The recently published Ministry of Justice Consultation Paper ‘Punishment and Reform: Effective Probation Services’ begins from the obvious premise that an effective criminal justice system should punish law breakers and protect the public, but then makes the point that there are grave weaknesses in our current one. Almost half of all adult offenders re-offend within a year of leaving prison, the figure rising to three quarters in respect of those released from youth custody.
The paper states the Government has therefore embarked on a programme of wholesale reform, with the aim of (i) making prisons places of meaningful work and training, and (ii) toughening up community sentences so that offenders are required to have a far higher level of contact with those probation staff supervising them. Community sentences should be seen as inflicting credible, robust and demanding punishment, while still continuing to address the problems that have caused or contributed to offending behaviour, for example drug abuse, alcoholism or mental health issues. More particularly though for Safe Ground, the Government wishes to expand the involvement of voluntary and private sector organisations in the supervision of offenders in the community in a way which embraces competition and is genuinely open to new ways of doing things better. It sees Probation Trusts taking a stronger role as commissioners of probation services, rather than providing all those services themselves, most especially in relation to the management of offenders who pose a lower risk of harm to the public. The Government also wishes to expand the use of restorative justice practices, so that victims of crime have a greater role to play in work with offenders and getting the latter to face up to the consequences of their crimes.
So where does this leave Safe Ground? The first reaction is that there may well be a lot of opportunity here. When Programmes Manager, Eli Robertson and I met with members of the Probation Inspectorate earlier this year we were told how increased restrictions on probation service budgets were seriously inhibiting the use of group work programmes in their work, despite the fact that the latter had a significant impact on some offenders’ behaviour. We should therefore be saying that in Family Man and Fathers Inside Safe Ground has two programmes of proven success in reducing offending which we believe could be sold to probation trusts, either in their current or in modified form, such as we have recently successfully been running for released prisoners for the Hampshire Probation Trust in Southampton – Family Man in the Community (23.01.12-30.03.12). But we also need to remember that this is likely to be a tough, competitive market and that other criminal justice related voluntary and private sector organisations, some no doubt much larger and with more resources available to them than Safe Ground, will also be keen to have a piece of the community supervision action. Probation Trusts may also be tempted to go for less costly and less rigorous programmes, rather than those with a demonstrated track record of having impact on offenders’ lives.
The answer may be that we will need to target our resources carefully and look to work with those Probation Trusts where we can make ourselves well known and demonstrate existing effectiveness as deliverers of programmes. These are obviously interesting times, the deadline for comments to the consultation paper has only just passed, and the main thing will be to remain alert to the developing situation and how this can be best used to Safe Ground’s advantage.
John Hutchings, Safe Ground Trustee