As of the 1st June 2014 the 35 pre-existing Probation Trusts in England and Wales have been replaced by 21 Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs), which will monitor medium to low-risk offenders, whilst a new National Probation Service will manage high-risk offenders.
The cause of such reform is rooted in the previous error of management, where short-term prisoners, those who receive a prison sentence of 12 months or less, were not subject to probation upon their release. The failure to subject these offenders to follow-up supervision is remarkable in its disregard of a seemingly sensible and necessary approach to rehabilitation. The blame can be partially placed on the previous Labour Government who, on cost grounds, failed to enact the Custody Plus provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 2003.
The criminal justice policy legacy left by Labour’s thirteen years in power is certainly marred by the overburdening of the Probation Service with the incredibly difficult task of managing the licence period of sentenced prisoners, without the appropriate resources and in the process failing to enact provisions which may have had a real impact in reducing lower-level offending and further protecting the public.
The group of ex-offenders who have served prison sentences of 12 months or less, has the highest reoffending rates, whilst those serving community sentences, or who are on licence following release from prison, under the supervision of the Probation Trusts, have a much lower reoffending rate. Upon release, being left to their own devices clearly does little to rehabilitate the offender or amend their behaviour. It is surprising therefore that the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who coined the phrase “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” failed to implement a measure which could reduce reoffending, and tackle the causes of crime, on the ground of expense.
Having suggested that the supervision of short-term prisoners is desirable, the manner in which it is to be achieved is more contentious still. The way in which Chris Grayling, the Justice Secretary, has gone about reform, has drawn widespread criticism, which given the recent legal reforms is no surprise and is in danger of becoming no more than white-noise in the background of Grayling’s sweeping agenda of reforms. However, the criticism is legitimate and is certainly noteworthy.
Chris Grayling puts forth the argument that part-privatisation is necessary to fund the increased number of offenders who will now be subject to probation, and claims that value for money will be ensured through the increasingly common payment by results mechanism.
The Justice Secretary’s plan is to have the 21 CRCs operate within the public sector until they can be passed to private companies following a procurement process, but before the next general election in May 2015. This has led to criticism from the Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan, who believes that the signing of 10 year contracts, without a condition whereby they can be terminated without huge expense, is undemocratic, as it prevents the incoming Government (should it differ from the current) implementing an alternative policy.
The current Government’s procurement record is far from impressive; the long and expensive process makes it difficult for small and medium sized companies to compete, creating an over-reliance on large companies, such as G4S and Serco, those companies which were responsible for overcharging the Ministry of Justice for the electronic tagging of offenders. It is doubtful whether it is recommendable to further integrate these companies, with their dubious track –records, into the delivery of the criminal justice system.
The Commons Public Accounts Committee has raised serious concerns over the way in which reform is being handled. The Committee has gone so far as to request that Chris Grayling only move forward with each stage of the plan, when it is safe to do so, saying that they are concerned by the “scale, complexity and pace” of the plans. This concern stems from the fact that the proposals have not been piloted, thus there is no evidence that the reforms will be effective, that payment by results will ensure value for money, and that there are no contingency plans in place because the commercial negotiations are ongoing.
I believe that there is a fundamental problem which, in isolation, is sufficient to prohibit the privatisation of any aspect of the delivery of punishment, or rehabilitation within a criminal justice system. The overriding ambition of punishment is to impart an unpleasant experience coupled (in theory) with a rehabilitative element, in the hope that the individual does not reoffend, either because the experience was unpleasant enough to deter, or because the cause of the offending behaviour has been rectified.
To state the obvious, the purpose of a commercial entity is to make money. In a criminal justice setting they do this by providing a service, thus an increase in demand for that service (increasing the number of offenders) leads to increased profits. Private companies who profit from the delivery of punishment and rehabilitation have a vested interest in ensuring rehabilitation is ineffective. This is the case in private prisons, but is even more pertinent when one puts private companies in charge of probation. There is a fundamental conflict of interest between the commercial interest of the company and the interest of Government and society.
Further to any ideological issue one may take with privatisation, there are a number of practical problems which have been raised. It is argued that the restructuring process means the former managers of Probation Trusts are now trying to merge workforces into CRCs in the process losing focus of their principle job, the supervision of offenders on licence, the changes are in practice acting as a distraction.
Sadiq Khan argues that the benefits of a multi-agency approach to rehabilitation and supervision is being damaged by the destruction of relationships between Probation Trusts and other agencies, whilst also suggesting that the public are being put at risk by a lack of clarity as to which organisation is responsible for which offenders. The issue goes back to The Commons Public Accounts Committee’s reservations about the speed with which the reforms are being implemented.
In summary, it is quite right for short-term prisoners to be subject to some form of probation, they are arguably the group in greatest need of supervision. However the privatisation of any aspect of probation should not be welcomed, and hurried, ill-planned reforms lacking empirical evidence of their effectiveness should not be pushed through in the hope that the financial benefits will outweigh the inevitable societal costs.