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UK rolls back ‘fundamentally flawed’ £3.7 billion partial privatisation of probation service, but critics warn challenges remain

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After “disastrous” privatisation reforms left it “irredeemably flawed,” a renationalised probation service has been launched by the UK government to better supervise offenders. But a watchdog warns there is no “magic-bullet” fix.

In a widely criticised move, former justice secretary Chris Grayling had in 2014 replaced the 35 probation trusts in England and Wales with a new two-tier system. The National Probation Service (NPS), a public sector body, oversaw high-risk criminals, while million-pound contracts to supervise 150,000 low- to medium-risk offenders were auctioned off to some 21 private companies.

The semi-privatised model created by Grayling’s £3.7 billion ($5.1bn) ‘Transforming Rehabilitation’ agenda led to reports of poor-quality supervision of offenders, a rise in prison recall rates, “rock-bottom morale” and low staff-retention rates. The government also bailed out the contractors, known as community rehabilitation companies (CRCs), to the tune of over £500 million ($695mn).

In addition, the number of offenders who end up charged with serious crimes like murder and violent sex crimes while out of prison on probation had gone up significantly in the four-year span from 2015 to 2019.

Citing justice-ministry data, the Daily Mirror revealed last month that the number of prisoners who were charged with murder went up from 70 in 2015 to 137 in 2019. Over that period, the number of charges of attempted murder also rose, from 45 to 68.

On top of this, early-release prisoners were charged with some 999 serious sex crimes, including rape, during the same period. Over the past year, critics have held up notorious serial rapist Joseph McCann, who was able to carry out a sex attack spree after being released early in error, as an example of supervisor inexperience, low standards of quality and other general failings in the system.

Noting that the government had pumped in more than £300 million-worth of additional funding into the service since July 2019, justice secretary Robert Buckland said in a statement that the reunification of the services would ensure “the public is better protected, crime is cut and fewer people become victims.”

The statement notes that this move as well as extra investment in tackling the root “drivers of crime” would help stave off some of the £18 billion annual cost of repeat offending – which, according to Buckland, accounts for about 80% of all recorded crime.

With the reunification, the new Probation Service will supervise some 220,000 offenders on probation and drive the delivery of unpaid volunteer work and rehabilitation programmes. The move brings together 7,000 staff from CRCs and 3,500 public sector probation officers under the same banner.

However, the Inspectorate of Probation, a watchdog body, has warned that while the move to renationalise was welcome, there is much more to be done to address “challenges that should not be underestimated” facing the service.

“There are no magic bullets here: structural change needs to be backed by sustained investment for there to be true improvement. Real transformation is a long-term commitment, and unification is just the beginning of that journey,” chief inspector Justin Russell told The Guardian.

Noting that Grayling’s reforms had been “fundamentally flawed”, Russell stated such concerns as “squeezed budgets,” “relentless pressure” and “unacceptably high caseloads” as factors that have led to probation officer shortages.

“This has inevitably resulted in poorer quality supervision, with over half of the cases we inspected in the private sector probation companies being unsatisfactory on some key aspect of quality,” Russell explained.

The National Association of Probation Officers (NAPO) union echoed these concerns and called for further investment.

“Having realised the mistakes of the past, it’s now time for Government to invest properly in the Probation Service. This means addressing staff shortages, excessive workloads and paying its staff the proper rate for the important work that they undertake in trying to keep the public safe,” NAPO national chair Katie Lomas said in a press release.

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