Making the rehabilitation revolution a reality

The Howard League for Penal Reform outline the evidence they gave to the Justice Affairs Select Committee, which they have been allowed to publish today.

What we do with convicted criminals is as controversial a topic as ever, with embattled justice secretary Ken Clarke outlining plans to move the system away from a ‘prison works‘ mentality; here, Andrew Neilson, assistant director of The Howard League for Penal Reform – a penal reform charity respected across the political spectrum – outlines the evidence they gave to the Justice Affairs Select Committee, which they have been allowed to publish today

The introduction of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) in 2004 led to major changes and a large-scale restructuring in the way criminal justice is administered, including the merging of the prison and probation services.

The changes exacted by NOMS have led to the systematic fragmentation and demoralisation of the probation service, whose purpose has been altered beyond all recognition. Instead of being allowed to engage with vulnerable men and women in the community, the probation service and its functions have been warped by a framework of mechanistic targets.

A bureaucratic managerial model averse to risk and devoid of ambition has replaced the frontline services probation formerly provided to the multi-faceted problems faced by individuals in the community. Napo, the probation union, described the move to agency status as a hostile prison ‘takeover’.

The original commitment in the 1907 Probation Act to “advise, assist and befriend” was removed under the last government in favour of a managerial model characterised by closer monitoring and enforcement. Many dedicated probation officers the Howard League has worked with have expressed a desire to return to a more supportive role but they have been constrained by the risk-averse culture that dominates NOMS.

The Howard League’s submission to the Justice Affairs Select Committee’s inquiry on the role of the probation service is timely and radical. It calls for a shift away from offender management and a shift towards a localised “resolution service” that the public can both see and understand.

There is a real need for the resolution service. At the moment, the police are called in to manage local, nuisance behaviour. This wastes police time, and creates disenchanted citizens when the police cannot, or will not deal with their problems. The resolution service could go out into the community acting as a dispute resolution and support service for all within society; anti-social behaviour matters could be channelled to appropriate local services instead of towards overcrowded prisons.

As well as filling the justice gap in the local community by probation working as a resolution service, it would serve to cut costs on our health and penal systems. It would mainstream many of the vulnerable who are currently segregated through prison.

It is only with a re-energised resolution service, whose goal is to support and not to detain individuals at risk of offending that the government’s rehabilitation revolution can become a reality.

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