Last week, a man called John came to my door, selling a range of overpriced cleaning products. He was trying to offload dusters, cloths, tea towels – the kind of thing you’d get for pennies in the supermarket – for more than three times the price.
He explained to me that he was on probation. He’d been in prison in the north east and was out on licence, having been re-located to a new area – common practise to allow reformed prisoners a real fresh start and protect victims from bumping into their perpetrators in their home town. I knew that in order to be eligible for probation he must have served more than 12 months so there was a good chance his offence was much more than a petty crime, and could have involved violence of some sort.
I asked him how much sympathy he’d received, knocking on doors in the middle class area that I live in. He said he’d had a few doors slammed in his face and some people had been mean. But his spirits remained high and he soldiered on, determined to “make a positive change in his life”, as he put it. I told him maybe he should lower his prices.
I bought an ironing board cover that I didn’t need for £13.00 and sent him on his way.
Last year, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling announced fundamental changes to the probation service of England and Wales, changes which amount to privatising half of it. One of the reasons given for the changes is to allow the probation service to extend to the most prolific re-offenders who currently don’t qualify for probation: those serving sentences under 12 months – without increased cost to the taxpayer. In my experience there is little argument from probation staff that re-offending rates by this group – called the under 12 month cohort – needed to be addressed.
But what probation staff are upset about is that the changes Grayling proposes will not only not address the problem of the under 12 month cohort re-offending rates, but that they will undermine and destroy the good work that is currently being achieved in the rest of the service – the work that is done to stop people like John re-offending and ending up back in prison.
When offenders are released from prison they are given a risk rating – high, medium or low. Previously all offenders, whatever their risk rating, were supervised by the same organisation: a local probation trust. Their risk rating would be monitored and their probation officer could escalate or de-escalate their rating as required.
Now the probation service is split into two: a national probation service which supervises the medium to high risk offenders, and 21 regional Community Rehabilitation Centres which are responsible for low risk offenders. It’s the 21 CRCs which are being sold off to private bidders under Grayling’s plans.
And this is where the most fundamental problem with the changes lies.
Risk – as any probation worker will tell you – is volatile. It can change daily, hourly even, and with devastating circumstances. When the risk rating of an ex-offender changes from medium to high, lives are in danger. This is why, when risk changes, action must be taken immediately. But under the new regime, immediate action in these circumstances has been made impossible, because it means passing the case files and responsibility for that offender from one organisation to a completely separate one. And I’m sure you can imagine the bureaucracy involved in that.
One of the most unpredictable and volatile group of offenders, and the group most likely to be failed by the new system according to probation officers I’ve spoken to, are domestic violence offenders. Single and living alone, these offenders can pose no risk to the public. But this can change in a day, even in the space of an hour. For example the minute someone with previous for DV enters into a relationship, or comes into regular contact with a partner or child, or maybe has experienced a drug or alcohol relapse, that partner or child is immediately at risk of serious harm. Probation workers say that inability to access client records – as a direct result of the changes brought in last year – mean that they are missing details which could save lives.
In one case I looked into, a man with previous convictions was supposed to be receiving home visits from his probation officer – they never happened. And because of staff shortages he was assigned to a junior member of staff who had insufficient experience. During this time, the man killed his girlfriend and then he killed himself. There’s no way of knowing for sure if this crime could have been prevented if the changes had not been implemented, but probation workers seem to think it could have.
I’ve heard endless stories of probation teams being overworked, understaffed and under-resourced. But this is more than public sector staff complaining about working conditions. The service is broken and a broken probation service means people will die.
One worker told me about a high risk offender who wasn’t seen for nine months because he “slipped through the net” – ie his files weren’t passed on.
Another person told me: “I have concerns that we have no idea if we are seeing everyone that we are supposed to be seeing. I suspect that people are being sentenced but that we are not receiving them. All offenders should receive details of their first appointment before they leave court. In one CRC, over 4 weeks, 57 out of 72 didn’t have a first appointment scheduled. They’re just the ones we know about. They disappear.”
And as for John – his chances of a fresh start depend so heavily on his relationship with his probation officer. He told me he liked his officer, he felt that he got a good service from him, but he was aware that there were changes happening and that staff were unhappy. I have no idea what risk John individually poses to the public. But probation staff feel collectively that with the service in its current state, the chance of something going badly wrong is a notch higher than it was before. One staff member told me she thinks we’re heading for a crisis on the scale of the Stafford Hospital scandal. Grayling is pushing ahead with his changes, so all we can do is wait and see.