The Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, rightly praises the achievements of the Peterborough and Doncaster pilots for their impact on reoffending rates. But is his suggestion that the national outsourcing of probation services will resemble these pilots worryingly misguided or purposefully misleading? http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/aug/07/prisoners-reoffend-coalition-cycle-probation-service-support
These two small pilot programmes have been working with offenders sentenced to less than twelve months in prison – a group with chronically high re-offending rates who would not otherwise receive any post-release support. The pilots have engaged with these offenders pre-release and then supported them ‘through the gate’, often arranging for someone to meet them the moment they step from the prison, with personalised ongoing advice, guidance and practical assistance for months afterwards.
The Doncaster Pilot is run by Serco, who run the prison there – one of the fourteen privately-run prisons in the UK. Peterborough is also a private prison, run by Sodexo, but the Peterborough pilot has notably been delivered by a consortium of specialist providers, funded by social investors and managed by Social Finance.
Earlier this week, the Ministry of Justice published the latest results from both pilots, showing “marked falls in reoffending” for this high-risk group of offenders. If the Peterborough results were “replicated across the country it could mean 1,700 fewer reoffences being committed, including 250 fewer violent crimes and more than 600 fewer thefts.” (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/payment-by-results-pilots-on-track-for-success)
When the new outsourced probation service is rolled out next year (the tenders for these contracts are currently being evaluated by the Ministry), prisoners sentenced to less than twelve months will start to receive probation support nationally. However, is this really a replication of the Peterborough and Doncaster pilots? Is this really what the transformation of probation services into Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) is all about? (See ‘Grayling’s secret revolution’, https://buyingqp.com/2014/02/08/graylings-secret-revolution/) If it were to achieve the same impact on reoffending, what will that mean for service viability with contracts being awarded to those organisations willing to put most of their cash at risk with ‘payment by results’?
Very significantly, both pilots spend more per offender than existing probation services and considerably more than any of the new probation contracts will. These new contracts will not fund the same frequency and intensity of post-release support. They will fund none of the pre-release and through-the-gate service which is so fundamental to the pilots.
As Grayling notes, “our system is inadequately equipped” to break the cycle of re-offending. But the newly outsourced probation services, with short-term prisoners added in, is required to represent an enormous cost-saving. These new contacts are about stripping out cost – aiming for a reduction of around 30% of current probation spend.
Also important to note is that because both the Peterborough and Doncaster pilots are delivered alongside private prisons, they are working with new-build establishments, i.e. with better facilities and arguably more positive cultures than many of the old Victorian stock of public establishments. As privately-run prisons, they are also able to operate with a greater degree of flexibility than some of their public cousins.
The results from the pilots published this week raise serious concerns about the ability of the Ministry to track reoffending. This a key requirement for the new contracts and their ‘payment by results’ (PbR), and it is known to be fraught with difficulty. The Peterborough pilot started in 2010. The results published relate to the first cohort of offenders, released between September 2010 and June 2012. A relatively small cohort of around 1,000 offenders. The investors who funded the pilot “are on course for a payment in 2016”. The new probation contracts require payments linked to evidenced reductions in reoffending rates to be measured quarterly and annually, not after four or five years.
I must admit, I find it hard to understand exactly how successful the pilots have been. As noted, the Ministry helpfully suggest that if the Peterborough success was replicated across the country, “it could mean 1,700 fewer reoffences being committed”. Given the significance to the new probation contractors of PbR, it is important to put this in context. Would it really represent a big enough reduction to:
a) trigger the contractors’ PbR element;
b) save them being financially penalised for underperformance;
c) protect the viability of the contracts and therefore service continuity.
Grayling notes that fewer new offenders are entering the system. He appears to suggest that reoffending rates, however, are increasing. Between July 2010 and June 2011, of 630,000 offenders who were cautioned, convicted or released from custody, around 170,000 committed a proven reoffence within a year. For most, unfortunately, this was not just once. These re-offenders committed an average of 2.88 reoffences each. In total, this represents around 490,000 re-offences. (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/proven-re-offending–2)
A reduction of 1,700 reoffences being committed nationally, would represent a reduction of 0.3%.
It is hoped that the new probation services, if freed from bureaucratic dictat, can utilise their resources more effectively. Moving a large chunk of the old probation service into CRCs will allow contractors to achieve necessary cost savings, i.e. staffing cuts. It is hoped that need will drive them to form new local partnerships that will join up currently disconnected services. Perhaps the big private outsourcers really can innovate in service design. But, as one Ministry insider noted, this is not about procuring Peterborough on a national scale. Far from it. To suggest otherwise is either dangerously misguided or purposefully misleading.