Under the proposed reforms of probation service, is there an opportunity for a charitable or voluntary organisation to supervise and re-habilitate ex-serviceman who have offended? asks Philip Newman.
The National Probation Service currently works to provide supervision of offenders within the community. It works directly with individuals to tackle the causes of their offending behaviour, enable them to turn their lives around and rehabilitate them. The probation service also exists to protect the public and reduce reoffending. Unfortunately current rates of reconviction remain unsatisfactorily high; regardless of whether a prison or community based sentence is imposed.
Statistics show that for adult offenders convicted or released from custody in the year to December 2012, the percentage that reoffended within 12 months was:
- 57.6% for prisoners sentenced to under 12 months;
- 35.9% for prisoners sentenced to 12 months or more;
- 34.1% for those starting a court order.
In January 2013 the coalition government announced plans to allow private firms and charities to supervise low and medium risk offenders either on probation, or on licence following release from prison (Transforming Rehabilitation – A revolution in the way we manage offenders, Ministry of Justice). Under the Ministry of Justice’s proposals, responsibility for monitoring over 200,000 medium and low-risk offenders will transfer to the private sector. However, the public probation service will continue to supervise some 50,000 high-risk offenders, including all serious violent and sexual offenders.
Private firms and voluntary organisations would manage probation on a ‘payment by result’ basis. These providers will compete with each other for contracts and the winning bidder will be paid if they reduce reconviction rates.
An opportunity to help ex-servicemen
In June 2012, Narco, the UK’s largest crime reduction charity, responded to the Ministry of Justice consultation entitled Punishment and Reform: Effective Probation Service. In their response, they raised concerns that specific groups, including women, Roma/gypsies, lesbian, gay and bisexual offenders are not neglected under the reforms and that specific interventions continue to be applied to offenders who fall within these categories.
There can be little doubt that specific and targeted intervention should be a priority and it should form an important element of any proposal by a private company or charitable organisation. If groups such as those detailed above are worthy of specific and targeted intervention, then it is difficult to see why ex-servicemen should not be afforded the same level of care.
In November 2011 JFH Law published an article in the Inside Times magazine about the possibility of operating a ‘Veteran’s Court’ run by experts in the field, inspired by the successful model in the US. We now consider the proposed reform of the probation service as an opportunity to address the specific needs of ex-servicemen post conviction.
There are already numerous organisations, both charitable and state run, that have a vested interest in ex-servicemen. Surely, with appropriate support and funding, one of those organisations would be best placed to provide this specialised supervision. Ideally this service would be linked to a specialist ex-serviceman Court; a similar principle to the successful ‘drug court’ currently operating from West London Magistrates’ Court.
This would allow properly trained officers or mentors to be present in Court, and immediate and effective intervention could be offered. Rightly or wrongly, the closure of many ‘local’ Courts has resulted in a centralisation of the Court process. This centralisation may actually assist in the operation of the proposed court as offenders will be focused in one area. However, there is no reason why the ‘Veteran court’ could not be a roaming court; going wherever it was deemed necessary.
It is recognised that the challenges and issues facing ex-servicemen who have offended can differ from those faced by the community at large. A probation organisation specifically designed for ex-servicemen and staffed by individuals trained to deal with their needs could prove extremely beneficial and reduce re-offending amongst this sector of society. In particular it can focus on the often neglected mental health needs of the ex-serviceman, as well as providing training and education to assist in their return to civilian life. Further, a mentor system could be implemented whereby ex-servicemen support their former colleagues who have committed offences upon leaving the armed forces.
The increased focus in the government’s proposal on helping those released from short-term prison sentences is commendable, as it could rectify the situation where an individual is released from prison with £46 and no support, accommodation or income. Currently, whilst short-term sentences can act as a deterrent, they tend not to provide any rehabilitation, often leaving offenders in a worse social and economic situation than when they entered the prison system. An armed forces charity, contracted to supervise offenders released on licence, would have the opportunity to identify ex-servicemen whilst they are still in custody and then support them, both when they are serving and upon release.
Current thinking is that large private sector organisations such as G4S or Serco will dominate the bidding for the contracts as they can offer economies of scale and therefore the most attractive bid for a government looking to save money. There is of course a question of how cost effective this course would actually be bearing in mind the poor execution of the Olympics security contract, ironically requiring the Armed Forces’ assistance to complete.
In any event there are a considerable number of ex-servicemen within the Criminal Justice System; as such focusing on them may be both socially and cost effective. In 2009 a MoD survey put a figure of 3.4% as the percentage of ex-servicemen in prison. An article in the Independent in July 2012 put this figure as high as 10%; but in 2008, the National Association of Probation Officers estimated that more than 20,500 veterans were in the criminal justice system, 12,000 on probation, and a further 8,500 in custody – representing 8.5 per cent of the then prison population and 6 per cent of those on probation and parole.
It has been suggested that the figures quoted above could increase following the proposed cut-backs to the armed forces. The armed forces are undergoing a dramatic reduction in size and reorganisation. Nearly 30,000 personnel are to leave the armed services with the bulk of the reduction (20,000 by 2020) being in the army.
Despite the possibility of economies of scale highlighted above, the issue which we foresee arising is that the specific and targeted treatment of ex-servicemen who have offended does not come cheaply. For example, the diagnosis and treatment of mental health conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder can often be challenging and expensive. Should an organisation put forward a proposal to manage ex-servicemen who have offended, it may well not be the cheapest option available. However, costs alone should not deter the government from granting a contract following such a proposal. Individuals who have served their country, often in active conflict, should be offered a high level of service, even if they have offended.