19:10, December 27 140 0 theguardian.com

2018-12-27 19:10:08
Decline in community sentencing blamed on probation privatisation

A sharp decline in the use of community sentences is due to trust breaking down between judges, magistrates and the probation service after privatisation, according to a study by a justice thinktank.

Since 2011, there has been a 24% fall in the number of non-custodial sentences imposed in England and Wales at a time when Scottish courts are using them far more frequently.

A report by the Centre for Justice Innovation (CJI) blames the decrease chiefly on disruption caused by changes introduced by Chris Grayling when he was justice secretary.

Those changes split the former probation service into privately operated community rehabilitation companies (CRC) and a residual National Probation Service (NPS), which only deals with high-risk offenders.

Judges and magistrates remain largely unaware about what happens after they hand down a community sentence, the report, entitled Renewing Trust, says. Few of them witness the progress of, and compliance with, court orders.

Many on the bench still want to use community sentences, recognising them as a vital option, says the report. “It is simply that their trust in them has been dented recently, largely by reforms imposed by policymakers on hard-working probation practitioners in both the NPS and CRCs.”

At his annual press conference two weeks ago, the lord chief justice, Lord Burnett of Maldon, acknowledged recent difficulties. “There were very profound problems in the delivery of the monitoring and implementation of community sentences for some time and … as a result, judges did lose confidence in it,” he said.

“It was simply that it became clear that many people were not complying with the orders, were breaching the orders, and little, if anything, was happening … The Ministry of Justice has been working hard with those who deliver community sentences and that problem is being resolved and so the confidence of sentences both in magistrates courts and crown courts is increasing.”

The CJI report found the number of drug rehabilitation and mental heath treatment requirements being issued by the courts had fallen by more than half from peaks earlier in the decade. A shortage of funding for treatment in community places was also blamed.

Phil Bowen, the director of the CJI, said: “Despite the best efforts of practitioners on the ground, our report shows that the trust of sentencers in community sentences is fraying.

“While sentencers still see community sentences as a vital option, the combination of cuts to justice budgets and the government’s poorly implemented privatisation reforms to probation means that their trust in probation’s ability to deliver them has been dented over the past six years.”

Commenting on the report, John Bache, the national chair of the Magistrates’ Association, said: “We share [this report’s] concerns about magistrates’ confidence in community sentences … There is an urgent need to ensure that effective community sentences are made available in every area of the country.

“Sentencers should also be given opportunities to review the progress made by offenders on community sentences. This would enable magistrates to give community sentences with confidence, knowing that they will help offenders to turn their lives around.”