INVOLVING private companies in the supervision of offenders with the aim of ‘reducing’ their offending was an idea that was never going to work. So it should have been no surprise when a report by HM Inspectorate of Prisons and Probation declared in 2017 that this scheme (legislated for by the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014, and set up in 2015), had been a ‘catastrophe’, having failed to achieve any of its objectives, and had made no difference to the offending rate of the criminals concerned (1).

The criticism of a more recent National Audit Report (2019) has been almost as damning. It claims that only six out of 25 community rehabilitation companies have achieved ‘reductions in the number of re-offenders’ (2). Even this small crumb cannot be taken on face value, and we should be sceptical about what such a phrase means. Justice officials have a long history of statistical manipulation of reconviction figures; they are, in any case, based on just the tiny minority of crimes which are cleared up, so will be considerably understated; parliament has been presented with unarguable evidence that the police severely under-record the number of crimes to achieve ‘crime reduction targets’(3); independently of this, separate studies have shown that the official crime figures reported to the public every year understate the true burden of crime by millions (4). Therefore, reconviction figures of this scheme (as with all others) are likely to be severely understated because millions of crimes each year are never processed.

We should also be suspicious of a link between this disastrous failure and the announcement by the Justice Secretary in the summer of 2018 that he wants to get rid of short prison terms (less than six months). As the Audit Report states, the failure of private companies to cut offending of those released from short sentences of imprisonment has resulted in a ‘skyrocketing of their numbers being breached and recalled to jail’. This is revealing. The government could have seen this as good practice on the part of the companies, who were protecting the public by ensuring breach action was taken.

But this is not what our justice system wants. The preferred solution is to get rid of short prison sentences altogether, so that future breaches, which they fully expect to continue, will result in a non-custodial penalty. This could not be more revealing of their cynicism. It suggests they are prepared for the public to go on being victimised by offenders, but not prepared to take any action which will result in a rise in the prison population.

This apart, the real point to draw on from this latest debacle is not its damning results per se, but that it is yet one more failed rehabilitation method in a long line of other failed methods.

For at least 50 years, probation staff and others have applied every helping technique known to man or woman in their work with offenders. Individual casework, group work, family work, varieties of therapy, outdoor pursuits such as sailing, horse riding, tennis lessons, free holidays, free driving lessons, financial aid, job training, drink and drug counselling courses, cognitive behavioural courses aimed at training them to think differently, anger management courses, sex offender courses, restorative justice, and more recently practical help and support provided by private companies on a ‘payment by results’ basis. All these have provided jobs and substantial career structures for thousands, within and without the civil service. Many so-called ‘academics’ such as criminologists have thrived on the problem, producing research and theories of little or no relevance to everyday concerns of a public besieged by criminals.

All have failed to stop offenders from committing crime.

In the pantheon of foolish ideas none stands out so much as the willingness on the part of penological liberals to continue to believe (or pretend to believe) that criminals offend because of pressures not of their making and which are beyond their control, and for which they need help and rehabilitation. These wearisomely recycled arguments are at the heart of the (professed) ideological idiocy driving our crime policies, such as the semi-privatisation of the probation service. This is despite the fact that for at least the last five decades criminals have demonstrated again and again that they commit crime because they want to. For them it pays and brings many advantages and few risks, and increasingly the bonus of official protection. They must think us fools.

Yet no one in officialdom wants (publicly) to recognise this.

This is the major problem bearing down on the public, brought to light once again by yet one more scheme giving help and rehabilitation to offenders who don’t want it, or need it, and all at great cost to the public purse. This is what should now dominate the concerns of the National Audit Office, and the justice department, rather than picking over the remains of Chris Grayling’s ill-conceived policy. It is a waste of time to do so, because whatever changes are made, they will make no difference. Worse, there is cause to suspect they know this, just as they also know that their own evidence makes it clear that long terms of imprisonment are the only way to protect the public and discourage further offending (5).

That Grayling’s semi-privatisation of the probation service has not worked is no surprise. What is, is that anyone should think (or even pretend to think) that it would.

References:

(1) ‘Support for prisoners leaving jail: Community Rehabilitation Companies not having any impact, say inspectors’

also:

£3.7billion flop: Damning verdict on Cameron-era bid to cut crime. Daily Mail 21 June 2017 (report by the Inspector of Prisons and Probation on the failure of the semi-privatisation of the probation service)

(2) Probation reform fails to reduce reoffending, The Times, March 1st, 2019, (re National Audit Report)

(3) A Tangled Web: Why you can’t believe crime statistics

Rodger Patrick, December 2014 (CIVITAS)

(4)The Economic and Social costs of crime, Home Office Research Study 2017 (reported there were 60million crimes per year), Home Office Research Study 2017 (reported there were 60million crimes per year)

and:

159 Reducing Crime: A Review by John Birt, 20 December 2000 (reported there were 132million indictable crimes alone, per year)

(5) GOV.UK Ministry of Justice Proven reoffending statistics quarterly: October 2013 to September 2014 (then choose Proven Reoffending Tables: October 2012 to September 2014. Table C2a

 

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David Fraser is the author of Licence to Kill, Britain’s Surrender to Violence. He is a former senior probation officer and criminal intelligence analyst with the National Criminal Intelligence Service (now the National Crime Agency).