Soon after Chris Grayling took over as justice secretary last September, he talked about how impressed he was by a charity that meets offenders when they leave prison and provides them with mentors to help them resettle into their communities and avoid committing further offences.
This led to an ambitious plan, now being implemented, to extend mandatory supervision on release to people sentenced to less than 12 months in prison and to invite bids to do the work from the public, private and voluntary sectors. Part of the contracts will be paid by results.
Mindful of the disappointments for the voluntary sector in the Work Programme, Grayling's previous major project at the Department for Work & Pensions, the MoJ has consulted the Office for Civil Society about maximising opportunities for the sector in the probation plan. The charities minister, Nick Hurd, told Third Sector recently that he was delighted with the work in progress and hoped the pessimists would be surprised.
Our analysis this week shows that many criminal justice charities are putting on an optimistic front despite doubts about key elements of the proposals, such as the large size of the contracts, the amount of risk carried by subcontractors and the payment-by-results element. Least optimistic is the Howard League for Penal Reform, which points out that the government is trying to both revolutionise and expand the system without increasing its resources.
How things will develop from here is hard to predict. Parts of the existing Probation Service might turn themselves into mutuals - strongly encouraged by the government - in order to bid for the work. The private sector is keen to enhance its chances by recruiting expertise from criminal justice charities.
It would be good to see charities creating enough financial muscle to compete effectively by working together in voluntary sector consortia, but these can be difficult to organise. Some charities might put aside their reservations and partner with the private sector, with all the risk to their mission that entails.