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Probation and community punishment

Jack Straw

04 February 2009
Probation Study School, University of Portsmouth

Jack Straw has given a speech on community punishment to trainee probation officers at the Probation Study School, University of Portsmouth.

[Check against delivery: this is the prepared text of the speech, and may differ from the delivered version.]

The Right Honourable Jack Straw MP, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice:

Introduction

Good afternoon. It is a pleasure to be here. I am grateful to my old university friend Mark Mitchell for his kind invitation.

You are joining a profession with a long history of service to this country.

I am told that the earliest British account of some form of probation involved a Recorder in Birmingham called Matthew Hill, who used 'recognizance' as a device to give young people an opportunity to reform. In 1841 Hill began to release juveniles into the care of people who pledged to act as guardians. The practice involved keeping a register, follow-up by an inquiry officer, and the juvenile's guardians or parents signing a declaration of their responsibilities.

As Hill himself put it, there had to be “ground for believing that the individual was not wholly corrupt” and “that there would be better hope of amendment under such guardians than in the gaol of the county”. This second chance was, however, circumscribed by limited mercy. If the juvenile reoffended they were granted no further 'indulgence' and could expect a much more severe punishment.

Sixty-six years after this practice began in one court in the Midlands, the Probation of Offenders Act 1907 established the modern probation service.

Over the past century, that service has made a profound impact on the shape of our penal policy, and as a result, on the character of our society.

In the past ten years alone, there has been a distinct change in culture in the probation service. Probation officers now routinely talk of the criminals they are dealing with as 'offenders' – which is what they are – instead of the euphemistic language of 'clients' which I encountered as Home Secretary. The real client must, of course, be the victim and the taxpaying public.

Gone are the days when the main duty of probation officers was to 'advise, assist and befriend' offenders. 'The reform and rehabilitation of offenders' remains one of the purposes of sentencing under section 142 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, but it is only one of a number, first among which is 'the punishment of offenders'. This is reflected in the new stated aim of the probation service: to 'punish, help, change and control' offenders.

So it is only right that probation staff now see themselves as part of the correctional machinery rather than simply an extension of social services.

Indeed, this is part of a wider change that involves the whole criminal justice system seeing itself as a single coherent service and not just a system – as working for the local community and for the taxpayer.

I have spoken on a number of occasions about what I see as the dual purposes of the penal system – two simple words: punishment and reform. To date, I have focused on what these principles mean in the context of prisons. I want to consider today how they are manifested in the community.

Part of this is to emphasise that the principles of punishment and reform must extend right through the penal system. It is certainly not the case that prison equals punishment – the tough part – and probation covers reform, although the situation has sometimes been caricatured in that way. You need only look to the important job of probation officers in managing dangerous offenders on licence and supervising offenders subject to Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangements to see that the situation is not so clear-cut.

I want to consider today why community sentences are so important, what aspects of them are currently working well, and some of the practical things we can do differently to make them better command the confidence of the public.

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Importance

First, its importance.

I don't know whether any of you have had a chance to read Edward Marston's recently published 'Prisons: Five Hundred Years of Life Behind Bars'. I haven't sat down with it myself, but I did see this quotation. As far back as the 18th century:

“When Daniel Defoe, the author of Robinson Crusoe, did his tour of Britain, he lost count of the number of prisons in London … He reckoned there were more prisons in London than the whole of Europe. There were so many lockups and cages, magistrates would even have a place where they could lock people up in their own homes.”

It seems as though we have built up a sort of national propensity towards prison over the years. This was not surprising when there were very few other options – usually the gallows or the stocks or deportation.

Of course, for serious and dangerous offenders, prison is always going to be necessary. Sentences need to fit the crime. And judges also need to have the option of imprisonment for persistent offenders. Otherwise, what would they do with people who repeatedly refuse to comply with other forms of penalty? Persistent offenders need to understand that they will be subject to further and more punitive sanctions if they fail to reform.

To meet this reality, we have increased prison capacity by a third since 1997. There are now 70% more serious, persistent and violent offenders being sent to prison than in 1997 and staying there for longer.

Yes, we are operating near capacity and there is still strain on the prison population. We are committed to providing 20,000 gross and 15,000 net additional places by 2014.

It is easy to caricature this position as 'mindless authoritarianism'. But look at the facts. Over the past decade the nature of prison regimes has changed dramatically, meaning that prisons are now genuinely places of punishment and reform.

