Is the probation service keeping criminals in check?

9 January 2013

Today it was reported by several newspapers that Justice Secretary Chris Grayling will allow private companies and charities to supervise low risk offenders, leaving the Probation Service to manage dangerous and high-risk offenders.

The private companies and charities that successfully bid for probation contracts will be paid "by results". It is hoped that the scheme would reduce reoffending (the consultation paper can be accessed here, and it builds on a similar exercise dating from last year).   

Currently, the Probation Service is responsible for managing offenders released from prison on licence and those on a community sentence. While on probation, according to, the offender may have to do unpaid work, complete an education or training course, get treatment for addictions and have regular meetings with an offender manager.

If an offender breaches the conditions of their licence or parole (for instance, by committing another crime), they will probably be returned to prison.     

Mr Grayling is quoted as saying,

"we know across the public, private and voluntary sectors there is a wealth of expertise and experience - we need to unlock that so we can finally begin to bring down our stubbornly high reoffending rates."

As part of the "rehabilitation revolution", Mr Grayling wants those who serve a short custodial sentence to undergo a period of rehabilitation after their release.   

What is the current reoffending rate

"Grayling says a radical overhaul is needed to tackle the high reoffending rates, with 58% of short-sentenced prisoners offending again within a year and half a million crimes committed each year by released prisoners" — The Guardian

According to the Ministry of Justice, more than half (54.2 per cent) of adult offenders discharged from prison had served a sentence of less than 12 months. These offenders had a one year "proven re-offending rate" of 57.6 per cent. 

Furthermore, "these re-offenders committed an average of 2.87 re-offences each. In total, this represents around 500,000 re-offences".

We've provided further analysis of this 58 per cent proven re-offending rate, but it should also be noted that the Probation Service does not have legal responsibility for those who have served a sentence of less than 12 months.  

Has the Probation Service failed?

A recent Daily Mail headline ("Nearly 50,000 criminals spared jail offend again within a year") suggested that probation officials needed "to get a grip on criminals they were supposed to be reforming". However, we examined this claim and found that if the latest data is compared to previous years, the percentage of criminals re-offending has decreased slightly since 2000.

Liz Calderbank, the Chief Inspector of Probation for England and Wales, alluded to this trend when she said on the BBC's Today programme that the work of the Probation Service has made a difference in the rate of reoffending.

"The Probation Service is current, and generally speaking, a well-performing service," she said. "It's gone through a number of financial cuts in the past few years, yet it's continued to meet its targets." Furthermore, the Probation Service won an excellence award in 2011.  

How do you measure the rate of success and paying by results?

Ms Calderbank also raised an interesting point on the Today Programme: "How do you define a result? If you have someone convicted of a serious knife crime, and then they reoffend by stealing a jar of coffee, is that a failure or success?" Although it is early days with the proposals, paying by results is not as clear-cut as it is sometimes presented.    

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