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Fewer arrests would ease the strain on our over-burdened probation service post-Covid

Fewer arrests would ease the strain on our over-burdened probation service post-Covid


3 min read

The last decade has been tumultuous for probation in England and Wales. A service that had operated well for more than a century was torn into fragments in a disastrous part-privatisation.

Performance declined sharply and public confidence ebbed away as high-profile failings and parliamentary inquiries made the headlines. Companies went bust. Demoralised staff watched on as systems were scrapped and maps redrawn. And then came the pandemic.

As the country went into lockdown in March last year, this was a service already under tremendous strain. About a quarter of a million people were under probation supervision, and a research bulletin published that month by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation revealed that less than half of staff believed they had manageable caseloads. A lack of suitable accommodation meant that one in six men, and one in five women, were leaving prison with nowhere to live.

These challenges grew more acute as the realities of the pandemic became clear. Additional funding was found for emergency accommodation, but face-to-face monitoring was pared back to comply with government social distancing guidelines. Supervision over the phone became the norm and support services that probation relies upon, such as mental health and drug and alcohol provision, were reduced. Unpaid work and attendance at courses dropped dramatically.

Many children under supervision had no education or training. Doorstep visits, emails and phone calls replaced face-to-face meetings, while children without access to the internet found it particularly difficult to receive regular contact.

All these changes, and the backlog of cases that has grown as a result, have heaped more pressure on staff who are about to see their working practices alter once again. The failed Transforming Rehabilitation experiment introduced in 2014, which split probation in two and placed much of the work under the responsibility of private companies, has been scrapped. In its place comes a reunified model to be delivered by the public sector.

Children without access to the internet found it particularly difficult to receive regular contact

The Howard League opposed Transforming Rehabilitation from the start and campaigned for the reunification of probation. The new model is undoubtedly a step forward although, as it will be delivered through Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, the charity remains concerned that it will not give probation the independence it needs from Whitehall bureaucracy. These arrangements will become increasingly important if, as seems likely, the service is asked to supervise more people. The government’s plans to recruit more police officers and inflate sentencing, twinned with the impact of lockdown on relationships and employment, will only add to the strain.

Prevention is always better than cure, and so the focus now must be on taking measures that stop people being swept into the criminal justice system in the first place. We can reduce crime and ease the burden on probation – as well as prisons – if we divert people with difficulties to services that can help them, rather than arresting them and bringing them into a system that is overstretched.

This is why, throughout the pandemic, the Howard League has continued to work with police forces to reduce arrests of women and children. By promoting good practice and encouraging officers to use their professional discretion, we have helped reduce arrests of children by more than 70 per cent over the last decade, giving hundreds of thousands of boys and girls a brighter future. We are trying to match this success with women and hope this will provide a template for doing the same for men.

This is the innovation we need to see to help a reunified probation service meet the challenges ahead.


Frances Crook is chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform


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