12:26, June 27 173 0 theguardian.com

2018-06-27 12:26:05
Probation service sacrificed on altar of Tory privatisation

The current crisis (Privatising probation has been a disaster. Will the Tories ever learn?, 25 June) has a long series of antecedents. Chris Grayling’s catastrophic changes were ultimately made possible by the erosion of an ethical commitment to public service. Prior to the 2010 election, the Blair government’s instrumental approach to supervision in the community, its endorsement of the introduction of “independent providers” and its “tough on crime” etc mantra did little other than fill prisons.

The then Probation Service’s values of “advise, assist and befriend” were viewed as Dickensian and the social work qualification for probation officers was ended by the then home secretary, Jack Straw. This was all despite your correct assertion that “challenging relationships are the key to rehabilitation”. Crime can never be tackled through technical controls and contracts alone. The driving force has to be value driven. We have to face the fact that crime causation is a fraught topic without a complete scientific answer. However, it is clear that gross social inequality, poor relationships and damaged families play a very significant role. The response to this requires a renewed Probation Service, accountable to the public, that manages offenders in the community with care, compassion and realism.

Colin McCulloch

Deputy chief probation officer, Middlesex Probation Service 1994-2001

It is now 30 years since I retired from my proud and privileged position as a chief probation officer of 20 years. During that time, with the enlightened support from home secretaries of both main parties, the service established itself as a model for other countries in developing community-based, non-custodial penalties. Probation was respected by politicians and the courts as a humane and enterprising service prepared to embrace new methods and challenges. Often derided by those who talked tough and advocated harsh prison sentences, it moved steadily to a more central position in the criminal justice system. New entrants brought the professional skills of social work training but a robust system remained rooted in the confidence of personal relationships and trust between officer and offender. Probation had its own distinctive character. It was one of hope and a realistic faith that with tenacity and in valuing the positive qualities of even the apparently most hardened offenders we could influence for the good. 

Over the years a number of independent reports helped to shape criminal justice policy. Has the time come, with prisons in crisis and a lack of imaginative political thinking, for a commission to assess what may be needed to develop a system able to tackle the complex challenges of criminal behaviour? That would take time but the quick fixes of political ideology result in the kind of disasters of Grayling’s ill considered policy. As with much else, the culture of public service has been sacrificed on the altar of privatisation.

Michael Day

Ludlow, Shropshire

As noted in your report on the justice committee’s findings re Chris Grayling’s “transforming rehabilitation” legislation (22 June), the committee recommend that the Ministry of Justice “consider fresh alternatives to such reforms”. One of their concerns related to the compulsory 12-month post-sentence supervision for short prison sentences and the recommendation “to consider getting rid of this requirement” as it “lacks flexibility to meet the varying needs of offenders”. In the case of women offenders, subject to post-release supervision by community rehabilitation companies, over 2,000 women were recalled to prison for “non compliance” in the three years up to 2017. Studies have shown that many women offenders have suffered quite chaotic lifestyles before entering custody and many will return to the community with these problems still outstanding. It is, therefore, not surprising that the non-compliance figures/returns to custody are so high.

Criminal justice legislation is riddled with “unintended consequences”. Prior to transforming rehabilitation legislation, no such cases of non-compliance would have occurred. Surely a return to custody in cases where no further offences have been committed is fundamentally flawed. The requirement for compulsory 12-month supervision for short-term women offenders needs to be abandoned.

Howard Thomas

Chief probation officer North Wales 1989-96

Probation workers successfully grappled for years with trying to meet government targets, deliver a quality service for offenders and in so doing contribute towards public protection and services for families and victims of serious crime.

Prior to privatisation, each of the 35 probation areas was rated as “good” or “outstanding” by the government’s own monitoring. That was not good enough for Chris Grayling. His ideological desire for privatisation flew in the face of logic and common sense, yet “Grayling’s folly” was inexplicably pandered to by Cameron and Osborne. None of them is involved now but public and privatised probation workers have to daily contend with the mess they hatched. Other than a few chancers hiding behind acronyms or faux logos of privatised companies, there are no winners from this fiasco.

For the sake of public protection, for services to families and victims, for a cohesive criminal justice system and for a Probation Service whose internal communication is not daily thwarted by bureaucracy, it must be wholly brought back into the public sector.

Mick Gough

Retired senior probation officer, Stoke on Trent

It’s very easy to say “We told you so” and to express our anger and frustration at the outcome of the privatisation of part of the probation service, and the sidelining of the voluntary sector, but what else can we do?Sussex Pathways, a small charity, provides mentors for people returning to Sussex after imprisonment and, surprise surprise, the likelihood of reoffending on release is reduced by something like 56%. The mentee works with his mentor on his own release plan – being realistic about his personal situation – for a couple of months before release and is met at the gate on the day that the prison releases him. The stupidity of asserting that a tick box or a phone call can deal with the complexities of a person’s return to the community is unfathomable. What we do works. It costs less than £1,000 per person per year, as against £40,000 for return to prison. Enough said?

Margaret Carey

Chair of board, Sussex Pathways

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