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Frances Crook's blog · 29 Aug 2018

Why police and crime commissioners should not be the local vehicle for probation reform

Frances Crook in front of office bookshelves

We are in discussion with the Ministry of Justice and various interested organisations about the future of probation. We have developed a blueprint for how we could solve the problems created by Chris Grayling’s disastrous reforms but there are some structural issues that are proving contentious.

Some people are suggesting that police and crime commissioners should be the local agency overseeing probation. I disagree. This is why.

Firstly there is a matter of principle. It would be wrong for an authority that is charged with overseeing policing with its investigative role also to oversee the infliction of a sentence. This creates an inherent conflict of interest, particularly if there is any element of private profit-making bodies involved. That way lies America – not normally something to be emulated when it comes to criminal justice. It was not many years ago that the Crown Prosecution Service was established to split the investigative and prosecution roles as they were seen to be in conflict. Justice demands balances and separation.

Secondly, the PCCs have to seek election, and re-election. It would be too tempting to exploit the management of offenders for personal political gain. Whilst I like to think the mainstream parties would, normally, be responsible in their rhetoric (not always the case) about managing offenders, there have been a lot of independents and mavericks standing for election for PCC and they easily create a brouhaha about how they would use public humiliation or excessive punishments.

It is not good enough to say that it is the courts that decide on the punishment, as they simply direct people to agencies running community sentences. Indeed, magistrates have repeatedly said that they do not know enough about how community sentences are delivered. So it would be easy for a PCC or a candidate to go rogue and stir up a feeding frenzy calling for excessive punishments.

Thirdly, there is no need to involve elected officials in the delivering of court-ordered sentences. This does not need to be part of the electoral structure. Probation should be a professional service, as it always used to be when it was the most successful public service for over a century. I want professionals who are skilled and qualified to drive buses and pilot airplanes and conduct surgical operations, and I want professional probation officers to oversee people in the community who have committed offences. It is a skilled job and we want it done properly so that people can desist from crime and communities can be safer.

Fourthly, the story of victims services is not a good precedent. The devolution of victims services to PCCs saw a nationally understood and well-functioning organisation, Victim Support, undermined and its budget handed piecemeal to PCCs to do as they wish. Now there is no single authoritative voice for victims and local services are beholden to short-term funding and to the whim of the local PCCs. Victims services are fragmented and quiescent.

The Howard League’s vision for the future of probation is for a strong and independent public voice for probation, which oversees a couple of hundred thousand people every year. Local delivery of services should be supported by a national structure that guides on best practice and training. Local independence is crucial. Of course, local probation should be networked into policing, prisons and courts, as it always was in the past.

There is a good case for PCCs to be part of that network, but probation must be independent locally and its first and most crucial relationship must be with the courts not the police or PCCs. The courts must have confidence that probation and community sentences are not being politically driven or they will not get used.

The government has a consultation out suggesting that a public service is largely reinstated in Wales but that England simply redraws the 21 areas into 10, apparently a vain attempt to make the community rehabilitation companies more profitable as they have been squealing about not making enough money. This will not sort out the problem.

Probation and community sentences can play an important part in helping people to lead crime-free lives. It can save the taxpayer money by reducing the unnecessary use of prison. It can help reduce crime and protect victims. It needs to be given the structure, autonomy and freedom from political interference to do the job.

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