Drug treatment has increased tenfold, education and health are now in the hands of the experts, and record numbers are completing educational, behavioural or skills courses. The independent Chief Inspector of Prisons, Dame Anne Owers – while properly highlighting shortcomings in the system – acknowledges this progress.

So we will keep building prison places and we will continue to make prisons more constructive.

But our focus has not just been on prisons. Indeed, we see enormous value in keeping people out of prison where it is appropriate and safe to do so.

For less serious, non-violent, non-persistent offenders – who nonetheless represent a thorn in the flesh of communities – punishment in the community can be a more productive, and in some ways more demanding, experience than time in a prison cell. And, yes, one that is considerably cheaper.

The comparative effectiveness of community punishment is borne out in the statistics on reoffending. The data shows that the proven rate of reoffending following short custodial sentences was 59.7%, compared with 37.9% for community sentences.

Community punishment can also enable offenders to repay some of their debt to the communities they have damaged and allows the public to see justice being done for their benefit. In the last four years alone, over 20 million hours of Community Payback have been undertaken by almost 200,000 offenders. That represents over £110 million worth of payback.

So, far from being simply a way of managing down the prison population, for appropriate offenders, community punishment can represent a much better use of the taxpayer's money – and deliver better results – than imprisonment.

Lord Phillips – a great advocate of community punishment, and as far as I am aware, the only Lord Chief Justice ever to have undertaken a day of undercover Community Payback – has said of it:

“… at its best, community work is a punishment that is positive. Both the self-discipline and the work make greater demand than a spell in prison, and the experience can rehabilitate those who have lost, or never had, self-respect … It also visibly benefits the community – it really does 'pay back'. Once communities themselves appreciate the benefits that can flow from such projects, the demand for them should grow.”

Community punishment has long been, and will continue to be, a central part of our penal system.

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Investment

As a result, there has been unprecedented investment in community punishment over the last decade.

Spending on probation has gone up by 70% in real terms since 1997. Increasing demand for the probation service has been matched by additional funding for staff. The probation annual offender caseload went up by 32% between 2001 and 2006, while the number of probation staff increased by 35%. And on top of that, we have given probation an extra £40 million to make sure the courts have tough community punishment requirements at their disposal and to improve compliance.

I do not suggest that there are no financial pressures on probation. The prevailing economic climate is not a problem facing the city or financial institutions alone. It is affecting all public services – meaning that the levels of increased investment seen over the past decade are no longer sustainable, nor affordable. Indeed, in some areas, budgetary cuts will be necessary.

Of course, our first responsibility will be to continue to deliver front-line services. But beyond that, all public services – including probation – are having to look afresh at the ways they work and identify where changes, improvements and efficiencies can be made to deliver more, with better value for money for the taxpayer.

Results

Despite the current economic uncertainty, the record investment over the past ten years is paying off.

More offenders are completing their orders than ever before and enforcement has improved dramatically. Now 95% of offenders are being brought back to court for breaching their orders; in 1999 this was a mere 44%.

So the courts and the public can have confidence that those offenders who do not fulfil their responsibilities will be dealt with. And dealt with quickly: during 2006-07, the probation service achieved its timely enforcement target by starting the necessary procedures within 10 working days in 90% of cases.

We have also taken an important step to make Community Payback more visible. I want to take a moment to talk about the new high-visibility vests. From what you read in the press you might have thought we have returned to the days of the stocks and the pillory. That is nonsense.

Community Payback vests are not to shame or humiliate, but to demonstrate to offenders and the local community that crimes have consequences. That has long been a principle of our justice system, but now we need to make it clearer.

So when an offender is given Community Payback, the public can now literally see them working and making amends for their behaviour. They can see reparation being carried out for and within their communities. And they can be confident that the criminal justice system is on their side.

A chair of a Probation Board told me – and all his colleague chairs – last week that on a recent visit to a Community Payback project an offender had told him that he liked the vests too, since the public had seen them and expressed satisfaction with the offenders' work.

There has been some urban mythology about offenders being attacked on community punishment as a result of the vests. But when you go into the detail of the very few offenders who have been assaulted, each time it has been by people who knew them. It was nothing to do with the vests. If there are genuine concerns in individual cases about the safety of staff or offenders, then we will consider whether the jackets are appropriate. But we do not expect this to pose a problem in more than a handful of cases.

The vests are ultimately about increasing public confidence in community punishment and with it, the criminal justice system as a whole.

