The Chair of the Justice Committee says the government’s Transforming Rehabilitation programme is woefully inadequateby Bob Neill / June 29, 2018 / Leave a comment
Although still not a universally accepted view, there is a growing realisation that failures to invest properly in the criminal justice system create a false economy which chains many offenders, a majority of whom are incredibly vulnerable individuals with a troubled past, to a life of crime and recidivism.
Other than those who commit the most serious of offences, they will all, one day, be released. It therefore makes sense to do everything we can to help ensure each and every one is able to reintegrate into society, find a job, get a home, and push on with forging a second chance for themselves.
That is a cause the public is beginning to get behind, which is what makes the Government’s Transforming Rehabilitation programme, on which the Justice Committee recently concluded a comprehensive, eight month inquiry, so disappointing. It is a missed opportunity, and in many ways, a huge own goal.
This package of major structural reforms, brought in during 2014 and 2015, had some very noble aims. By introducing changes to the probation system, it sought to extend the usual statutory package of rehabilitation to offenders serving custodial sentences of less than 12 months; deliver better value for money for the taxpayer by opening up the market to new rehabilitation providers, playing on the different strengths of the public, voluntary and private sectors; and ultimately, reduce reoffending rates, which have remained stubbornly high for consecutive years. All good so far.
But the way these reforms were planned, implemented and managed long-term, as well as the results they have delivered since, has, by any measure, left a lot to be desired. To start, any due diligence was immediately negated by the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) proceeding with the full introduction of the reforms before its two pilots, at HMP Doncaster and HMP Peterborough, had come to an end. What’s worse, analysis published by the National Audit Office has found that the trials were already showing signs that the reforms would not have their desired effect by the time of their conclusion. In other words, the ministry should have proceeded with caution, but didn’t.
In part, the failures that have followed since have been due to an ill thought through strategy from the start. Under the reforms, offenders are split, according to their risk of harm, between the National Probation Service (NPS) and new, private sector Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs). While opening up to private providers is sensible in principle, here the effect has only been to complicate delivery, creating a two-tier system that generates real challenges in terms of coordinating rehabilitative work. It also makes no allowance for the fact that levels of risk can change.
This absence of any clear-headed plan continued when we looked at the contracts themselves. From the evidence we received it soon became apparent that the MoJ had shown a worrying reluctance to challenge over-optimistic bids, calling into question its ability to let contracts. That it had to change the fixed-cost assumptions in its contracts with CRCs from 20 per cent to 77 per cent is of real concern, as is its constant renegotiation of them.
“Our Committee remains unconvinced that the current framework can ever deliver the probation service we need”
Not surprisingly, this has had an impact on performance, which to put it politely, has been disappointing. The resettlement of too many offenders is being supervised remotely over the phone; only half of those currently on probation have contact with the same officer throughout their case, undermining attempts to provide continuity in support; and the work some are required to do under unpaid work orders is all too often meaningless, with no educational benefits. The government’s payment by results mechanism doesn’t offer sufficient incentives to the providers to reduce reoffending, and conversely, the financial penalties included in their contracts have not been applied. Indeed, it remains unclear how the MoJ is tackling underperformance on a day-to-day basis.
Unfortunately, they’re not the only serious knock-on effects to have emerged. Opening up the probation market was one of the key aims of the reforms, and yet the voluntary sector’s involvement has actually reduced. Staff morale is at an all-time low, and sentencer confidence in community alternatives to short custodial sentences has plummeted.
There are some immediate changes the government can make. As it stands, many are forced to get by for weeks on end with just the £46 discharge grant they are given when they leave prison. Allowing offenders to apply for Universal Credit shortly prior to their release will stop this. Moreover, the ludicrous practice whereby local authorities are able to deem an individual who has served a custodial sentence as having made themselves intentionally homeless prevents many from being able to secure a roof over their head. It is small, cumulative problems like this, which, if tweaked, will make a big difference.
Longer-term, the Transforming Rehabilitation programme needs wholesale reform. Indeed, our Committee remains unconvinced that the current framework can ever deliver the sort of effective and viable probation service we need. The MoJ must go back to the drawing board.
Ministers have shown that they’re not afraid to think outside the box when it comes to reducing reoffending, and just earlier this week reaffirmed their commitment to improving outcomes through the launching of their excellent Female Offender Strategy. They must take our findings seriously, acting at pace to rectify the failings we have identified.
When done properly, rehabilitative work can genuinely turn lives around. It is one of the great social causes and deserves our attention.