It was around 2002 when I was still a young civil servant that I started to notice that the questions being asked about the future of probation all seemed to be about structure, organisational incentives and commissioning arrangements. These were questions that all came out of the management consultant playbook—content and evidence free but they looked pretty on a Powerpoint slide.
Since then, probation has been restructured a number of times and the voice of the practitioners of probation were largely seen as oppositional, conservative and obstructive to whatever new future had been lovingly detailed in an organogram. Throughout those processes, I was often reminded of theoretical physicist Wolfgang Paulli’s quote, “That is not only not right; it is not even wrong.”
Yet I approach the Government’s consultation on yet another new structure, to replace the old structure implemented in 2015, with hope. Because it is a chance to ask the right questions again. To me, the two most important questions are: (i) what is the purpose of probation and (ii) what does the evidence suggest will deliver that purpose?
In our view, probation is there to effectively manage those who have offended in the community. Now, there are a range of technocratic, evidence-led measures that can improve what probation currently does to deliver that within the confines of its current reach. These include technocratic measures to reduce the intensity and length of community sentences for low-risk offenders, test new approaches to improving compliance with community sentences and to improve the quality of supervision (by emphasising procedural fairness and continuity of contact between the offender and the probation supervisor).
However, in our response, we also urge the Government to embrace a much broader community supervision strategy. In our view, that includes new efforts to expand the reach of our probationary services. We can see a role for probation, as Youth offending Teams already provide in youth justice, in overseeing supervision of offenders given out of court disposals and new deferred prosecution options, measures already being implemented by the Ministry. We also argue that an effective community supervision strategy must include measures to reduce the use of short prison sentences. This should include introducing a presumption against very short prison sentences, expanding the use of deferred sentences as an alternative to short prison sentences especially for female offenders, and piloting the use of judge led problem-solving orders as alternatives to over 6 months prison sentences.
It is only when answer those questions that we can being to look at the structure needed to deliver it. A structure that supports that vision is, in our view, one which makes probation whole again, removing the damaging split between the NPS and the CRCs. It is one which recognises that probation is fundamentally a community service and therefore needs to be made local again. This suggests to us that any restructure of probation should realign around the current 42 police force areas and be based on a mixed funding formula in which Police and Crime Commissioners, local authorities and central Government all fund new probation areas.
Our answers may not be precisely right but at least they try to answer the right questions.