Yesterday’s Thought for the Day on the Oval tube station board was: “He who keeps his head in the sand gets a kick up the behind”. It seemed particularly appropriate. Radical changes to the way short-sentenced prisoners are supervised after release have just been announced; not everyone is happy about them - but our current approach needs an overhaul.
They are part of a wider package of sweeping reforms brought forward by Justice Secretary Chris Grayling. These include radical changes to the probation service, boosting involvement of non-statutory agencies and extending the use of payment-by-results approaches.
To say our system needs reform is not to blame those who battle away on the frontline of tackling recidivism with dwindling resources. Probation staff carry out valuable, difficult work – generally unseen (until something goes wrong) and often unsung. But - given the reality of spending cuts - their focus and expertise should be with the highest profile, most risky offenders.
St Giles Trust, the charity of which I’m Chief Executive, has years of experience working with men and women caught on an endless cycle of prison, homelessness and re-offending. We use specially trained, reformed ex-offenders to provide support. They possess a special credibility and can reach very difficult, dislocated clients in a way that anyone who has not been in prison would struggle to.
Mr Grayling's reforms offer a real opportunity for charities like St Giles Trust. They open the gate to everyone whose ambition is to help break the current costly cycle of re-offending. Currently, we are frustratingly restricted in the areas of the country where we can work. Now we will be invited to bid for opportunities which extend our work by partnering with a diverse range of organisations, each bringing their unique strengths.
The main criticisms levelled at the Government’s new measures are that they are untried, untested and lack implementation detail.
And yes we have some concerns of our own. We are not daunted by payment by results, but the way they are applied does need care. Most of our clients do not stop re-offending overnight but over a period of time - i.e. their offences become less frequent – meaning the model used to measure results is crucial. Then there is ‘bid candy’ – prime contractors using charities to make their bids look good and then offloading risk onto them whilst keeping the cream. We all want assurances that lessons have been learnt from the implementation of the Work Programme.
Over 50 per cent of adults return to prison within two years of release – even more so for young offenders – and this urgently needs to be addressed. New approaches will undoubtedly put us all under pressure as they demand results; yet applied intelligently they could reap immense benefits for our clients.
All of us now need to pull our heads out of the sand, start to collaborate, and embrace a different way of doing things if we are to effectively tackle re-offending and keep people out of prison – for good.
Rob Owen became Chief Executive of St Giles Trust seven years ago after a successful career in The City. The charity aims to break the cycle of re-offending through services and support.