Opinion: The future of the probation service

In 2004, the last government merged the prison and probation services into one gigantic super-agency: the National Offender Management Service (NOMS). The changes exacted by NOMS have led to the systematic fragmentation and demoralisation of probation, whose purpose has been altered beyond all recognition.

Unrepresented at the highest management structure of NOMS, neglected and misrepresented, the probation service has for years plodded along in the shadows, only to be thrust into the limelight when the spotlight fell on individual tragedies amid media frenzies.

The creation of NOMS bought with it the mantra of ‘managerialism.’ Staff at all levels experienced a loss of autonomy. Workloads in terms of those subject to probation supervision rose by 39% in the 10 years up to 2009. Just 24% of practitioners’ time was spent on face-to-face work with the remaining time spent keeping records, in meetings and in front of computers. In the past three years alone the number of frontline staff has dropped by 17%.

The probation service will be unable to accept the proposed spending cuts without drastic reform. Jobs will be lost, workloads will increase, high-risk work will attract what few resources are available.

The Howard League’s submission to the Justice Affairs Select Committee’s Inquiry on the role of the probation service is timely and radical. It calls for a shift away from offender management and a shift towards a localised “resolution service” that the public can both see and understand.

If government intends to cut the cost of an expensive prison system, probation must be the weapon at the front and centre of the new system. It must change its focus, working not on the mundane box-ticking of bureaucrats but engaging with individuals in the community as many dedicated probation officials would really wish to. Just as our police officers must be free to spend more time on the beat so probation officers must be freed up to spend more time in the community.

The Howard League for Penal Reform believes that a modern resolution service would be in a better position to engage with all members of the public. For example, an instance of minor neighbourly dispute that currently involves the police and the civil courts could better be handled by a proliferation of the future resolution service, working in conjunction with local authorities. They would work to refer individuals to any relevant local services and help engage the individuals in conflict resolution.

If the new resolution service was used correctly there could be scope for it to fulfill the role of all community conflict resolution, creating a service not just between “offender” and “victim” but between all people in the community.

It is only with a re-energised resolution service, whose goal is to support and not to detain individuals at risk of offending, that the government’s rehabilitation revolution can become a reality.

Andrew Neilson is Assistant Director of the Howard League for Penal Reform.

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