforming rehabilitation as Grayling’s “top priority.” The report included a series of steps that were expected “to deliver better rehabilitation outcomes and value for money.” Professionals in the justice space, such as Napo, the trade union representing probation and family court staff in Britain, took the report deadly serious.

Probation journalThis month, Probation Journal, an academic journal published in association with (but not by) Napo, has released a special issue looking back at the Grayling report and the organizational structures that it led to the following year. Lol Burke, the editor of Probation Journal and senior lecturer in criminal justice at Liverpool John Moores University, argues that “even two years on we are still coming to terms with the full extent of the changes and there still appears to be a lack of clarity in terms of what the eventual outcomes will be.” Nonetheless, he adds, some broad themes are apparent “which may yet shape the future direction of the reforms.”

The key issue has been the privatization – which put paid to the “slow demise of the penal-welfarism of the post war years” — of much of the territory once overseen by government ‘probation trusts.’ Under the new scheme, private sector ‘community rehabilitation companies,’ or CRCs, were established to oversee low-level offenders on probation, initially set at about 70 percent of the total number of offenders. A government-run National Probation Service retains the mid- and high-level offenders.

Napo, for its part, cast a wary eye on its private sector cousins from the start, arguing that the NPS suffered “higher than expected levels of business and lack of resources” and that it feared the CRCs might place commercial considerations about the core mission of reducing re-offending. In short, the CRCs could focus on reward while the NPS was saddled with risk. NAPO hasn’t been alone as recent newspaper articles like “privatisation gone mad” in the UK or horror stories from the US demonstrate.

(Of course, changes in government also affect facts on the ground, as Grayling’s tenure gave way to that of Michael Gove, who has been less staunch on the push for privatization. Both Grayling and Gove have supported leaving the EU, so they may yet influence the direction of rehabilitation reform in the next government.)

Burke, writing with career-probation-officer-turned-academic Steve Collett, fret that this push toward ‘pay by results’ and privatization have created “severe challenges in the form of fragmentation, local accountability, communication, staff morale and occupational status and culture,” challenges that could hurt the promise of rehabilitation and public safety. “It could be argued,” they write, “that the part-transfer to private ownership of the majority of offenders and their supervisors has brought in new ideas and ways of thinking. In the short-term, at least though, it would merely seem to have had the detrimental effect of further destabilizing a public sector organization which has had more than its fair share of policy turbulence and political interference in recent years.”

Furthermore, Burke and Collett describe this Rehabilitation Revolution, and Grayling’s calls for instilling a moral component in ex-offenders, not as modern jurisprudence but as a return to 19th century sentimentality — and naivety. The first probation officials in England, circa 1876, were police court “missionaries” chosen by charities.

In her article , the University of Cambridge’s Jane Dominey offers a different but still damning critique: that the bifurcation of probation likely has damaged the interagency “network of relationships”  that kept at least some of the offenders from returning to their bad old ways. (Dominey’s qualitative fieldwork was actually conducted a year before the new structures were in place, “against a background of increasing controversy and anxiety about the impending reforms.”)

That focus on building and maintaining relationships infuses much of the material in the special issue. In two separate articles Emily Evans of the University of Nottingham and Christopher Kay of Sheffield Hallam University examined the other side of the relationship coin: that between probation staff and offender. While Evans focuses on the confusion and disincentives that may form from having both private and public practitioners in the space, Kay looks at that bifurcation from the perspective of the former prisoner: “a noticeable dissonance in the attitudes of probationers towards NPS and CRC staff began to develop, with NPS staff perceived as being only concerned with enforcement and offending history, while CRC staff were perceived to be more forward thinking and desistance-focused.” He notes that in instances where an offender is bumped from the CRC’s realm to the NPS, offenders start to question the competence of otherwise qualified CRC personnel who apparently weren’t capable enough to prevent this unwelcome transition.

Meanwhile, an article titled “It’s Relentless” by Jake Phillips, Chalen Westaby and Andrew Fowler looks at the toll taken on NPS personnel who now most deal solely deal with the system’s hard cases.

In their article, Chris Fox of Manchester Metropolitan University and Caroline Marsh of Caroline Marsh Management Solutions asks an even more fundamental question: does this new system, reputedly built on innovation, even allow for innovation? Citing Schopenhauer’s maxim – ‘First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident’ – they give a qualified yes based on their experiences working on a pilot project for the multinational Interserve plc.

Writing as a member of the London Community Probation Company, Shelly-Ann McDermott suggests that CRC personnel (and by extension all probation workers) need to focus as much on relationships as on the bottom line:

Probation practitioners must embrace our advocacy role to help navigate the people with whom we work along their desistance journey. In developing relationships of trust and collaboration, we need to establish our professional legitimacy and credibility, because we occupy a unique position of being mediators between probationers, other social institutions and the communities into which they must reintegrate.


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Michael Todd

Social Science Space editor Michael Todd is a long-time newspaper editor and reporter whose beats included the U.S. military, primary and secondary education, government, and business. He entered the magazine world in 2006 as the managing editor of Hispanic Business. He joined the Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media and Public Policy and its magazine Miller-McCune (renamed Pacific Standard in 2012), where he served as web editor and later as senior staff writer focusing on covering the environmental and social sciences. During his time with the Miller-McCune Center, he regularly participated in media training courses for scientists in collaboration with the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea (COMPASS), Stanford’s Aldo Leopold Leadership Institute, and individual research institutions.

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