Select Committee on Home Affairs Third Report


Memorandum by the Central Probation Council


  1.  The Central Probation Council is the national, employers' organisation of the probation service, representing probation committees in England and Wales which are statutory bodies corporate, responsible for the employment of probation staff and accountable for the services which they provide in accordance with Home Office priorities and within prescribed resources.

  2.  Membership of probation committees comprises magistrates, judges, members of local authorities and communities. Members are therefore well aware of the business and needs of the courts and the communities which they serve.

  3.  We welcome the Inquiry, confident that examination of probation services will impress members of the Committee and bring to light the advantages of a multi-skilled and professional local service, working for courts and communities to prevent and reduce crime. Visits to probation services by members of the Committee would be welcomed and would, we suggest, assist in promoting a wider understanding of the work undertaken and of its strengths and potential.

  4.  This memorandum has been produced by a working group of the Council, drawing on publicly available material and upon the Council's responses to Home Office consultation documents over recent years. We assume that the Committee will have available to it all the facts and figures produced by the Home Office, the Three Year Plan, reports of HM Inspectorate of Probation and Home Office Research Studies.

  5.  The memorandum produced by the Association of Chief Officers of Probation deals with professional and managerial issues and has the support of this Council. We hope to avoid repetition of much of the substance of the ACOP paper and suggest that they are read in conjunction with one another, together with the accompanying descriptive leaflets and the comprehensive paper on research evidence submitted by the Oxford Probation Studies Unit.

  6.  The Council will be pleased to expand upon or discuss any issues raised either by correspondence or in oral evidence.

  7.  Before turning to the specific areas to be addressed, we wish to comment on the title which we presume will influence the approach of the Committee. Notwithstanding our welcome of the Inquiry, we are disappointed that the title perpetuates the notion that there are "alternatives to prison sentences" or that prison is the only sentence.

  8.  Sentences served in the community, administered by probation services, are sentences in their own right. They are ordered by the courts in accordance with their view of the seriousness and circumstances of the offence, the potential of the sentence to protect the public and to prevent further offending, to reflect disapprobation for the offence and to punish the offender by restriction of liberty whilst working towards rehabilitation. Effective use of community sentences can, of course, affect the prison population.

  9.  There will always be those for whom a prison sentence is necessary. There is a general, public misconception that probation services have no interest in or part to play in the management of prison sentences or are in some way in competition with prisons. Probation services work throughout and across the criminal justice system: with police and prosecutors; preparing pre-sentence and risk assessment reports for courts; devising and supervising community sentences ordered by the courts; working in prisons; preparing sentence-planning and pre-release reports and supervising offenders on release from custody. (See Appendix)[81].

  10.  In recent times, much has been made of the need for "honesty in sentencing"; giving messages to the public that offenders were not serving the time ordered and ignoring the fact that custody was only part of the sentence. Clear announcements in court that the sentence to be served is composed of x months/years in custody and x months/years in the community (subject to recall) would go a long way towards achieving clarity in the minds of the public and the offender.


  11.  Almost all offenders who are sentenced to imprisonment, eventually return to the community. One of the important elements of probation work is to assist prisons in preparing prisoners for release. Until recent Prison Service cuts, some 8 per cent of probation officers in England and Wales were seconded to work in prisons. Even then, the task was difficult given the size of the prison population, the number of prisons and their location. It is our hope that the recommendations of Lord Woolf in relation to the location of prisons and allocation of prisoners may still be implemented. We also hope that the concurrent Prisons/Probation Review will resolve the role and resourcing of probation work in prisons. We believe it to be self-evident that the better prepared prisoners are for release, the better the chances of their leading law-abiding lives in the community.

  12.  By April 1996, the prison throughcare caseload with which probation services have to deal had already reached the figure projected for 1999-2000. No provision was made for this in central government grant to probation.

  13.  In respect of post-release supervision, we believe that it is not only long-term prisoners who require supervision. Indeed, investment in community supervision of those released from short periods in custody could bring substantial benefits both in financial savings and in public protection. We would therefore recommend that consideration be given to introducing legislation to extend post-release supervision to those sentenced to less than 12 months. The framing of the licence is vital in this respect: it must be based on professional risk assessment and make clear what is expected of the offender, the supervising service and other agencies.

