03:34, July 07 182 0 theguardian.com

2020-07-07 03:34:05
Think renationalising probation will cut reoffending? Think again

My heart jumps at the decision to renationalise probation. But will the service I once knew come back?

Probation officers need great skills and patience, because offenders can be volatile people. One day they want to change, the next day they are lying to you, the next day they could be another reoffending statistic. But a good officer can understand when the service user is really ready for change. A good officer can support them through that. The reward: another service user changes their life and the public is safer.

I know because that was me, once. I was a criminal drug addict but my probation officer didn’t give up on me. She took long, detailed case notes and then got me into an addiction centre. That was 30 years ago. Sadly, it wouldn’t happen now. No officer would have the time or budget to give a client that sort of attention. And she’d be lucky to find an addiction centre. No, today the officers themselves are the last remaining support structure for vulnerable people because services that offenders need, such as addiction, mental health and homelessness, have been cut to the bone.

In 2008, the director of the probation service in England and Wales invited me to sit on the offender management programme board. I was the first ex-offender and, later, I became a trustee of the London Probation Trust (now the London Community Rehabilitation Company). I met many officers who took pride in their work and were keen to help service users change. I offered insights from my lived experience and then I created a charity, User Voice, as a mechanism for a large number of people who, like me, had been caught up in the criminal justice system, to share their truth, unadulterated, in a fair and democratic way. The probation service wasn’t perfect, but it had a heart and knew it could improve by listening.

In 2010 came austerity. I saw staff run ragged by cuts but they were still committed, and anyone at the sharp end continued to recognise the importance of service-user input into the system.

Then, in 2013, Chris Grayling became justice secretary and redesigned probation, despite overwhelming evidence that the system worked and universal advice against the wholesale changes. No one agreed with Grayling’s transforming rehabilitation plan, as he called it, but there were enough good jobs and lucrative contracts to silence objections, so, incredibly, few stood up to Grayling’s so-called reforms. The principle had been long established by then that service users should be involved in planning their rehabilitation. But we weren’t involved in this.

It privatised probation for all but the most dangerous offenders. The work was farmed out to numerous community rehabilitation companies (CRCs). There should have been a national debate about allowing private companies to make profits from a public service for vulnerable people, but there wasn’t and there still hasn’t been. Millions of pounds of taxpayers money were spent re-employing staff in the new CRCs, on IT systems, on pensions consultants and, of course, on rebranding. It appeared more important to get these juggernauts in a row than to deliver a valued service to the end user and the public.

Soon, Grayling’s transformation began to look like a smokescreen for massive cuts. Innovative, dynamic work did blossom in some CRCs. But that didn’t stop many dedicated staff leaving after years of insecurity caused by the changes, their workloads excessive, their morale depleted.

The result: those who relied on their support crumbled. There wasn’t just an increase in suicide and self-harm, but reoffending rose substantially. Less rehabilitation contributed to more crime, more victims, more punishment. Banging people up is easy compared with the skills, patience, staff and budgets required for rehabilitation in the community. Why didn’t the government admit that and fund it properly? Why didn’t they recognise how much more economic and effective probation can be than prison? But at least they could hoodwink voters about all that wasted money by claiming to be tough on crime.

Now, without apology, without parliamentary scrutiny, without any shaming of Grayling and his ill-thought-out, ideological experiment, without questions from the opposition about why one man was allowed to waste billions of public money unchallenged, the government has quietly announced that it plans to renationalise the entire probation service. A scandal has been swept under the Covid-19 carpet.

A rehabilitation service needs thought and a sensible budget. I’d like the old probation back, but I fear the prize has been destroyed. So far it looks like renationalisation is about centralisation and a leaner, meaner service, with the people who run it telling offenders what to do instead of listening to what we have to say.

I hope I’m wrong, but who can trust ministers after coronavirus? I believe that the voice of lived experience should play a key role in the design and delivery of rehabilitation because it is about taking a stake in your own future. Probation officers at the coalface want to support people, cut reoffending and protect the public. Offenders want that too. Let’s do it together like we used to.

Mark Johnson is founder and chief executive of User Voice, a charity that works in prisons and the community