On paper at least, the Justice Secretary’s shake-up of Britain’s probation services looks like good sense. After all, recidivism is running at its highest ever rate and nearly 60 per cent of prisoners serving jail terms of less than 12 months go on to reoffend within a year of their release. Something is clearly not working.
To tackle the problem, Chris Grayling is proposing a mandatory 12 months of post-prison supervision for all offenders. More controversially, he wants it provided by charities or the private sector rather than the state – and intends to draw up regional, payment-by-results contracts to that effect. If all goes according to plan, by 2015 an extra 65,000 ex-offenders will be being supervised, and a reshaped Probation Service will be dealing with only 30 per cent of the most difficult, or dangerous, cases.
Radical, indeed. And, sure enough, there have been squeals of protest. There are certainly reservations. Not, as some suggest, because there is an inherent problem with proposing drastic institutional changes to solve apparently intractable underperformance. Nor even because the proposals come with no extra money (although Mr Grayling’s talk of “efficiencies” can only set alarm bells ringing).
The central question, rather, is whether the scheme will work. First, there are the practicalities of payment-by-results to consider. As is clear from the Work Programme – another brainchild of Mr Grayling – designing such contracts is far from easy. Similarly, probation-officer mutuals or more involvement for reformed “old lags” may be easier said than done.
With so many potential pitfalls, progress must be slow and careful if the Justice Secretary is not to fulfil his critics’ direst prognoses. But there is also another worry here, too – and that springs from the evidence that those who serve community, rather than prison, sentences reoffend markedly less. Mr Grayling is right to focus on prisoner rehabilitation. But it must not be at the expense of other, perhaps more effective, criminal justice reforms.