  14.  We shall be recommending to the Prisons/Probation Review that consideration be given to amending procedures for release on licence and for recall to prison so that they are more responsive to assessment of risk. There are serious issues of civil liberties involved but we hope that means can be found for releasing those who are considered to be ready for the next stage of their sentence in the community and that procedures for recall to custody can be expedited. Decisions on release or recall will need to involve those with personal knowledge of and responsibility for the offender. We cannot overstate the importance of pre-sentence reports in relation to sentence planning. Even in cases where immediate custody is inevitable, the pre-sentence report follows the offender to prison and contains valuable information for those involved in the management of that individual throughout the sentence both in custody and on release.

  15.  There also needs to be clarity about what can be achieved by sentences.

  A period in custody can:

    —  protect society from those presenting a risk to it;

    —  reflect the weight of opinion against the crime;

    —  restrict opportunity for further offending; and

    —  should provide a secure environment in which to address offending behaviour and education, training and employment needs, addictions and health problems.

  16.  In reality, the current state of the prisons means that little constructive work can be done with individuals; levels of drug abuse can escalate and it can have the effect of permanently alienating individuals who feel they have no stake in society or useful, legitimate role to play. Such work that is done is undertaken in a protected envrionment, away from the pressures, temptations and obligations of the real world. This makes it all the more important that supervision (and support) continues after release.

  17.  A community sentence can:

    —  protect society from those presenting a risk to it;

    —  reflect the weight of opinion against the crime;

    —  restrict liberty and freedom of action;

    —  address offending whilst imposing discipline on chaotic lifestyles: tackling crime with a practical focus;

    —  stress personal responsibility and accountability in the context of the real world; and

    —  integrate the individual into society.


  18.  We take the opportunity to remind members of the Committee that probation services work with some of the most difficult and damaged people in society. For some time but particularly since the 1991 Criminal Justice Act, probation services have been supervising more dangerous offenders convicted of very serious offences. It is also the only agency which maintains consistent, long-term contact with those individuals; people who have already worked their way through most other services (education, social services, health, prisons etc). Recent studies of caseload show that:

    —  33 per cent had been in care;

    —  75 per cent were unemployed;

    —  40 per cent had been in prison;

    —  15 per cent were mentally disordered; and

    —  10 per cent had attempted suicide.

  The relationship between offending and drug and alcohol abuse is universally acknowledged, as is the lack of educational achievement.

  19. Consistent enforcement of probation supervision to strict standards is being addressed but is related in part to resources. It would also be helpful if the courts were able to deal more swiftly with breaches of community sentences. There is too, a genuine dilemma between swift, firm action—which can lead to imprisonment—and encouraging people through their sentences. We propose to engage in further discussion with representatives of the courts and of the Home Office to review enforcement procedure and practice.

  20. Fines are a useful and effective sanction, the payment of which can, if necessary, be supervised by probation services. We suggest that the Unit Fine system be re-examined and introduced as originally intended. The problems experienced in 1992-93 could have been avoided and should be addressed afresh.

  21. Greater use could be made of probation service facilities through partnership arrangements with the police in relation to Attendance Centre Orders. Consideration should be given to defining the purpose of such orders and making them more widely available. Similarly there is potential for a more flexible use of approved probation hostels. (See details in the ACOP memorandum.)


  22.  In 1972, the First Report of the Expenditure Committee (Environment and Home Office Sub-Committee) on Probation and After-Care contained the following recommendation;

  "A concerted national campaign to explain the probation system should be carried out, which would help to improve the public attitude to probation officers and to create a favourable climate of opinion for the extension of non-custodial treatment of offenders."

