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John Reid orders probation review

7 November 2006

The Home Secretary says the probation service is letting people down, and needs fundamental reform.

In a speech to inmates and staff at Wormwood Scrubs Prison, Dr Reid called for a new approach towards how offenders are managed once they're released, saying, ‘To be frank, the probation system is not working as well as it should.’

The problem, he said, is unlikely to be financial – since 1997, government spending on probation has increased by a third, to £800m a year, or more than £3,800 per probationer.

Yet even with all that investment, re-offending rates remain high. In England and Wales, more than half of all criminals arrested have already been to jail at least once.

High-profile attacks raise concerns

In his speech, Dr Reid alluded to two high-profile murders committed in recent years by ex-offenders on probation: Naomi Bryant, who was murdered by a convicted rapist, and the Chelsea banker John Monckton, who was stabbed to death by a 24-year-old who was on probation at the time for attempted murder.

Listing the problems he saw within the probation system, Dr Reid said, ‘There are some areas – not all – but there are some areas where performance isn’t good enough. Where dangerous offenders haven’t been supervised properly. Where the job hasn’t been done sufficiently – the tragic murders of John Monckton and Naomi Bryant illustrate that we’ve had shortcomings.’

He feared, he said, that ‘too much money is spent on writing reports, and not enough on practical help’ and that re-offending rates showed no signs of significant improvement, despite all the work and all the time and money spent.

Thus, he told the inmates in the audience, ‘The way we supervise you after you get out of prison or when you’re on probation, including who supervises you and how they do it – that needs fundamental reform.’

Returning to its volunteer roots

Part of the problem, he said, is that the system is massive. Each year, more than 40,000 prisoners are released from custody, and they join 136,000 offenders given supervised community sentences as an alternative to prison.

There is only so much, he said, that internal reform can do. While individuals may be committed and hard-working, the system needed real transformation that can only come with outside help, so he called for more involvement of the volunteer and private sectors in order to turn the system around.

Pointing out that the first probation system was started in the US as a volunteer organisation, he said that bringing in volunteer agencies could enable uniformed officers to concentrate on what they do best, and free up probation officers to focus on the most serious criminals.

Similarly, private companies have expertise and staff that could accelerate the process. Less than 3% of the probation budget is going to outside contractors, he said, adding, ‘That’s not enough. It’s not enough to provide the stimulus and innovation that everyone agrees the system cries out for, and it’s not enough to lever standards up across the sector.’

Change 'is non-negotiable'

Without that kind of across-the-board involvement from outside groups, he said, real change will not happen, and people’s lives will continue to be damaged. So new legislation will now be introduced to increase the proportion of probation service work outsourced to volunteer agencies and private groups.

‘That,’ he said, ‘is the real reason further reform is non-negotiable. Because protecting the public and turning offenders’ lives around is non-negotiable.’

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