Will Privatised Probation Services Fail Women Prisoners?

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This week saw the cornerstone of the Government’s reinvigorated justice policy under Chris Grayling pass the House of Commons. These latest reforms signal the privatisation of the Probation Service to all but those who are at the highest risk of reoffending, and the extension of statutory supervision by 12 months for everyone sentenced to prison for less than two years; essentially low and medium-risk offenders. In other words, a two-week prison sentence will now become a sentence of one year and one week; disproportionately lengthy sentences for minor crimes.1

Perhaps the most regressive elements of these changes – as has so often been the case under this Government – are those that affect women. Recent findings by the Justice Select Committee indicate that the perversion of incentives in a privatised system would pose a huge threat to the supervision of women, who are considerably more likely to be convicted to prison spells of less that two years. In the past two decades, the Probation Service has received a great deal of praise for their effectiveness in reducing reoffending among women to their lowest level on record.; their approach was described recently by the Chair of the Justice Select Committee as “small, local and holistic.” Under the Government’s plans, these services will lose all funding.2

An analysis of independent research and evidence brought forward by the Howard League and the Parliamentary Justice Select Committee highlights the misguided and ill-informed nature of these changes. This was echoed by the The Howard League, who stated that female offenders are at threat of being placed in community intervention programmes that are designed specifically with men in mind. The Transforming Rehabilitation proposals piloted in male only prisons in Doncaster and Peterborough do not account the different approaches that have been proven to work for women. Such a move has obvious detrimental consequences for female safety, health and wellbeing.3

With any outsourcing contract likely to be run on “payment-by-results” incentives, there is a massively increased risk of “cherry-picking” – providers choosing to work with those who are considered least likely to re-offend, rather than invest resources in those with more significant risk factors. Statistically, women offenders are more likely to be classed as either low or medium-risk, and as such will be placed into the care of outsourcing companies such as G4S or Serco, who are the likely beneficiaries of the privatisation.

Despite being raised specifically by the Justice Select Committee on multiple occasions, the issue of women prisoners has not been discussed seriously by government. Indeed, when the issue was raised directly with the Justice Secretary, he could only say that men and women would be treated exactly the same. In an attempt to gain headlines in right-wing newspapers about how the government will be increasing the amount of time people spend in prison, the Coalition Government has introduced a change on sentencing that is proven to be of no likely benefit to the perpetrator, victim or society, and is actually more likely to increase the risk of reoffending. This is exactly what must not be allowed to happen.

Though reoffending rates falling by 5% at the most recent count, the Ministry of Justice has made an extra £10 billion available over the next decade to finance the privatisation. The Government seems determined to break down a system that is working well, and opponents of the decision are left with no other option than to conclude that the Government is acting in a purely ideological manner. One can only hope that the House of Lords, which has so far proved a thorn in the Government’s side, can amend these changes enough now that they have passed the House of Commons. If they cannot, then prisoners, especially women, will remain in jeopardy.

Written by Sam Mannion