Probation reform: A Firm hand of Friendship

Mathew Little

The Government's drive to bring the voluntary sector into the management of offenders could lead to a blurring of the lines between support and coercion. Do charities risk losing the trust of their beneficiaries?

Imagine a run-down council estate somewhere in England two years from now. A group of offenders in bright orange uniforms is removing graffiti from a wall. The representatives of law and order look on. But their supervisors aren't probation officers or employees of a private security firm; they're charity workers.

If plans unveiled by the National Offender Management Service come to fruition, such a sight will become commonplace.

For many, the long arm of the law will have a charity registration number.

In August, Noms published a 'contestability prospectus' on prison and probation services. Probation boards will be required to outsource £9bn of services to providers from the voluntary and private sectors over the next five years, about a quarter of their total expenditure. Anything from unpaid work (the new name for community service) and rehabilitation services to overall case management of offenders could be transferred to charities in what the prospectus describes as a "true mixed economy". Only last week, Home Secretary John Reid confirmed this agenda after a TV programme about the failings of bail hostels was aired. A Bill expected in today's Queen's Speech will strip local probation boards of their statutory monopoly to provide services.

Ministers are motivated by necessity as much as by enthusiasm for innovation.

Re-offending rates currently stand at 58 per cent. Among offenders aged between 18 and 21, it's even worse - 71 per cent are reconvicted within two years. Prisons are at bursting point and a recent report on the youth justice system claimed urgent action was needed to prevent it going into meltdown.

The voluntary sector's perceived talent for gaining the trust of disaffected, alienated individuals and helping them to retain stable homes or secure productive employment is seen as an untapped resource that could succeed where the power of state authority has failed.

One charity whose role could be radically expanded is Rainer. The founder of the probation service before it was nationalised in 1939, the charity returns to its roots under the Noms agenda. Its education-based rehabilitation service works with 40,000 young people involved in or on the fringes of crime, many of them referred by the probation service.

One of its programmes in Sheffield, developed in partnership with the National Probation Service and other local voluntary organisations, helps young people on a pre-release programme from HMP Doncaster. They are offered training in literacy and numeracy, as well as advice on looking for a job, preparing a CV and interview technique. Last year, of 300 participants, more than 100 gained City & Guilds basic skills qualifications and another 80 went into education or training, or found a job.

But there is another side to this Rainer project. Participants are tagged as part of an intensive surveillance and supervision programme and must be closely monitored by Rainer. If they don't attend, the charity must inform the National Probation Service and they could be sent back to prison.

David Chater, head of policy and external affairs, says project workers are aware of the dual relationship they must maintain with offenders.

But it doesn't mean the charity is imposing its help on captive beneficiaries. "People are forced to come here," he says. "They know that we have to inform probation if they don't. But after the second visit they come because they want to."

However, some believe a radical expansion of projects that combine assistance with enforcement could ultimately damage the voluntary sector's relationship with its clients. As in the debate over the voluntary sector's role in welfare-to-work schemes, there are those who believe that charities should think twice before crossing the line from befriending to coercion.

Julian Corner is chief executive of Revolving Doors, which works with offenders with mental health problems. A former Home Office civil servant and lead author of the Social Exclusion Unit report Reducing Re-offending by Ex-prisoners, he believes the voluntary sector's independence from the system is what underpins its effectiveness. The risk of the Noms vision is that charities will end up supervising offenders as much as helping them.

"The sector is in a great position to help offenders see that a different way of life is possible by offering a relationship of trust, advocacy and the sense that someone is on their side," he says. "If Noms is viewing the voluntary sector purely as a means to take over coercive elements of probation services, it doesn't understand what the voluntary sector can offer in terms of more trusted relationships. The threat to the voluntary sector is that the thing we're best at - offering social-inclusion approaches - will be turned into much more formalised, conditional services that look the same as the rest of the system."

But Chater insists there is a way to combine the roles of supervisor and trusted confidant, and it lies in the sector's most basic resource - its volunteers. Rainer, for example, has as many volunteers - about 500 - as it does staff. "For some of the people we work with, the difference made by having one person there who's not paid to be there, who's spending time with them out of choice, is enormous," he says. "They have a relationship they might not have with paid staff." Confidentiality is an important factor. If an offender reveals to a volunteer that he or she has breached licence conditions, that information will not be passed on to paid staff.