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Image problem

When it comes to community punishment, confidence is crucial.

And while today we have a probation service that is delivering more and delivering it better than it has throughout its history, there is still a big image problem.

In spite of the fact that every sensible person realises community punishment is a fundamental part of any criminal justice system, it is too easy to caricature it as a soft option. People are too swift to criticise it, and not swift enough to defend it.

A similar view is shared by some sentencers, who cannot help but be influenced by what they see as the prevailing public mood.

So, while community punishment is being used more often by the courts – an increase of more than 50% between 1995 and 2005 – it is often being used in place of lower order penalties such as fines, rather than in place of short terms of imprisonment. In 1997, courts granted community orders in 3.8% of all cases. By 2007, this had risen to 13.9%. The figure for custodial sentences remained constant at 6.7%.

We know that community punishment can be the best way to deal with less serious offending. The challenge is to make it command the confidence of the public.

Improvements

This is no easy task. Indeed, it is a challenge which confronts governments across the Western world. But I do think there are more things we can do to make community punishment tough, safe and effective.

First, we can make it more intensive.

We have introduced a requirement that those sentenced to Community Payback for possession of a knife undertake unpaid work for a minimum of 18 hours per week, instead of the usual six hours. And we are looking at whether this can be extended to other serious offences.

We are also piloting the use of a more intensive form of community punishment for unemployed adult offenders of all offence types and sentence lengths in West Yorkshire. These penalties can include up to 300 hours visible community payback, curfew for up to 12 hours a day with electronic monitoring, surveillance by the police, drug testing, programmes to challenge offending behaviour, as well as mentoring and help with resettlement – all under intensive supervision.

We want community sentences to be seen as punishments in their own right and not just substitutes for custody. But community punishment needs to be more than just rock-breaking in high visibility vests. Communities and offenders are best served if alongside punishment comes the opportunity and incentive to reform.

Now I am very clear that the criminal justice system is not there to do what a teacher couldn't, a parent couldn't, a doctor couldn't. But it does have a role to play in making offenders confront deep-seated problems and helping them address the causes of their criminal behaviour.

We know, for example, that alcohol and drug problems are significant factors in offending and reoffending. Indeed, half of all violent offences are linked to alcohol. Nearly half (47%) of those sentenced to community sentences have alcohol problems and a quarter (24%) have drug problems.

We have done a great deal already to help offenders get off drugs. But we know there is more we can do to help them address alcohol abuse. So I want to make it a real priority along with the Department of Health to improve alcohol provision for offenders over the coming year.

Community sentences need to benefit communities not just in terms of freshly painted public spaces or cleared wastelands – important though these are – but by helping to reduce reoffending. Punishment and reform.

But if community sentences are truly to command the public's confidence, local people need to understand more about it – what it is, who can expect to get it, how to identify projects in their areas. The 'Local Crime, Community Sentence' project aims to do just that. A probation officer and a magistrate give presentations to local community groups, using case studies to explain how community sentences work and what they can achieve.

Local people also need to have more of a say in how community punishment works.

We have set up six 'Citizens' Panels' pilots across the country. These give members of the public a chance to influence the projects carried out by offenders in their areas and to hear about the progress of Community Payback. As a result, local people have been able to influence and understand the nature of community sentences. We are eventually hoping to roll out these panels to all local authority areas.

Along the same lines is the 'Mayors' Community Payback Scheme', which involves mayors and other civic leaders nominating and sponsoring local Community Payback projects. Almost every area in the country has now developed projects sponsored by mayors – generating significant local publicity.

Conclusion

But people in Westminster or Whitehall cannot make all of this happen. It is down to people like you, who work face-to-face with offenders on behalf of communities. You have got very difficult jobs ahead of you – jobs that will no doubt, at times, be as challenging as they are rewarding. But you should never underestimate the value of the work that you do.

We have – the probation service has – a lot to learn from the experience of education and health services. The public increasingly believe the objective reality that those services have significantly improved, because they hear teachers and health professionals saying so. The staff and lay people involved, like school governors and health trust members, are vocal advocates for what they are doing.

We need to see the same with probation. But that will require, as it did with the teachers, the service to come to terms with the objectives and the values the public set for it.

Earlier I said you were joining a profession with a long and accomplished history. I hope it is also clear that – thanks to the hard work of your predecessors and those who have supported them – you are joining a profession with an optimistic future.

I wish you every success.

Thank you.