The wrong end of the sentence

Make Justice Work: Criminal Justice - News . Opinion . Research

The Offender Rehabilitation Bill outlined in the Queen’s Speech yesterday, and Chris Grayling’s further announcements today brings some positive news about the extension of probation provision to those offenders serving less than 12 months in prison. Yet at the same time, it raises very real questions and concerns about the rationale behind heavily reducing the role of the Probation Service. By mandating offenders coming out after a short sentence to attend supervision and programmes run by new providers, a whole new breed of enforcers will come into play – the private and voluntary sector.

The ‘probation’ providers who will be delivering community sentences in the new payment by results landscape will not be the Probation Trusts.  They will be private sector providers who are likely to have little experience in dealing with the revolving door of prolific lower level offenders whose risk of offending is volatile and unpredictable and whose focus is on profit.

The focus of this Bill is at the wrong end of the sentence for offenders receiving prison sentences of less than 12 months. In most cases, prison is not the most appropriate sentence outcome.  In the US even the right wing recognise that prisons don’t work for lower level offenders – they are closing prisons and establishing good quality community solutions.

We continue to campaign for greater recognition of the value of community sentences. Far too many people are being sentenced to prison for short periods (less than 12 months) when a community sentence  is proven to be more effective at reducing re-offending, cheaper and more likely to address many of the underlying problems for this group such as mental health and drug and alcohol problems.

There is an opportunity here for increased court engagement – something that wasn’t mentioned in the outline of the Bill. In fact, courts rarely get a mention in these discussions. But their involvement is critical not only for ‘probation’ support post prison, but also in ensuring that the most appropriate sentence is given; whether that is prison or community.  Encouraging a problem solving approach within courts has to be the sensible way forward and bring about the cost saving results that are the ultimate goal.

We hope that as the details are added to this Bill, there is serious consideration given to the role of the courts in working constructively with the new  ‘probation’ providers, to ensure that the best possible outcome is identified for each individual offender. Perhaps this will finally mean that fewer people are sentenced to futile short term prison sentences that do little to reduce re-offending or the number of victims.