VIEWPOINT: Fingers Crossed and Eyes Closed: The Evidence Free Approach to Probation Reform

VIEWPOINT: Fingers Crossed and Eyes Closed: The Evidence Free Approach to Probation Reform

Neil Serougi, Independent Researcher

As reforms go, the current Transforming Rehabilitation programme seems to be heading to a chaotic and largely predictable outcome. Its evidence base lacks substance and it seeks to redesign Probation Services from a position of political opportunism rather than on the basis of what might work. This is a view that was further reinforced when Jeremy Wright acknowledged, in an interview with Victoria Derbyshire on Radio 5 in November last year, that key decisions were being precipitously taken prior to the results of his own pilots. His defence ‘that it was common sense’ left listeners with an uneasy sense of incredulity.

Of course, a politician’s recourse to ‘common sense’ can suggest one of two things. Either, it disguises the lack of intellectual credibility of a tenuous policy, or it represents an inability to grasp the complexity of the portfolio.  The two are not mutually exclusive.

Instead of factual analysis, Chris Grayling, (the Justice Secretary for England and Wales), has repeatedly raised the spectre of a society in decline regarding its values and conflated it with a political agenda that points an accusing finger at those whose job it is to deal with the consequences of poverty and social exclusion. It is a convenient tactic that deflects attention from the adversity wrought on communities by growing inequalities whilst disingenuously implying a causality rooted in the professional culture and competencies of probation work.

Beset by cuts, reconfiguration and relentless change across its functions, the Probation Service is now enduring a comprehensive assault as the Government attempts to replace it with a privatised and outsourced approach to offender management.

This article seeks to expose the fallibility of the government’s underpinning assumptions regarding Transforming Rehabilitation and moreover the risks to public safety. It’s a risk already highlighted by MPs on the House of Commons Justice Committee in their examination of crime reduction policies in January and February of this year. They noted the absence of a contingency plan should competition fail.

Probation has reflected many different influences ranging from its early ‘mission based’ ethos to the radical social work theories of the 70s and 80s. However, the probation approach to ‘offending’ was predominantly built on an assumption that crime should be addressed through interventions shaped by a humanistic and empathic perspective. Unsurprisingly, this was often caricatured as a soft option by a right wing media which depicted strategies to understand offending in this way, as both ineffective and naïve in equal measure. Despite its populist appeal, policy makers largely resisted this narrative not least because the evidence of how probation operated in practice, suggested that it was successful both in terms of cutting re-offending and as a cost effective alternative to prison (see, NAPO Briefing, Probation Programmes Building on Success, 2011).

Now, however, the landscape has changed. Many of the ‘social work’ values that underpinned probation are currently considered less relevant. And instead, ‘value for money’ alongside an aggressive rights and responsibilities agenda is rapidly becoming the new ethos.  The climate in which ‘welfare and social problems’ are addressed, is shifting to one where individual behaviours are ‘dislocated’ from their wider socio economic environments. Add the constant pre-occupation with offender management as a cost burden and morale is plummeting amidst real cuts in resources and a concomitant deskilling of the service.

This ‘blueprint’ has been implemented across the public sector repeatedly over the last decade, discursively, practically, and in a way where the endgame always appears to be more corporatism and commercialisation of public service.

In the NHS this meant treating patients as a commodity and reducing costs in a competitive internal market alongside a set of ‘empowering’ consumer tools such as choice and personalisation to drive quality.  Controversial as this was, it was implemented in an environment where private providers already operated, albeit on the margins, in an established system where the ideological currencies of the market already existed. How this model is meant to apply to other public services where no such history exists, and in particular the Criminal Justice System where the parallels just don’t fit the orthodoxy, is unclear. Offenders aren’t consumers who make choices and the management of crime is not a commodity that lends itself to the easy narratives of incentives and demand management.

The upshot has been a policy discourse that has signalled an intellectual retreat from seeing offending as a consequence of social injustice. Instead the vision in current political lexicon has been ‘transformed’ to situate offenders and the organisations that deal with them, in a new relationship predicated on cost control and process management. Success is to be equated with cost-effective offender management focussed on the offender as a unit cost and offending behaviour as a cost pressure.

