As if there was not enough going awry in Britain’s troubled criminal justice system, HM Inspectorate of Probation now reports that changes to the probation system over the past five years have locked offenders – and taxpayers – “in an expensive merry-go-round” with “no tangible reduction to re-offending”.
Predictably, the fault lies with the reforms Chris Grayling implemented during his spell as Lord Chancellor and secretary of state for justice.
The report follows a similarly damning document from the National Audit Office on the privatisation of the probation service and the renationalisation of the system by the incumbent David Gauke.
Even on the most generous reading, allowing for the financially straitened circumstances of the times, and of Mr Grayling's sometimes honourable intentions, the disaster he visited upon British justice is without precedent in modern times, and not even surpassed by his antics on the railways.
Legal aid, access to justice for asylum seekers, ex-offenders seeking a fresh start; safety and security in overcrowded, undermanned prisons – these are all bad situations made worse under Mr Grayling.
And, at the end of it all, many hundreds of millions of pounds of public money has been wasted, so he has failed even at saving the Treasury some cash.
Why this former leadership campaign manager for Theresa May, ardent Brexiteer and still-loyal ally remains in cabinet is a mystery. He must, more than most, quake at her imminent departure. At least he hasn't put his name forward for the leadership yet: even he must have some shame.
The point of any probation service is to prevent re-offending. The 2014 legislation brought offenders on the shortest sentences into the ambit of the part-privatised probation service; but did so at a time when resources were being cut.
The end result, as HMI Probation makes clear, was a failure to target attention where it was most needed: “This ‘one size fits all’ approach is unhelpful … we need a more tailored approach to probation supervision for short-term prisoners and to direct resources to where they are most needed.”
For too long the criminal justice system has been one of the most neglected of the public services, and within that the probation service has been almost forgotten. It has been treated by successive governments, and especially in the post-2010 era of austerity, as something of a luxury, as if the resettlement of prisoners were some kind of indulgence.
The reality, however, is that the costs to society of failing to help them go straight are enormous – rehabilitation for addiction and attendant health complications; the human cost of assaults and burglaries; the financial damage of theft and fraud; the decades and decades ahead of lags traipsing in and out of prison; and all at a time when the demand for labour has rarely been higher in recent decades.
The jobs, in other words, are there for ex-prisoners, and, in many cases, they have the desire to reform their lives and receive some training and support. If the state regards that as something it cannot afford, then it is now trying the alternative – and it is a painful one for the whole of society.
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