On Tuesday, HM Inspectorate of Probation (HMIP) published a thematic review into the quality of post-sentence supervision for people released from custody after serving a short prison sentence. This blog summarises the findings.
Why the report was conducted
In 2015, the government extended probation supervision to all people released from custody after serving a short prison sentence. This was a major part of the Transforming Rehabilitation programme, and was legislated for under the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014 (ORA).
Previous to the ORA, people serving sentences of less than 12 months were released unconditionally after half their sentence had been served in custody. After the ORA, every person sentenced to custody for more than one day has at least 12 months of community supervision. The aim was to provide people with greater rehabilitative support and, ultimately, to reduce reoffending.
However, these reforms have led to no tangible reduction in reoffending. 64% of adults released from a custodial sentence of less than 12 months will reoffend, while one in four will be recalled to prison. HMIP therefore conducted this thematic inspection, examining 128 cases of post-release supervision, across six Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) for adults sentenced to less than 12 months in prison.
The report identified a number of major failings, and makes a number of recommendations for change. Current and incoming changes to probation offer an opportunity to address the pressing issues raised in this report.
People’s needs are not being met
The report highlights the well-known fact that people serving short sentences face a very high level of disadvantage, and often in multiple and complex ways.
In the context of years of cuts to public services and major welfare reform, leading to a rise in urgent housing needs, substance misuse, poor mental health, and poverty, Clinks members have reported facing an ever greater complexity of need amongst people they support.
For example, people cannot apply for Universal Credit until they are released from prison, pushing people into poverty. After people are released, the complicated and time-consuming process in applying for Universal Credit is especially challenging for people lacking identification documentation, a bank account, an email address and the skills to apply for benefits online. Similarly, 31% of cases examined for this report were released to no fixed abode, and there was reportedly resignation amongst some prison staff of the inevitability of people being released homeless.
The complexity of many people’s needs when leaving prison is great, and though they stem far beyond the criminal justice system, it is clear that needs are not being met through post-sentence supervision. HMIP have found that, for example, too many resettlement plans were limited to signposting to other services and lacked genuine coordination with benefits, substance misuse and accommodation services. A lack of continuity of support was also highlighted with individuals reallocated between probation workers over the period of their licence and supervision.
People are being failed in court
Pre-sentence reports (PSRs) are completed by probation staff and are given to the court to inform sentencing. Done well, PSRs will include important contextual information about individuals, including any additional or specific needs they have. People with PSRs are more than 10 times more likely to receive a community sentence rather than a custodial sentence. Clinks members have, however, reported a recent decline in PSRs, both in their number and quality, something confirmed by recent analysis from Centre for Justice Innovation.
In HMIP’s sample, PSRs were prepared for the courts in less than one in four cases. This leaves judges and magistrates with no understanding for why individuals have committed crimes, nor their current circumstances. The impact on women can be particularly damaging, since women disproportionately serve short sentences, and are more likely to experience additional obstacles through serving short sentences because of, for example, unmet mental health needs or difficulties in re-joining their family or children.
Sentences are therefore being given blindly, which reduces the chance of effective community alternatives to be delivered, including interventions delivered by the voluntary sector and other forms of diversion from custody, such as community sentence treatment requirements. HMIP recommends that Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service work with HM Courts & Tribunals Service to ensure that comprehensive pre-sentence reports are prepared where imprisonment is being considered.
Reform to short sentences won’t work without wider changes
HMIP welcomes recent comments from the Secretary of State for Justice confirming that the government accepts the case for reducing the use of short sentences, in favour of effective community alternatives. The report does, however, warn that without wider changes to how services work, reducing short sentences alone will not be successful. HMIP advocates for a system-wide approach at a local level, coordinated through cross-departmental working at a national level.
The report makes 11 recommendations, three of which are addressed to the Reducing Reoffending Board (RRB), a cross-ministerial group chaired by David Lidington MP, Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and attended by senior ministers from all government departments with a stake in the causes and effects of reoffending. The report calls on the RRB to:
- Improve local commissioning arrangements and provide sufficient substance misuse and mental health services for people released from prison
- Reduce the barriers to accessing Universal Credit for relevant prisoners at the point of release
- Develop a national strategy for the provision of appropriate accommodation for those under probation supervision and in need.
Clinks convenes and chairs the Reducing Re-offending Third Sector Advisory Group (RR3), a group of 16 openly recruited senior experts from the voluntary sector, which has agreed a formal relationships with the RRB and submitted evidence on access to Universal Credit and banking services for people leaving prison. We will continue to work with the RRB and offer the unrivalled experience and knowledge of the voluntary sector to inform its work on the other areas of HMIP’s recommendations.
This report provides further evidence of the systematic failings of probation reforms under Transforming Rehabilitation, and the importance of getting the future probation system right. Since the research was conducted, the government has introduced a new enhanced Through the Gate specification, and announced that it will reverse the bulk of the core changes brought in under Transforming Rehabilitation. Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service has now also published its action plan in response to this report, in which its agrees or partly agrees to all recommendations made by HMIP.
Clinks looks forward to continuing to work closely with the Ministry of Justice and Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service to ensure that its commitments in its action plan are implemented and that, this time around, the opportunity of probation reform is properly realised for the voluntary sector and people will get the support they need.