Media coverage in advance of publication of the community sentences review dwelt on satellite tracking and other suitably tough sounding measures. Whether greater toughness and surveillance is really what is needed for effective community sentences is, I think, open to question. In any case these are but an intensification of policy the coalition inherited from the last Labour government rather than a radical departure.
The vision set out in the probation review may not attract as much attention. It does, however, signal a potentially very radical change to the nature of probation work in England and Wales. Indeed it is not fanciful to suggest that under these plans the Probation Service could cease to exist as a distinct and defined area of criminal justice practice within a decade.
Under the proposals some 60 per cent of probation work by value will be subject to competition. These include: community payback, electronic monitoring, bail accommodation and support services, approved premises, attendance centres, victim liaison, accredited programmes, activity requirements, supervision and some aspects of offender management.
Given the complexity inherent in a range of providers all delivering different interventions to the same person, the Review proposes to ‘retain with Probation Trusts key public interest decision points for all offenders’. This includes initial risk assessments, court and Parole Board reports, breach and recall action, certain ‘offender management’ decisions and the supervision and management of those deemed to pose a high risk (so-called MAPPA cases).
In summary, Probation Trusts take on a role as commissioners of most probation services, while retaining a diminished role in the delivery of certain specified probation activities.
So what happens if a Probation Trust wants to bid to deliver interventions subject to competition? To guard against possible conflict of interest – a Trust as commissioner awarding itself the delivery contract – the Review proposes a purchaser-provider split. This will ensure ‘a clear distinction between those Probation Trusts which retain the functions of commissioning, managing higher risk offenders and taking public interest decisions and those Probation Trusts which chose to compete to provide services’.
It will be interesting to see how this dual Trust model – those that specialise in commissioning in contrast to those that specialise in delivery – will work in practice.
The Review also points to the ‘potential over time for other public bodies, such as local authorities or, with a broadened statutory role, Police and Crime Commissioners to take responsibility for probation services’.
This opens up the intriguing possibility of a longer-term move in England and Wales towards the Scottish model of probation where, as ‘Criminal Justice Social Work’, it is the responsibility of local authorities alongside other welfare services.
This revolution in probation work may not attract the attention and public controversy of the recent NHS reforms. But within probation its implications are at least as far-reaching.