The government is renationalising the supervision of criminals after a botched part-privatisation programme was found to be putting the public at risk.
Chris Grayling handed the monitoring of low and medium-risk offenders over to private firms 2014, in spite of warnings from officials, experts and charities.
The Transforming Rehabilitation programme aimed to reduce reoffending and save money, but the government was forced to bail out failing companies and cancel contracts early in moves expected to cost taxpayers more than £467m.
The government is now scrapping every Community Rehabilitation Company (CRC) and handing all offender monitoring to the public National Probation Service (NPS).
The justice secretary, David Gauke, said private and voluntary providers would still be commissioned for unpaid work, community punishments and probation programmes.
“Delivering a stronger probation system, which commands the confidence of the courts and better protects the public, is a pillar of our reforms to focus on rehabilitation and cut reoffending,” he added.
“I want a smarter justice system that reduces repeat crime by providing robust community alternatives to ineffective short prison sentences – supporting offenders to turn away from crime for good.”
The Ministry of Justice said the cost of the change, including recruitment, has not yet been calculated.
The new model is scheduled to come into force in spring 2021, following a transition period after CRC contracts end in December 2020.
In its first climbdown last year, the government proposed reducing the number of CRCs and reforming their contracts, but a series of reports by parliamentary committees and watchdogs found the entire structure was “irredeemably flawed”.
In the most recent damning report, the Public Accounts Committee said reforms pushed through at “breakneck speed” failed to reduce reoffending and left services “underfunded, fragile, and lacking the confidence of the courts”.
A “skyrocketing” number of criminals have been recalled to prison and more than 200 offenders supposedly being monitored by CRCs have been charged with murder, while others have committed serious offences or disappeared.
Inspectors found companies were monitoring offenders over the phone and failing to properly assess the risk posed by criminals, or protect their victims.
The NPS was assessed as performing better in what HM Inspectorate of Probation called a “two-tier” system.
The government’s announcement came two days before the watchdog was to release a critical report on CRC supervision of people released after short prison sentences.
Dame Glenys Stacey, the chief inspector of probation, said: “More than a quarter of a million people are under probation supervision each year, and high-quality probation services can make such a difference to them and to wider society as well.
“Hard-pressed probation professionals now face yet more change, but I anticipate they will be in good heart.”
A new consultation proposes to offer up to £280m a year for probation work from the private and voluntary sectors, but under NPS control.
Under the new model, 11 probation regions across England and Wales will have an “innovation partner” responsible for providing unpaid work, substance misuse programmes, training courses, community service and housing support.
The Ministry of Justice said it was planning new laws to create a regulatory framework holding probation officers to a set of professional standards, like doctors and lawyers.
Mr Gauke is also pushing to reduce the number of people being jailed for under a year, after research finding short sentences are ineffective at stopping reoffending.
Richard Burgon, Labour's shadow justice secretary, said the government had “put public safety at risk and squandered hundreds of millions of pounds”.
“The Tories didn't want to make this U-turn and had been desperately trying to re-tender probation contracts to the private sector,” he added. “It is right those plans have been dropped and that offender management is to be brought back in-house.”
Christina Marriott, chief executive of rehabilitation charity the Revolving Doors Agency said it was right to “go back to the drawing board”.
“This dysfunctional split has been a failure,” she added. “It has failed to protect the public, failed to stop the cycle of crime and failed especially short sentenced prisoners. Too many people are leaving prison with no supervision, nowhere to live, and no access to healthcare.”
Peter Dawson, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said: “Mr Gauke’s pragmatism offers hope that the damage done to the probation system by his predecessor can eventually be repaired. Courts are crying out for a simpler system in which they can have confidence.”
Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, called the programme “catastrophic”.
She said: “Probation will only keep the public safe and help people turn their lives around if it is integrated with housing, health and other such services, and promotes high professional standards at all levels.”
“The regional structure proposed may prove unwieldy, while clinging to private sector delivery of something like unpaid work seems to fly in the face of repeated failures by companies to deliver on such contracts.”
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