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Offender management and rehabilitation

What should “good” look like in probation?

The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, taken from across the River Thames. Overlaid is text that reads: "Consultation Response".

Catch22 delivers rehabilitation, resettlement and social justice services to over 50,000 people a year. As one of the largest charities working in justice, we were asked recently to provide our thoughts on the Ministry of Justice’s recent Strengthening Probation, Building Confidence consultation.

The 8-week consultation sought feedback on proposed changes to structure and content – the ‘what’ – but didn’t say much about the ‘how’. At Catch22 we know the ‘how’ matters as much, if not more, than the ‘what’.

Focusing on the purpose of probation

The consultation states:

“…The Government has a responsibility to deliver a criminal justice system that protects the public, punishes those who have broken the law in a meaningful, proportionate way, and supports offenders to turn away from crime.”

Key responsibilities for the probation system include:

  • Provide advice to courts so that sentences can better reflect the often-complex factors at play in an offender’s circumstances
  • Manage the ever-changing risk profile of those in their care, and determine appropriate interventions to support rehabilitation
  • Make sure that those they supervise fulfil the conditions of community sentences, suspended sentences, and licence conditions

However, let’s not forget the basic purpose. Probation services were developed by courts in the 19th century to “advise, assist and befriend” offenders. In the 20th century this became professionalised, alongside social work, and the complexities of modern bureaucratic governance took hold. At heart little changed, and a successful probation service enabled good quality relationships between the people providing the support and those needing it.

What does good look like?

At Catch22, we know that relationships beat structures. We have designed and delivered ‘Through the Gate’ approaches based on consent, and achieved high engagement and results. There is a correlation between the currently very high recall rates and the very prescribed, universal and mandatory probation model. Good relationships are built upon trust and mutual respect, and good probation support thinks about the whole person: where they live, their families, friends, and young dependents, and how they will make a decent living.

At Catch22 we call these the 3Ps: people, place and purpose. Our vision is a strong society where everyone has a good place to live, a purpose and good people around them. As an organisation our principal aim is to help reform public services so that everyone can achieve these, and thereby achieve the independence and choice to live their own life.

Using our experience of delivering public services, including our work in Transforming Rehabilitation, we have defined three guiding principles for good public services, explained here in the context of probation delivery:

  1. Being more human. Design services that focus on individual need. Move away from bewildering bureaucracy and transactional systems where the focus is on paperwork over people.
  2. Unlocking capacity. Individuals and communities have potential that can be identified and enhanced through volunteering, transparency and openness of statutory systems and philanthropic funding. There are countless rehabilitative charities delivering excellent services and measurable outcomes. Effective public services are a partnership between statutory services, charities, communities and individuals. Effective commissioning enables each part of society to do what it does best; for charities, this is focusing on the needs of an individual, building relationships and delivering outcomes that work for communities.
  3. Local accountability through different governance models. Probation services must be accountable and integrated in the communities they serve. This must be driven by local commissioning and devolved budget management, to Prison Governors, Police and Crime Commissioners (PCC), level or below.

In summary, probation must:

  • Incentivise seamless Through the Gate services: horizontal, high quality, relational, community-owned and delivered. Radical transparency of budgets, performance and impact is one way to achieve this.
  • Procurement needs to be enabling: less rigid and risk averse, inviting innovation and the right sort of risk.
  • Ensure that the voluntary sector (VCS) and SMEs are not excluded for technocratic non-compliance, or a central misunderstanding of what risk entails. We must assign risk to the people with the most direct accountability and control over that risk: compliance to Whitehall, safety and security to the frontline.
  • Consider small regional TR2 pilots to test new approaches and justice reinvestment, inviting local partners, PCCs and VCS.
  • Contracts and bidding processes needs to reflect true cost and value (including social and future cost), to avoid unachievable payment mechanisms – we must learn the lessons of Carillion.
  • We must seek to re-invest incarceration costs earlier to provide more positive and lasting outcomes; the cost of a prison place, invested earlier in the process, will deliver significantly more public value.
  • We must measure the right thing. We often measure rates of reoffending, but this by itself is not enough. Let’s measure what matters; whether people have a good place to live, good people around them, and a purpose; a long term job or education. Let’s begin to measure a reduction in needs, a move out of crisis to stability for both individuals and the system. By measuring how well we’re tackling the underlying causes of offending, we’ll positively impact on the rates of reoffending.

Over the next two years we have an opportunity to test new ways of working through bespoke thematic pilots that help us shape our future Probation design. Sitting still is not an option, and neither is papering over the cracks.

We must use this period of consultation wisely to test new models and approaches that unlock the potential of the wider sector, developing relationships built on trust and mutual respect. Only when we begin to focus on addressing the causes of offending will we begin to see the true impact on desistence.