Earlier this month HMI Probation produced a report in to the delivery of unpaid work. The report found that the overall quality of unpaid work varied significantly between the six Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRC) examined during June and July 2015, with a lack of dominant model for best practise in the delivery of community service provision. What the HMI Probation report fails to adequately acknowledge are the recent changes to the organisation of the National Probation Service, and the impact that this will have inevitably had on the management of such community sentences. With the focus of the report on the problems with the new management, opportunities for improving the day to day rehabilitative experience of community service are missed. By assessing whether targets are met, rather than the experience of community service, the HMI Probation have missed an opportunity to improve the quality of offender supervision. It is short sighted to focus upon management meeting targets as a measure of predicted reoffending or desistance rates, as this ignores the ways in which offender managers can address social, economic or cultural factors in a meaningful way in order to reduce crime.
Does Community Service really matter?
Community service is the most frequently imposed community punishment, with 70,171 orders made in 2014. This figure comprises of more than half of all community sentences ordered in 2014. This compares to 91,313 disposals to prison for the same period. Considering such high levels of community service disposals, second only to prison sentences, it is important that community service provision is well managed, available and effective as a form of rehabilitation. In light of the recent changes to the Probation service, prompted by the Ministry of Justice paper ‘Transforming Rehabilitation: a strategy for reform’ published in 2013, community service is now considered for low to medium risk offenders and is managed exclusively by privately owned and run Community Rehabilitation Companies. Prior to the changes to probation there was fierce opposition to the part privatisation of the service, with worries about service quality and public protection.
Rehabilitation and Public Protection concerns
Anxieties over public protection and increases in re-offending have so far yet to be allayed or offered a foundation of truth; mainly due to the little time that the CRC’s have been in charge of low to medium risk offenders and community service. However, the criticisms highlighted during this initial inspection are sure to provide a blow to the ‘pay by results’ ideology favoured by the current government. By focusing upon the management and timescales of community service provision, the report missed the point of community service as a rehabilitative tool. As have the offender managers themselves it appears. The offenders interviewed by the inspectorate talked positively about how community service could assist them to live better lives, yet the offender managers themselves were found to have missed the opportunity of using community service to promote desistance.
The HMI Probation report works to highlight some of the early issues with the management of CRC’s with regards to community service. However, the report also highlights the lack of knowledge of how the everyday experience of offender’s supervision with community service impacts the individual’s life and desistance journey. This report demonstrates that this lack of understanding has not only an academic impact, but a ‘real life’ impact for the way in which offender supervision is ‘done’ and the way in which community punishment is experienced. This knowledge gap is beginning to be acknowledged by academics and social researchers, including myself, who are now refocusing upon the experience of the probation client rather than the probation officer or wider institutional management. The challenging facing researchers now is the development of robust qualitative methodology, that gives the probation client a strong voice.
Summary of the key recommendations from the report by HMI Probation (2016):
Reduce the number of cases not initially allocated to the appropriate supervising organisation.
Ensure that all allocation decisions are made swiftly.
Ensure that all inductions are delivered in a timely fashion and in a way that enables a positive start to the order.
Increase the proportion of offenders that have their first work session within 14 days of sentence.
Require a significantly higher proportion of eligible offenders to undertake unpaid work at an intensive rate of 28 hours per week.
Review the arrangements for muster points to ensure that offenders are able to sign in for work efficiently.
Ensure that middle managers and staff are aware of the contracts and service delivery commitments that have been entered into and the organisational demands these place on them.
Redouble their efforts to minimise the frequency that offenders are turned away from work when they have reported on time.
Review the rules and procures concerning the ‘signing in’ of offenders and the operational effects of the ‘cut off’ point.
Investigate the reasons for the discrepancy between the numbers of offenders scheduled to attend at each muster point and the numbers that actually attend, and put in place an action plan to minimise this discrepancy.
Review the roles, responsibilities and contracts of supervisors to ensure that they are being used to deliver the required number of hours of face-to-face supervision in all cases.
Ensure that that they create a sentence plan that accurately describes the objectives of unpaid work which match the circumstances of the offender .
Treat failures to attend unpaid work as instructed in a similar way to other requirements, promptly decide on the acceptability of any absences and record the evidence to justify the decision.