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Renewing trust: How we can improve the relationship between probation and the courts

 

This report continues our work looking at the fall in community sentences, there use has fallen by 24% over the last ten-years.  In the course of this research, numerous practitioners and policymakers have expressed concerns that the relationship between sentencers and probation has deteriorated and that this is one reason why community sentences are used less often.

 

This report follows up on those concerns by exploring what has changed in the relationship between sentencers and probation services over the past five years. We have found that:

 

    • The relationship between courts and probation has been buffeted by series of reforms, most notably the split of probation into Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) and the National Probation Service (NPS).

 

    • Court timeliness targets and closures have hampered the ability of probation to deliver high quality pre-sentence advice. For example, the use of the most comprehensive written reports (Standard Delivery Reports) has fallen by 89% in six years and now stands at only 3% of all reports – less than a third of the national target.

 

    • Sentencers’ concerns about the delivery of community sentences are being driven by:

 

      • a lack of information about the services provided by CRCs;
      • a lack of transparency about the new Rehabilitation Activity Requirement (RAR);
      • barriers to dialog between CRCs and sentencers about community sentence options;
      • serious concerns about the quality of the work of CRCs when these are exposed in breach proceedings; and
      • concerns about availability of substance misuse and mental health treatment requirements for offenders, the use of which has fallen by 50%.

 

  • Sentencers remain largely in the dark about what happens after they sentence someone to a community sentence and have few opportunities to witness progress and compliance with court orders.  There is no routine process by which sentencers’ perceptions of community sentences are gathered.

 

Key conclusions and recommendations

 

While we have been unable to find a definite causal link between changes in the relationship between probation and courts and the fall in community sentences, our findings paint a worrying picture that the trust of sentencers in the delivery of community sentences is fraying. Yet, despite these concerns, magistrates value community sentences as an effective response to low and medium risk offenders and an alternative to custody.