Probation services ‘responding poorly’ to drugs cases

Too few people on probation are receiving help for drugs issues and the service is ‘responding poorly to drugs misuse and addiction cases’, according to a damning report from HM Inspectorate of Probation and the Care Quality Commission. 

Chief Inspector of Probation, Justin Russell
Chief Inspector of Probation, Justin Russell

Six out of ten magistrates surveyed by the inspectorate said they were ‘not confident’ that people were getting the treatment they needed, while the report also found that key information was either missing or not captured properly – and was also not being used to commission services. Many probation services were unable to supply even basic information such as how many people who use drugs were part of their caseload or were in treatment, while just one in six people were being tested for drug use. 

Probation services in England and Wales supervise almost 160,000 people, of whom 75,000 have a drugs problem. However, fewer than 3,000 were referred for treatment in 2019-20, says the document, with referral programmes having ‘withered on the vine’ through diminished funding. Heavy workloads were also an issue, it says, with some probation officers managing caseloads of more than 70 people, meaning they did not have time to fully examine a person’s history or identify ‘factors that could help support them into recovery’. 

‘Poor’ follow-up arrangements in the community also meant that two thirds of people leaving prison in the inspected areas had not continued to receive treatment on release, with the situation ‘considerably worse’ in England than Wales. Among the document’s recommendations are an increase in the number of drug rehabilitation court orders, improvements to the quality of supervision, and more funding. 

The current system is not working well and the findings of this inspection were very disappointing,’ said chief inspector of probation, Justin Russell. ‘Justice and health organisations must work more closely together, for example to ensure continuity of support for prison leavers. Earlier this year, the government provided additional funding to improve drugs treatment. While the announcement was welcome, the money is for just one year – we need sustained commitment to fund drug treatment and recovery for people on probation. People on probation should be an urgent priority for any future increase in investment, which would cut crime, save lives and more than pay for itself in the long run.’

The report’s findings were ‘stark’, added Collective Voice director Oliver Standing. ‘It is estimated almost half of those supervised in the community by the probation service have a drug problem. The fact that only slightly more than two per cent were referred into specialist support in 2019-20 surely represents a systems failure. Although community services have experienced a decade of profound disinvestment, Dame Carol Black’s recent review has set out a compelling vision of a refreshed and renewed system and made the case for major investment. This important thematic review will help to shape that brighter future.’

Justin Russell writes about the report’s findings and what needs to happen next in the September issue of DDN. 

A joint thematic inspection of community-based drug treatment and recovery work with people on probation at

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