Tom McNally writes… transforming rehabilitation

For decades Britain has been locking people up for short periods of time only to see them reoffend as soon as they are released from prison. This party has long recognised that the criminal justice system just wasn’t working in preventing reoffending.

Nearly half – 47.5% – of those leaving prison are reconvicted within a year. For prisoners sentenced to less than 12 months it is almost 60%. The cost of reoffending by ex-offenders to our economy each year is between £9.5bn and £13bn. This is not good enough. Victims of crime deserve better than this. Society as a whole deserves better than this. If we can break the cycle of reoffending, the benefits to society would be enormous.

This has, and continues to be, my priority in the Ministry of Justice. I want to ensure that the criminal justice system does what it is supposed to do – protect the public, punish those who deserve to be punished, and to ensure that offenders turn their lives around so that they do not reoffend and create more victims of crime.

I am very proud of what I and fellow Liberal Democrats have achieved already in tackling the cycle of reoffending. Custody is the right sentence for serious offenders, but community sentences are proven to cut reoffending rates and are a vital and effective part of the justice system. That is why we have legislated to ensure that community sentences are a serious alternative to prison. We have also enshrined in law the right for both victims and offenders to request restorative justice before a sentence is passed.

We have increased opportunities to divert offenders with mental health problems away from the criminal justice system. We are investing in liaison and diversion services at police stations and courts to ensure mental health issues and other vulnerabilities are picked up as early as possible so that the right treatment can be provided. And we have introduced drug recovery wings in prisons to help prisoners who need intensive support during the early stages of their recovery from addiction.

Yesterday in the Lords I introduced a new Offenders Rehabilitation Bill. This comes alongside the publication of my department’s strategy for transforming the way in which offenders are managed in the community in order to address the high rates of reoffending which we have persistently seen over many years. Together they build on what we have already achieved in tackling reoffending.

A key measure will extend statutory supervision after release to offenders serving short custodial sentences. Currently, offenders sentenced to 12 months or less are not subject to any interventions after release, while offenders sentenced to 1-2 years receive between 6 and 12 months supervision. This has been an anomaly for far too long. Those given shorter sentences in prison are no less likely to have difficult and complicated problems, such as drug and alcohol abuse, as those who receive longer sentences. They need access to the same sorts of interventions and support if they are to overcome their problems.

We are also putting in place an unprecedented ‘through the prison gate’ resettlement service, meaning most offenders are given continuous support by one provider from custody into the community. It is shameful that currently offenders, with a host of complex problems, are released onto the streets with £46 in their pockets and little else. And it makes no sense at all to cut off access to programmes that have been helping offenders in prison – they need to be continued on release.

For sentences served in the community, greater flexibility will be created for probation providers so that they are free to deliver innovative and effective interventions to tackle reoffending. By opening up the range of rehabilitation providers, we will get the best out of the public, voluntary and private sectors nationally and at a local level. This comes alongside a new public sector National Probation Service, working to protect the public and building upon the expertise and professionalism which are already in place. Probation staff make a fundamental contribution to protecting the public, particularly from the most dangerous offenders in the community. In future the skills and expertise of probation professionals will be in play across the public, private and voluntary sectors.

We need to stop offenders passing through the system again and again, creating more victims and damaging communities. I think these new reforms, along with the steps we have already taken, will go a long way in helping to achieve this. Even the Guardian, not always our most kindly critic, had this to say about our reforms – “If it is given time to work this could be a transformative development”. It is to the credit of this Government that, even in hard times, we are willing to introduce innovative ideas to tackle difficult problems.

* Tom McNally is Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords and a Minister of State for Justice

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  • Privatising the probation service. Is this wise?

    Look at the USA. Privatisation of their prisons system has resulted in corruption, ever escalating costs, and no reduction in crime.

  • On the contrary, Tom, the Grauniad usually gives Lib Dem Parliamentarians a more than even break! Unfortunately, there is too much involvement by the private sector. But otherwise, several developments are moving in the right direction.

  • andrew purches 11th May '13 - 10:02am

    As a former member of a local parole board, an admirable part of the rehabilitation system for imprisoned offenders, which was thrown out by the master of the black arts,one Michael Howard, I would suggest that this local approach to the post release problems faced by those returning to the community be reconsidered and reintroduced. It worked well, and the reoffending rates were statistically well down in the low 6 – 10%’s, particularly with the first time imprisoned offenders. Having signed the official secrets undertaking on this, I probably cannot say any more, but will happily discuss the matter with any one that may wish to be informed of yet another thing we used to do better in years gone by.

  • There are lessons to be learned from the military. In their detention camps the accent is on improving a prisoner’s attitude through discipline and respect for authority. There is zero tolerance for any “smarties” who attempt to beat the system and recidivism is minimal. I am aware that the public are unwilling to accept the idea of military discipline in civilian prisons – the regime is too tough for them to stomach – but if short term custodial sentences are to work in cutting crime we must face the fact that a serviceman comes out 28 days of military detention a better soldier/sailor/airman than a civilian fits back into society on leaving prison. The military approach works; let’s not be squeamish in learning from it

  • Malcolm Todd 13th May '13 - 9:10am

    @ Mike C
    The military prison system may “work” at turning difficult soldiers into good soldiers. That tells us nothing about whether it will turn civilian offenders into good citizens. (And “zero tolerance for any ‘smarties’ who attempt to beat the system” is unlikely to win much support amongst liberals in any circumstances…)

  • Nick Clegg recently said in his rehabilitation revolution speech (20 May 2013) that, “Under this Government, crime is at its lowest levels since independent records began. That’s fewer homes burgled and possessions stolen. Fewer communities blighted by vandalism. And fewer people hurt, or killed in violent attacks. This continuing fall in crime is one of the biggest untold success stories of this Coalition.” He says, “much of that is down to the work of the police”, but he highlights the coalition has, “ensured that sentences in the community are a genuine and tough alternative to custody, where locking someone up isn’t the best solution.”

