A new report by the probation watchdog (HMI Probation) has found that the new private Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) are telling staff not to take action against offenders who breach sentence terms, due to the risk of being fined. The findings suggest a damning criticism of government reforms to probation, reforms that have enabled a series of multinationals to take over the majority of probation services, putting public safety and rehabilitation at risk.
The fines arise as part of the misleadingly titled ‘payment-by-results’ model, through which probation providers receive payments linked to offenders meeting sentence conditions. Under this model, as the National Audit Office (NAO) found in their report on government probation reforms published last month, CRCs are encouraged to prioritise financial returns from particular activities over wider efforts to reduce reoffending.
The CRCs were established following the government’s controversial ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’ reforms, in which 70 percent of probation services were privatised to new Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) in early 2015, after the service itself was split into two parts in 2014. As we have blogged previously, reports appeared immediately following the reforms of a near total breakdown in communication between the two parts of the service, as well as a chaotic working environment, with IT systems failing, significant staff shortages and excessive workloads.
The probation watchdog’s report found that a number of probation officers at CRCs had been told not to recommend to the courts that an offender’s community sentence be revoked because their company would incur a financial penalty. The report states, “Enforcement was the interface issue we heard about that was still seen as the most problematic some eighteen months after Transforming Rehabilitation.”
The report goes on to note that:
“A number of responsible officers said that they had been told not to recommend ‘revoke and resentence’, because it would lead to a financial penalty for the CRC. We also heard about delays created because, in some areas, breach packs were returned to the CRC for amendment or additional information.”
As also highlighted by the NAO, the probation watchdog found that staff shortages were a serious issue. The report states, “a shortage of probation officers meant that probation service officers and agency staff were allocated medium risk of harm cases for which they felt insufficiently trained.” Among the findings of independent research commissioned by Napo on the government’s probation reforms were that many CRCs lack probation officers to oversee probation support officers work, with staff reporting excessive workloads, ‘de-skilling’ and a significant rise in work-related stress.
The findings of HMI Probation’s report are very worrying and add to a weight of evidence against the government’s reforms. As Napo argued, the CRC contracts were awarded despite evidence of serious safety concerns, including that revealed by the MoJ’s own testing processes. The time is well overdue for a wholesale rethink of probation policy, especially as the risks to public safety, service quality and a whole range of workforce issues are becoming evermore serious.