  23.  We submit that implementation of this recommendation is long overdue. Whilst local services have made great strides, "public opinion" is influenced by national media and government. Whilst the work of probation services is complex and not simple to portray, the united forces of Ministers, their PR professionals and the probation organisations ought to be able to address this issue at a national level. The Home Affairs Committee has an invaluable opportunity to set in train a strategy which would not only enhance public perceptions of community sentences but also reduce the fear of crime. It is essential to bring debate back to a reasoned level rather than focusing on sensational, serious crime. We commissioned a MORI poll in 1995 which showed that, whilst members of the public had little knowledge of the probation service, the work that it does was in line with people's notions of tackling crime. 70 per cent of respondents indicated that the best way to stop people who commit non-violent crime from re-offending is to work with them in the community to change their behaviour.

  24.  Local probation services are engaged in many community partnerships and activities which provide opportunities for explaining and promoting their work. Participation in crime prevention initiatives, Safer City Projects and partnership programmes with local authorities and with voluntary bodies brings the service into contact with members of the public. Initiatives related to sports and constructive leisure activities, The Duke of Edinburgh's Award Scheme, The Prince's Trust etc, are also beneficial in this respect.

  25.  Increasingly, local businesses are being engaged in exciting and worthwhile ventures. These not only provide work and work experience for offenders on community service but result in considerable benefits to local communities and charities as well as providing opportunities for members of the public working in those businesses to appreciate the work of probation services. A notable example is a scheme run by Boots and the Nottinghamshire Probation Service where surplus goods are repackaged or repaired by offenders and distributed to local charities instead of being buried in landfill sites. Last year, goods to the value of some£10 million were distributed to charity in this way. Publicizing such projects can only enhance understanding of the benefits of schemes of community service.

  26.  A further MORI poll was commissioned by CPC and ACOP for the National Probation Convention in November 1997. The results showed that 81 per cent of business leaders considered reducing crime to be a task to be shared with business. Six out of seven said that they would actively consider developing projects in partnership with criminal justice agencies.

  27.  The original, national statement of purpose for probation services included "reconciling offenders and communities, recognising the obligations of both". We regret its deletion but continue to deliver that message locally, reinforcing the notion that crime is a community problem, to be dealt with by and in communities. Probation service work with individual victims and in mediation and reparation schemes has an important and growing part to play in enhancing knowledge and confidence.


  28.  Consideration is being given to such things as community consultative groups, clearer identification of work done by offenders on community service which benefits local people and to developing links with local businesses.

  29.  Surveys of sentencers, undertaken by HM Inspectorate of Probation, reveal no lack of confidence in the service from the courts. We do however consider the provision of information to sentencers to be of the utmost importance. To this end we have collaborated with the Magistrates' Association and the Justices' Clerks' Society in circulating a booklet on improving liaison and have promoted the establishment of the current Community Sentence Demonstration Projects in Teesside and Shropshire. We hope that both initiatives will improve mutual understanding and effective sentencing. We are also working with the Standing Conference of Magistrates' Training Officers in relation to revised training programmes for magistrates. We have had less success in engaging with the Judicial Studies Board.


  30.  In order to achieve more balanced public debate and appreciation of community sentences it is, of course, essential to agree and promote measures of effectiveness. For a variety of cogent reasons, it has been difficult to measure effectiveness and success in work with offenders whether in custody or in the community. Supervision by a probation officer can frequently lead to a discernible modification or improvement in behaviour leading to a reduction in criminal activity but falling short of complete abstinence from crime. Nevertheless there is a constant search for the kind of supervision or intervention that is likely to lead to change. Recent research findings offer a way forward and probation services are keen to enhance practice, based on the evidence of such research. Details of research can be found in the papers submitted by the Oxford Probation Studies Unit and the Association of Chief Officers of Probation.

  31.  One of the major functions of probation committees is to monitor the effects of their policies and decisions on resource allocation. Attempts are being made in conjunction with the Home Office to refine systems for predicting risk and for accrediting and evaluating programmes. A major piece of work on evaluation by HM Inspectorate of Probation is nearing completion and will lead to the development of new methods of quality assurance and assessing value for money. Employers and managers have willingly participated in this exercise and are keen to play their part in implementing the proposals which are due to be published in February 1998.


