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The government’s latest probation changes will put lives at risk (again)

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The Secretary of State for Justice has just banned probation services from offering advice to parole boards in all but a tiny minority of cases, excluding a widely respected set of professionals from providing often critical advice and guidance. The changes risk offenders being released before fully benefitting from rehabilitation, putting people in danger.

The Parole board is an independent body that carries out risk assessments on prisoners to determine whether they can be safely released into the community. The Parole Board makes thousands of crucial decisions about whether, when and under what conditions offenders are released into society every year. They rely on the expertise of experienced probation professionals to guide them in this process.

But under changes rushed through by Dominic Raab last week without consultation, probation staff will be prevented from offering advice in any circumstances. The Secretary of State has always had the power to make recommendations in the most high-risk cases. And that remains true. However, aside from those very few instances, the Parole Board will be provided with no advice at all, unless an individual is commissioned by a prisoners’ legal representative.

Unions representing probation officers - UNISON, NAPO and GMB - have issued a joint statement condemning these changes and urging the Secretary of State to think again. Unions warn there is a serious risk that the number of prisoners absconding from open conditions, being recalled to custody and reoffending (including committing Serious Further Offences) will increase. These reforms could put the wider public at higher risk of being subject to crime and also weaken the confidence which the public have in the criminal justice system. It would also be costly, increasing both public expenditure and the workload of various workers and agencies involved.

In 2014, the Conservative government introduced the Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) reforms. Probation unions were unanimous that splitting the service up and handing cases to the private sector would be a disaster. And eventually even the government had to admit that they were right. This year the Probation Service finally completes the process of reuniting probation, that began with the recognition that TR had failed, back in 2018.

The government ignored unions’ advice before, damaging the service and putting the public at risk. They must not repeat that mistake.

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