In this context offenders are not a social concern but a problem of cost-benefit to the tax payer and crime is the result of welfare failure as opposed to the deep structural inequalities that shape individual behaviours and wider subcultures. Richard Johnson, ex director of SERCO summed this as follows: “I do not believe contractors will cynically plan for an increase in recidivism, but they will not perceive these contracts as a ‘rehabilitation revolution’ – they are simply about the outsourcing of probation, with an emphasis on price competition. If there is any ‘value for money’ in the contracts, it will be derived from short-term savings at the risk of long-term rises in reoffending (and all the costs associated with that).”

Nowhere will this have more impact than in how probation staff acquit their role and see their relationship to the offender. A real consequence will be an increased reliance on technology as a replacement for professional judgement. It’s a trend that has already taken root over the last decade under the pressures of performance management, but will be deepened as commissioning for outcomes becomes intertwined with profits, payments and tariffs.  The goal of trying to position an offenders experience within a set of wider meanings will be diminished amidst the need to collect and focus on a narrower dataset to support the demands of payment by results. Invariably, the amount of time spent directly addressing offender behaviour/problems will lessen.

Transforming Rehabilitation will undoubtedly impact on many levels but the institutional reconfiguration that will act to limit the political opportunities for reverse engineering in subsequent years is significant. This is particularly so regarding community supervision  which currently operates as part of an integrated offender management process but will be fragmented as Chris Grayling hands over the supervision of low and medium risk offenders to the private sector. How will this happen?

From May 2014, new community rehabilitation companies (CRCs) will be created to act as ‘holding companies’ that for the next year will take over those low and medium risk offenders supervised by Probation. (70% of probation staff will be transferred into these CRCs by autumn). Additionally the CRCs will be required to oversee their own demise as they smooth the way for the entry of the private sector by summer 2015. These developments will not be straightforward. Operational pressures allied to diminishing ‘good will’ of staff facing uncertain futures will be considerable.

The centre piece of Transforming Rehabilitation is a proposed three tier model theoretically maximising the benefits of a plurality of providers through contracts and compliance targets.  Tier one will comprise prime providers i.e. those private sector organisations and charities that can provide (or commission) the scale of resources needed to competently acquit their supervisory role. Tiers two and three will comprise smaller organisations which will compete to run services commissioned by tier one organisations such as Serco and G4S. The high risk offenders will remain under the auspices of the remaining ‘rump’ probation service.

This isn’t workable and should Chris Grayling and Jeremy Wright wish to match their own rhetoric against the evidence, they would have to acknowledge the perverse logic of their proposals. It imagines that offenders don’t move between risk categories and yet a rudimentary assessment would reveal that those who commit crime have unstable lifestyles. Invariably, managing risk across different levels requires a joined up service capable of effective tracking, communication and collaboration. Surely this is the lesson learnt by the safeguarding disasters of recent years. Those who move between the various categories of risk need continuity in supervision and support, to reduce the likelihood of breach with concomitant safeguarding issues. The adverse impact of fragmenting the Service in this way has been recognised by the judiciary with alarm (see, the Magistrates Association response to the Transforming Rehabilitation consultation).

Opponents of the reforms have been vocal but have so far failed to garner enough support to trouble Grayling. Electorally he runs little risk in taking on a profession amidst a public mood growing less tolerant of crime and punishment.  The fact that offending in particular has been conflated with welfare failure has served to shape public opinion in a way in which lifestyle choices are stripped of their social context, encouraging punitive reactions to the idea that offenders should be ‘helped to change’.

How a society deals with those who transgress its laws cannot only reflect moral questions of culpability, but must account for the disempowerment of large sections of our population and the subsequent experience of disadvantage. For over a century, the Probation Service of England and Wales has, amidst the many contradictions of its care and control remit, sought to balance individual and social responsibilities through an eclectic approach that recognised the complexities of offender management. Now its biggest challenge is to survive so that it may eventually be able to reclaim what Grayling’s market dogma is intent on destroying.

Neil Serougi, AcSS, was in the NHS for over 20 years as a Director for ICT and now Chairs the Independent Advisory Group regarding Privacy and GP Records. He was formerly  a Probation Officer and Secretary of West Midlands NAPO.