It’s now almost two years since the government effectively privatised part of the probation service by allocating low- and medium-risk cases – around 70% of the National Probation Service’s total workload – to privately owned Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs).
There have certainly been positive aspects to the implementation of the current regime, with a recent review by the National Audit Office (NAO) confirming that probation services “have been restructured on time and within cost targets during a period of major change.”
Where the CRCs are Failing
However, the same NAO report warns that a lack of accurate data means there is currently no way to measure how well the private CRCs are performing, and that “the performance of the new probation landscape will not become clear until data on reoffending is compiled in late 2017.”
Perhaps more worryingly, the report suggests that some of the CRCs may be deliberately manipulating or withholding data that could be used to assess performance; only three of the four CRCs visited by audit staff provided caseload data, “and these were presented as an average, which masks any variation within and across CRCs.”
It also notes that many staff in the public sector National Probation Service felt that their CRC contacts often failed to provide them with necessary information.
Profits Before People?
There is clearly a further concern that CRCs are “too focused on commercial interests,” with profits being put ahead of genuine rehabilitation. As CRCs are primarily paid for completing specific tasks or activities with offenders, the report suggests that this could hinder more innovative approaches to reducing levels of reoffending – particularly in more difficult cases – in favour of a more financially driven “tick-box” approach.
While service users have not been especially critical of the changes to the probation service – 77% said they hadn’t noticed any change in the overall service they’d received – political opponents of the privatisation scheme have been quick to capitalise on the NAO report’s findings; Shadow Justice Secretary, Charlie Falconer, has called for an immediate enquiry and has criticised the government’s “half-baked and reckless privatisation of the probation service.”
Lessons to Learn for Prison Reform
We can only hope the prison reform programme announced in the Queen’s Speech last week, which will semi-privatise the UK prison system, will have a more positive impact on rehabilitation and take some pressure off the beleaguered probation service. Hopefully, the lessons learned in the course of privatising the probation service can be applied to the proposed restructuring of the country’s prisons.
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