Another charity that sees a big opportunity in the Noms contestability agenda says that the conflict between mentoring and enforcement can be overcome by a strict demarcation of roles. The St Giles Trust runs peer advice schemes in which trained prisoners advise other inmates on issues such as housing (see panel). It also delivers a drug rehabilitation programme for offenders as an alternative to custody. Chief executive Daniel Currie says that an enforcement role would ruin the peer advice project but would be an acceptable part of its drug rehabilitation work. "You can provide mentoring and enforcement, but you can't do both at the same time with the same people," he says. "The ultimate enforcement role is always going to lie with the statutory sector, but there is no reason why you can't provide services that are helping to improve lives as part of a coercive framework. You have to be very clear about why you are doing it and whether it fits with your mission. If we are just keeping people locked up, we wouldn't be fulfilling our mission, but if we are helping people to improve their health by reducing their drug intake, then we are."

Some in the sector see the Noms intention to open coercive and enforcement roles to competition as an opportunity for the wider third sector beyond charities involved in crime prevention. Eight million hours of unpaid work a year are undertaken by offenders on community sentences. Noms has called for the voluntary sector to supervise these projects and involve the community in deciding what kind of work is done.

Graham Beech, chief executive of crime reduction charity Crime Concern, thinks unpaid work can be turned on its head by involving social enterprises in providing work placements in socially useful occupations. "Each community has safety problems, employment problems, environmental problems," he says. "What we have with unpaid work is a large, diverse and experienced workforce, and it's about mobilising that workforce to deal with social problems and to make a tangible link between paid and unpaid work."

He promises to build a network of employers that will "take an active part in community sentencing". Crime Concern has already formed the Offender Services Partnership with fellow charity Tomorrow's People, prisoner escort company Reliance Secure Task Management and Strode College to tackle persistently high levels of re-offending.

But despite the formation of such anticipatory partnerships, voluntary organisations in the rehabilitation sector are still in the dark about the extent and nature of the services they might take over. Delays in the implementation of the Noms agenda have frustrated many. One charity was forced to postpone an investment from Futurebuilders because of the uncertainty. 'Contestability' could mean a simple transfer of responsibilities from the public to the voluntary sector on the basis of rigid, target-driven contracts in which charities' closeness to their service users is put at risk, or it could mean a genuine willingness to learn from charities' experience and practices.

To Corner, the distinction is vital. "We are still in the early stages," he says. "Noms could turn to the voluntary sector and ask: 'How do we commission from you in ways that play to your strengths? We've got a high re-offending rate, we've got a burgeoning prison population. What is it that the voluntary sector could offer?' The sector could transform the whole approach to offending rather than having its ideas shoehorned into a closely prescribed commissioning framework."


The St Giles Trust trains prisoners to NVQ Level 3 in Advice and Guidance so they can provide housing and resettlement advice to fellow inmates. The project was piloted in HMP Wandsworth in London in 2001 and has since expanded to 18 other prisons in south-east England. The peer advisers identify potential rough sleepers while they are in prison (30 per cent of people sent to prison are homeless and another 30 per cent lose their homes while in prison) and try to put plans in place to ensure they have a home to go to after release.

The charity says the scheme enables it to reach thousands of prisoners who would otherwise be offered no help. Of the 73 prisoners who have been trained to give advice and have been released from prison, 47 are in employment and only three have re-offended.

A new St Giles project will see released peer advisers provide an escort and support service, meeting released prisoners at the prison gates and taking them to housing arranged by the charity. Forty advisers will be recruited to work up to 35 hours a week on £18,000 a year pro rata.


According to the Social Exclusion Unit report Reducing Re-offending by Ex-prisoners, 58 per cent of prisoners released in 1997 were convicted of another crime within two years, 36 per cent went back to prison, 18- to 20-year-old male prisoners were reconvicted at a rate of 72 per cent and 47 per cent were returned to prison.

Released prisoners are responsible for a million crimes a year, 18 per cent of recorded crime. Recorded crime by ex-prisoners costs at least £11bn a year. Each re-offending ex-prisoner costs the criminal justice system an average of £65,000.

In September 2005, there were 2,992 under-18s in custody, a rise of 228 on the previous year. Three-quarters of them are there for non-violent offences.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in
RSS Feed

Third Sector Insight

Sponsored webcasts, surveys and expert reports from Third Sector partners

Third Sector Logo

Get our bulletins. Read more articles. Join a growing community of Third Sector professionals

Register now