  32.  Innovation has been the hallmark of probation services over the century and committees would wish their staff to continue to develop and provide effective programmes. An over-riding principle must be to work with individual offenders in a way which is most likely to achieve results. It does not always follow that what works with one offender will work with another and the importance of developing a sustained relationship between offender and supervisor is well documented. The supervising officer is able to draw on andco-ordinate extensive community based facilities but more determined partnerships need to be established between agencies and between government departments. Significant benefits are already evident from joint work with health, social services and police. Probation services are enthusiastic about these partnerships and feel they must be strengthened and extended.

  33.  Probation services already provide a wide range of options to the courts and care must be taken to avoid the proliferation of different and diverse sentences in the relentless search for the panacea to crime. A period of calm to enable practitioners to consolidate and develop the range of existing measures is overdue. The results of the Community Sentence Demonstration Projects in Teesside and Shropshire will be important in assessing how best use can be made of current sentencing options.

  34.  Whilst not wishing to add to the workload of the courts, there may be merit in formalising progress reports. The ending of a sentence might also be more formal and there may be merit in courts having discretion to require an offender to appear to mark the completion of a sentence.

  35.  As noted elsewhere in this paper, probation services are not funded for work done with offenders who seek support on a voluntary basis at the end of a sentence. This may be an area where the use of probation service volunteers could be increased in addition to the work already undertaken by voluntary bodies.


  36.  We would caution against over reliance on comparison between the costs of custodial andnon-custodial sentences. Whilst prison and probation services may have to compete for Home Office funds, they are working to the same goals of protecting the public and reducing crime, each with a part to play at an appropriate point. Targeted use of community sentences can, of course, reduce pressure on the prisons. It is however interesting to note that Home Office expenditure on criminal justice in 1995-96 was as follows:

  37.  Statute requires probation committees to satisfy themselves that the duties of probation staff are efficiently carried out. Those duties are defined by the Secretary of State to whom committees are accountable for the expenditure of public funds. They must respond to government initiatives and legislation and to the demands of the courts and allocate resources accordingly. Experience in recent years has been that the allocation of central resources has not kept pace with demand (a demand which implies the confidence of the courts). The following table shows the current position:

Type of work 1996-97
Home Office 3 year
plan predictions
Results of
Difference %
Probation Order53,700 56,500+2,800 +5.2
Community Service Order 33,90034,400 +500+1.5
Combination19,800 21,200+1,400 +7.1
Total pre & post release 58,70064,000 +5,300+9.0
CJA statutory Supervision 36,50044,100 +7,600+20.8
Parole2,000 2,700+700 +35.0
Pre-Sentence Reports 211,300221,600 +10,300+4.9
Family Court Reports 35,50036,800 +1,300+3.7

  38.  Close supervision requires the time and patience of highly skilled and trained staff. Probation committees are concerned that the current workload has reached the point where staff may not be able to carry out their duties as they would wish. As employers, committees also have a duty to their staff in respect of health and safety issues and in providing the facilities and support to enable them to undertake very demanding work.

  39.  When allocating scarce public funds, there is a constant dilemma between resourcing preventive work and responding to immediate risk. Probation committees, constrained by cash limits, are clear that resources should be allocated to priority tasks aimed at public protection and the reduction of criminal activity by those offenders assessed as being of greatest immediate danger to the public. Inevitably this diverts resources away from more general preventive work which has been acknowledged as being desirable and effective.

  40.  If probation services are to take on greater responsibilities for youth work and post-prison supervision, it is essential that these activities be properly funded. As new money is unlikely to be available, the government's Comprehensive Spending Reviews and the Prisons/Probation Review will need to consider appropriate allocation of funds. It should be noted that already vital work currently undertaken, such as bail information, voluntary prison "after-care", work with victims and crime prevention does not feature in the cash limit formula for probation services.


  Effective responses to crime will always include custodial and community sentences. Proactive, preventive work is also vital. It is our belief that probation services are making a significant contribution to crime reduction and public protection and will continue to adapt and to develop new ways of working.

November 1997

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