Misguided or misleading?

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.

One Response to “Misguided or misleading?”
  1. essexandrew says:

    I think I missed this before – I hope I will see them all now as I am following by email.

    Something I have not seen much written about as the MOJ mauls the probation services to bits is any examination of the complexity of criminal justice records – I just cannot see how they are ever going to be sophisticated enough to properly relate one persons conviction today to their previous criminal record in a way that gives a clear indication whether they have stopped offending in anything less than a three or four year time period.

    It maybe that IT systems now lead to greater accuracy than when conviction records were maintained locally with some sort of national link up, that I never understood.

    Not all convictions – were sufficiently worthy enough to go on a national record, it would seem, the whole system was never explained to me and I was a user of its services from 1973 to 2003 as a probation officer.

    I remember at one time getting two records on some people, a very local one containing just stuff like simple drunk, D & disorderly, Common Prostitute Loitering, etc – the sort of thing that attracted a fine. Then a separate list theft – from shop, burglary with intent to rape, or whatever, sometimes the two lists overlapped or even contradicted each other, sometimes they arrived promptly sometimes not until the interviews had been done.

    My method, soon learnt – was to ask the defendant – I would be interviewing him in order to prepare a report for a sentencing court – and I would say something like you best tell the truth as I will get the official list and if it turns out you are lying it suggests that you wont be suitable for probation!

    That way I would get details of offences NOT on the list, which had already been declared. I later was working in a prison, where I prepared reports for the parole board, but still got inadequate records, but by asking the person concerned in my rather determined way, threatening extra difficulties if I later discovered I was being lied to.

    But getting accurate information is just the beginning, there is then a need to find the right date an offence was committed which could be years different to the date of the conviction (think of the hoo haa about sex offences only being revealed decades later). The offences go on the conviction lists by the date of conviction.

    Then there are people convicted of earlier offences after one’s that are already on the list so technically are not a re-offence. Then there are the cautions and warnings which change in relevance depending on what is the political mood of the moment – with a suitable time lag. In other words until a person has remained unconvicted for a good few years it is simply impossible to tell for certain if they have stopped committing crime – assuming they get caught – prisons after all are universities of crime where one thing that is learned is how to minimise detection!

    I have missed out TICs, offences taken into consideration, where a person will at the time of a court appearance ‘clear up’ sometimes dozens of outstanding offences along with others that are individually charged – that earns credit with a judge and prevents later being charged with an ‘old’ offence, it sometimes goes along with a recommendation by a police officer that soandso was very cooperative once arrested and it does help the police to ‘clear up’ lists of reported crimes they have not found a perpetrator for.

    So the whole business is a nonsense, yet somehow some companies are doing business on the basis that such malarkies will determine at least some of their fees. Crazy!

    Meanwhile – amazingly despite Richard’s good past advice to Parliament the whole shambles of outsourcing is really continuing with many probation folk in despair and a few past despair (two suicides have been suggested are linked – of probation workers)

    I see some commentators are beginning to write up thoughts now we have reached stage of preferred bidders.

    I see one failed bidder has had a bleat in The Guardian


    Another commentator, the mature Anthony Hilton has described the outsourcing as hypocrisy in the Evening Standard.


    I do hope that I have not missed any observations on the matter from Richard Johnson


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