Cuts to probation service could pave the way to disaster

The Howard League for Penal Reform has today published its response to the government’s justice green paper, 'Breaking the cycle: effective punishment, rehabilitation and sentencing of offenders'.

The Howard League for Penal Reform has today published its response to the government’s justice green paper, ‘Breaking the cycle: effective punishment, rehabilitation and sentencing of offenders’; Sophie Willett reports

The call for reform is a welcome break from the punitive rhetoric that has dominated the criminal justice debate for the past two decades; however, scratching beneath the surface reveals some worrying gaps in provision.

The government has indicated its intention to dramatically reduce the number of probation officers. The probation union NAPO (the National Association of Probation Officers) has estimated that staff could be cut by up to 25% by the government’s budget cuts.

However, it is the probation service that would be required to commission, supervise and make community sentences work. If the government is serious about reducing the prison population, then the probation service will be required to work with more individuals. Given the service is already overstretched and under resourced, cuts could pave the way to disaster.

It is perfectly possible to achieve less crime, safer communities, and fewer people in prison. In Canada during the 1990s cuts to public spending saw the prison population reduced by 11%. During that decade, crime also fell to its lowest rate for 25 years, including drops ranging from 23% for assault and robbery to 43% for homicide.

But the key is that any savings realised from reducing the prison population does not simply wing its way straight into Treasury coffers. A properly strategic approach to reform would see at least some of the savings reinvested into community provision. Indeed, we would argue that the probation service needs this funding so that community sentences can be strengthened: to make them both more immediate and more intensive.

Ultimately, reforming community sentences will cost money. The government’s answer is to pilot an untried and untested payment-by-results approach, but even if that was to work it could not be rolled out to scale for many years. In the meantime, the Ministry of Justice will have to cut its budget by 6% year on year, and the pressure across prisons and probation will be immense.

MPs from all sides of the House agree that we cannot continue to prop up such a bloated criminal justice system. Having so many people in prison does not make society safer and it is simply unaffordable.

Nonetheless, attempting to reduce the prison population while reducing probation budgets represents a clear and present danger that may scupper the rehabilitation revolution before it has even started.

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