System Errors

The Probation Service is failing people with drug issues, says chief inspector of probation Justin Russell.

I’ve been inspecting probation services across England and Wales for the past two years. Although I’m not new to the criminal justice sector, I’m still struck by the scale of drug use and drug-related offending among people on probation – and the impact of drugs on so many lives.

The organisation that I head up – Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation – has taken a closer look at how probation services work with individuals who use illegal substances. There were pockets of good practice but, overall, the current system is not working well and this inspection has found the service provided to be poor (see news, page 5).

Drugs are a driver of half of all acquisitive crime, and drug-related offending costs the public purse an estimated £9bn a year. Drug-related deaths are at record levels. Yet the criminal justice system lacks the focus and funding to tackle this problem. National leadership and direction is much needed, and government departments and local health and justice services need to work more closely together. The Probation Service manages nearly 156,000 people in the community – but it doesn’t record how many of these people are dependent on class A drugs, are in treatment or might benefit from a referral to a specialist drugs agency.

Judges told us that probation court teams weren’t making enough recommendations for a treatment order. Without this basic data, how can the Probation Service understand the extent of the issue and communicate those requirements to local public health colleagues who are commissioning these services for the wider community?

Withered on the vine

Over 40 per cent of the thousands of probation cases we assessed in our local inspections are recorded as having some sort of substance misuse issue. If representative of the caseload as a whole that suggests that more than 75,000 people on probation will have one too. Yet fewer than 4,500 drug rehabilitation requirements were issued by the courts in 2020 – 75 per cent less than in 2008 – and only half of these were completed. Criminal justice programmes and structures that were in place to identify and refer individuals for treatment have withered on the vine.

Practitioners need to build a rapport with the people they supervise

We spoke to a sample of people on probation with substance misuse issues. Some reported positive encounters with probation practitioners who provided support and direction. One individual told us their practitioner ‘doesn’t tell me what to do, she just guides me down the right path, but I always have a say in what services I think will be best for me’. Others reported feeling ‘done to’ rather than engaged in their own supervision.

Two-thirds of the probation practitioners that we interviewed for this inspection told us they needed more training on the impact of drugs. They also wanted to know how best to support individuals with trauma and recovery. Time can be an issue too. For several years, the inspectorate has reported on the unacceptable workloads faced by many probation practitioners – some have in excess of 70 cases.

Knowledge, skills, time

Probation practitioners need the knowledge, skills and time to do their work properly: to keep on top of drugs trends and treatments; to assess the vulnerability of people who take drugs as well as the risk they could pose to others; to make calls to the police or children’s services to share intelligence. Regular drug testing is also needed to provide independent evidence of progress for the courts and probation staff (and to provide an incentive for people on probation to stay off drugs too). Of the sample of 60 cases involving problematic drug users that we inspected, only ten had received any sort of drug testing – even where this was required by the courts.

Practitioners need to build a rapport with the people they supervise to understand how and why they offended, and what support they need to move towards a crime-free life. Additional training will give practitioners the tools and confidence to do this work effectively.

Support continuity

One of our biggest concerns was the severe drop-off in drugs treatment as people left prison and returned to the community. Two-thirds of prison leavers in the inspected areas were in treatment in custody but did not continue to receive help on release. This is unacceptable – people need continuity of support at this critical juncture in their lives.

We have made a series of recommendations to improve the quality of work with people on probation who use drugs. This includes a call for a national strategy to provide leadership and improved data-gathering and publication – so we can see what effect probation services are having on this cohort. We have also recommended greater use of drugs testing to ensure people get the support they need and improved continuity of support for prison leavers.

Probation services underwent major reforms at the end of June and probation services are now delivered by a single, public-sector organisation. I hope senior leaders will take the opportunity to review and strengthen work with drug users to ensure it is of a consistently high standard.

Funding priority

Finally, none of these improvements will be possible without adequate funding. Probation services received a welcome boost in the last Spending Review but that funding was only for a year and will do little to reverse many years of under-investment. Dame Carol Black has recently called for additional ring-fenced funding for treatment – which I fully support. People on probation should be a priority group for longer-term investment which would reduce crime, save lives and more than pay for itself in reduced costs to the public purse.

This inspection was led by HM Inspectorate of Probation with support from the Care Quality Commission and Health Inspectorate Wales.

Visit the inspectorate’s website to read the full report, and follow on Twitter (@HMIProbation) for more details of the organisation’s work.

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