    Nick Clegg states, “We know that those on short sentences are most likely to reoffend and yet shockingly they are the ones who have, until now, received almost no rehabilitation, or support.”

    So my simple point is why prevent Probation Trusts from bidding for private contracts to work with the approximately 53,000 offenders who are made subject to short sentences rather than privatise 70% of the work done by trusts to pay for this work and also the supervision of offenders who present a low and medium risk of serious harm.

    Will the public and offenders now have any confidence in SERCO AND G4S bidding for private contracts, and even if they are excluded from doing so or choose not to bid, are their enough potential bidders with the relevant skills and knowledge base to bid competetively to protect our communities offering value for money.

  • Extract from The Guardian 24 June 2013:

    The justice secretary, Chris Grayling, has been warned by his most senior officials that plans to privatise 70% of the probation service lack support, are being pushed through on an aggressive timetable and potentially endanger public safety, leaked documents show.

    They also warn that promised cost savings are unlikely to be achieved.

    The official internal risk register for Grayling’s “rehabilitation revolution”, which he has so far refused to publish, warns that there is a more than 80% risk that his proposals will lead to “an unacceptable drop in operational performance” triggering “delivery failures and reputational damage”.

    The cost of failures in the probation service have been illustrated by cases such as those of Anthony Rice, who sadistically murdered Naomi Bryant in 2005, after being released from prison on a life licence, and Daniel Sonnex, who tortured and murdered two French students in 2008 after blunders in his probation supervision.

    The warnings are contained in a document marked “restricted policy”, prepared for the Ministry of Justice board responsible for the rehabilitation programme. It also says there is a high risk of insufficient support within the probation service to push through the changes.

    Grayling’s proposals are the most radical in the probation service’s 100-year history. They involve abolishing the existing 35 public probation trusts and replacing them with 21 government companies, which will tender out the supervision of all medium and low-risk offenders on a payment-by-results basis.

    But the officials warn that it is likely that the transfer of 70% of probation work to the private and voluntary sectors will fail to deliver the promised scale of savings.

    A second leaked document, dated June 2013, on the future of the much smaller public probation service that would be responsible for the remaining 30% of work with high-risk offenders and public protection cases, shows that it faces cuts of 19% by 2017/18.

    The shake-up would result in reallocating the supervision of 250,000 offenders, moving 18,000 staff to new employers and the appointment of 22 senior management teams. The plan is to put the changes in place by October, so the new service is up and running by the general election in 2015 – “a complex, large-scale change programme to be completed within an aggressive timetable,” the risk register notes.

    The disclosures come as peers prepare for a key vote on Tuesdayon Grayling’s offender rehabilitation bill which provides the legal framework for the proposals.

    Among the concerns expressed by the authors of the risk register are the “considerable challenge” of closing down 2,000 separate computer packages and moving to a single shared services computer system.

    The document also reveals that while many probation trusts are continuing to voice concerns about the proposals, nearly all are actively making preparations: “Our concerns focus on some trusts whose senior staff seem less able to make the transition themselves. Although these senior staff recognise their responsibility, as public servants, to manage the process of change, there is a difference between managing change and leading it.”

    The risk register uses traffic lights to describe the risks facing the programme, coding each risk factor as green, amber, red or black, but makes no assessment of the financial risk of not delivering the programme to the agreed timescale, quality or cost.

    It appears that detailed Treasury approval for the proposals will only be secured after the framework bill reaches the statute book.

    The senior MoJ officials rate the risk that a campaign against the proposals will delay or block them in parliament as a “code red”. They reveal that the bill being debated in the House of Lords this week has deliberately been kept slim to “minimise the dependence of the reforms” on the passing of the legislation. Media messaging is also being used to “keep key elements of reform at the top of the agenda”.

    The register also makes clear there are anxieties at the highest level that not enough private sector and voluntary organisations will bid for the work (code red) and that once privatised the supervision programmes will be ineffective or fail to meet the required quality.

    The highest rated concerns – code black – detailed in the document are:

    • There is a more than 80% risk that an unacceptable drop in operational performance will lead to delivery failure and reputational damage. The report says the failures could be caused by industrial action, falling staff morale, staff departures or probation leadership disengaging.

    • There is a 51% to 80% risk that insufficient support for the proposals by probation management and staff will lead to failure to implement the changes properly and on time.

    • There is a 51% to 80% risk that cost savings will not be met.

    Harry Fletcher, a criminal justice expert, said the documents showed that the plans were ill-thought through and potentially dangerous: “Probation’s sell-off is being carried out too hastily, there is too much risk. It is highly likely that service delivery will collapse and public protection will be undermined. The government must think again about the future of its successful and efficient probation service.”

  • But who, in Parliament will fight these proposals? It would seem our MPs are liable to be whipped in support. Will Labour oppose? And it seems unlikely there could be a majority against. Do we REALLY want a privatised probation service? Could that in any real sense be described as a Liberal sort of proposal?

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