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Howard League blog · 16 May 2019

Reunifying probation is a bold and sensible step

I warmly welcome the plan to reunify probation into a national public service and the aim of promoting confidence in community sentences to replace prison terms of under a year that are known to be counter-productive.

I commend the justice secretary for taking this bold and sensible step and I hope he will go on to embed the reform by introducing legislation to abolish short prison sentences.

I am also pleased that there appears to be a division between prisons and probation and I hope that the director in charge of probation will be a national strategic voice. It is important to know who is in charge.

There are plans for legislation to introduce a professional framework for probation. I hope this comes with a beefed-up probation institute that should provide ethical oversight, promote research and best practice. The College of Policing offers a model for this.

This endorsement comes with a some caveats, provided in a positive and constructive sense, as we all want this reform to work well.

I hope that the director in charge of probation will be a national strategic voice

Giving unpaid work to the private sector will not work. It never has. Private companies do not have the local links with small voluntary groups, charity shops, faith groups who are the very people to provide the unpaid work opportunities. When unpaid work in London was outsourced to Serco it was a disaster – and a risible one at that. When an opportunity to do some community payback was found, for example cleaning up a small graveyard, twenty or thirty men were sent along from all over London and most were sent away again, to spend the rest of the day going round and round on the Circle Line in order to complete their specified time.

This leads to another structural problem. The plan is to divide probation into eleven areas, which means they will be regional and not local. Most of the people serving community sentences are tied to local communities, as are most of the people coming out of prison. We are all bedded and tied to small local areas. Having a regional office trying to manage staff, community ties, several local government areas and health services, simply will not work.

I’m not a fan of the commissioning model. It is structurally stultifying and inhibits good practice and experimentation. Whoever is commissioned, whether it be the voluntary sector or the private companies, they work to the contract and not much else. I hope to see grants being given to voluntary organisations instead of commissioning as that model works best.

Overall this announcement was framed firmly in the exhortation to stop using prison sentences of under a year, which is exactly what the Howard League has been demanding.


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