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Probation sell-off is 'dangerous'

The streets of Gravesend and Dartford will not be safe if the government sells off probation services to private firms.

There are fears within the probation offices at Joynes House, New Road, Gravesend, that plans to hand over responsibility for “low-risk” offenders to private companies or charities will have a devastating effect on public safety.

The vice-chairman of the Kent branch of the National Association of Probation Officers (NAPO), Chas Berry, pictured, says there’s a “great deal of uncertainty and concern about safety to the public”.

He said: “At the moment about 70% of the work we do is low and mid-risk offenders who are out on community orders or have had short prison sentences and will be out on licence.

"That’s the work the government want to put out to the private sector.

“The government says there’s a high re-offending rate and they believe the private sector will deal with that better.

"The problem with that is one third of the work we do is with high-risk offenders which we will retain and everyone will be safe – but you can’t just compartmentalise people like that.

“Risk goes up and down – someone who is a minor risk can go on to do something more serious, in which case we’ll be expected to take over and the gaps in the service offered will increase and just lead to chaos.”

The government disagrees and Justice Secretary Chris Grayling says that almost half of all prison-leavers re-offend within 12 months – and for those serving less than a year, that figure rises to 58%.

Crime scene

Mr Grayling said: “What we do at the moment is send people out of prison with £46 in their pocket, and no support at all. No wonder we have such high levels of re-offending. It is madness to carry on with the same old system and hope for a different result.”

There are 12 probation officers based in Gravesend and there are fears that, despite being moved onto private contracts if the plans go ahead, job losses could still happen.

A consultation with staff at the 105-year-old institution ends next Friday (February 22).

Mr Berry added: “We’ve seen very good results with people and have good links with local services such as drug and alcohol addiction and rehousing as well as local knowledge, which could be at risk.

“These new contracts will also be working by results so they’ll get payment from the government, they’ll be looking for those cases where they will get an immediate pay-off.

"I really don’t think re-offending rates will go down. This is potentially very dangerous.”

The Probation Service will be kept to manage high-risk offenders, including all serious sexual and violent cases, to providing advice to courts and to make initial risk assessments on all offenders.

The plan is to divide the country into areas closely aligned with those of the new Police and Crime Commissioners.

Private and voluntary sector organisations will be invited to bid for an area.

The government intends to finalise its plans within months and roll them out across England and Wales by spring 2015.

It will make £500,000 available to voluntary and community sector groups to help them prepare their bids.

Under plans laid out in the government consultation, Transforming Rehabilitation, it says “a new refocused and streamlined public sector service” will be tasked with keeping the public safe from the most dangerous high-risk offenders.

Private and voluntary sector organisations will work on closing the ‘revolving door’ of the criminal justice system by tackling lower-risk offenders.

The proposals call for a greater use of mentors who will meet offenders at the prison gate and support them in all aspects of their life from day one in the community, including help finding work and accommodation, tackling drug and alcohol addictions and addressing literacy and educational problems.

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