INTERVIEW: Talking to the JusticeGap, senior lecturer in criminology at London Metropolitan University, Dr Wendy Fitzgibbon argues that the government plans to privatise the probation service could be “very dangerous in terms of public protection”.
By ending government contracts with public sector probation trusts, the Ministry of Justice has stated that 88% of the rehabilitation services would be privately/voluntarily run leaving a mere 12% of high risk offenders in the hands of the public probation service. It has also been revealed that the new rehabilitation and supervision contracts will go for an estimated £5bn to £20bn over the next 10 years.
“I think the rump, the remaining 12% of probation services that is going to be kept into the public sector, is going to be given the task for all high-risk offenders writing all the court reports and dealing with all the breaches of any lower or middle risk offenders who have breached their conditions of their parole or probation requirements – and to me that is an impossible job for such a small, residual public service,” says Dr Fitzgibbon.
The academic was also concerned that the community rehabilitation companies would be put out to tender and larger multinational companies, notably G4S and Serco, wouldn’t be able to manage changeable and dynamic risk levels. “Dano Sonnex was seen as a medium risk offender and he went on to commit two horrendous murders,” she points out.
Dr Fitzgibbon explains that if that can occur under public scrutiny with very highly qualified staff, then there could be “a lot more Sonnexs” that are missed resulting in dangers in public protection. Concerns have also been raised over new reforms in the Criminal Justice and Courts Bill to halt the automatic parole of child rapists and terrorists. These reforms were unveiled last Wednesday by the Justice Secretary in a bid to revamp sentencing and to ensure that the courts deliver efficiency for the taxpayer. This bill will see the end of automatic half-way point release for criminals convicted of rape or attempted rape of a child, or serious terrorism offences, and no longer automatically releasing offenders who receive the tough Extended Determinate Sentence (EDS) two-thirds of the way through their custodial term.
“The public expects that serious and repeat criminals should be punished appropriately, and that those who are jailed should have to earn the right to be released early from prison. It is only right that those offenders who break the law and try to avoid serving the entirety of their sentence by going on the run face additional punishment when they are caught.”
“I think a lot of the things the Ministry of Justice is doing are very much media-led – and obviously that involves a moral panic element – as well as quite a punitive element,” Dr Fitzgibbon said.
“This government is very punitive – not just towards known offenders but also towards anybody that is seen as a member of the underclass or feral classes – somebody that is claiming benefits or anybody that is not responsible.”
The academic argued that the MoJ wanted to “interfere with the parole process and put down stringent requirement” and that was “not helpful because the parole process is a thorough one and we have experienced parole panel members who make very skilled and in depth judgments on who should be given parole”. “They’re not automatically given parole on the first or second hearing and those judgments are informed by reports from the prisons and the probation service and other interested people like the victims. I feel that the system is very robust and I don’t think that the MoJ should be stipulating a more tick box approach to it.”
Bracken is police and crime reporter for Winchester News Online and student at the University of Winchester