Merger mystery

    The mission of the new National Offender Management Service
    (Noms) – should it choose to accept it – is to reduce reoffending
    by 10 per cent. Noms involves a merger of the prison and probation
    services into a single, integrated service responsible for managing
    and supervising offenders in custody and the community.

    The service didn’t get off to a great start. Just weeks before it
    came into existence last month, about 1,000 probation staff lobbied
    parliament, urging MPs to sign an early day motion expressing
    concern about the lack of detail surrounding the new service. Days
    later, Noms chief executive Martin Narey issued a statement setting
    out his vision for the service, in which he acknowledged that
    prison and probation staff were “understandably nervous about the
    future”.

    Detail about Noms is still thin on the ground. What we do know is
    that the service will be developed over five-years, replacing the
    previous system under which the prison service was responsible for
    prisons, and the probation service for community punishments and
    interventions. As a Home Office spokesperson says: “It’s not a big
    bang launch but an evolutionary process. People on the ground won’t
    see real differences for a couple of years.” A good illustration of
    this is Narey’s desire for a 10 per cent reduction in reoffending
    to be achieved by the end of this decade.

    Meanwhile, former chief probation officer Christine Knott has
    recently been appointed to the imposing post of national offender
    manager. She will be responsible for reducing reoffending,
    controlling the budget for offender services, and managing 10
    regional offender managers, based in nine English regions and in
    Wales.

    Hand in hand with its remit to reduce reoffending, Noms is also
    tasked with expanding the use of community penalties so that
    sentencers are encouraged to use custody less frequently.

    Noms applies to services for over-18 year olds, so will not affect
    juvenile offenders. The Youth Justice Board, which deals with this
    age group, will remain as a separate correctional agency (also
    under Narey) for the juvenile estate.

    In future, Noms is intended to operate primarily at regional level.
    This is still some way off – Narey doesn’t expect regional budgets
    to be set until 2006-7 and until then, regional offender managers
    cannot contract on a regional basis. But there are already concerns
    about the system.

    First, some opponents have argued that the proposal to reorganise
    what are currently 42 different probation boards and a plethora of
    other criminal justice agencies into 10 regional commissioning
    boards could weaken the effective local links that are already
    established. Paul Cavadino, chief executive of crime reduction
    charity Nacro, acknowledges that this is a concern: “The
    consultation paper on Noms recognised this and said that beneath
    the regions there would need to be arrangements for local links and
    partnerships. But there is no detail of that yet, so it’s important
    to press for effective local links.”

    Second, Nom’s regional emphasis means it could be ideally placed to
    ensure prisoners are placed closer to home. This should help the
    resettlement process, which may mean more offenders are supported
    on release and might be less likely to reoffend. But limited
    numbers of young offender institutions mean a place nearer home
    might be unlikely for young offenders. Adam Sampson, director of
    homelessness charity Shelter, says: “There are structural
    difficulties with a prison system already stretched to breaking
    point. If there isn’t an adequate regional coverage of YOIs it
    creates difficulties.

    “There are two responses,” Sampson continues. “One is to build new
    prisons. The government has traditionally done this but – like the
    road system – we have learned that the more capacity we create, the
    more demand there is. The other is to limit the use of
    custody.”

    It is widely agreed that the latter is the more intelligent
    approach. According to Cavadino: “One of the biggest issues for
    Noms is simply the pressure of numbers. If there were fewer people
    in custody we could move to a system where it would be possible to
    put more young offenders in smaller establishments nearer their
    homes.”

    Third, there are doubts about the contracting process. For the
    first time, public, private and voluntary sectors will compete for
    contracts to provide custodial and community services. This process
    will introduce a purchaser and provider split, separating the
    management of offenders from the provision of services. The theory
    is that this open market will drive up standards because services
    won’t automatically be provided by the prison and probation
    services.

    Rob Allen, director of voluntary group Rethinking Crime and
    Punishment, says: “This notion of ‘contestability’ means that a
    greater role for the private and voluntary sector is envisaged.
    Regional offender managers will be looking at a broader range of
    providers, but I doubt that enough providers will be able to
    provide the right services.”

    In addition, these contests will also be replayed at regular
    intervals, as contracts will no doubt be renewed every few years.
    According to Allen, sentencers want consistent relationships with
    the service providers offering alternatives to prison. “They don’t
    want them chopping and changing every three years,” he adds.

    Allen foresees another, unintended, consequence of the new
    contracting arrangements. “We may move to a situation where local
    authorities and health might provide services like housing,
    education and treatment for offenders only if they are contracted
    to do so. What we should be doing is encouraging mainstream service
    providers to see work with offenders as part of their normal
    duties. It’s pushing it into a pseudo-commercial world. We might
    lose our ability to lever in services and resources from mainstream
    sources.”

    Regional offender managers will be responsible for commissioning
    services to reduce reoffending. But there is a danger that
    innovative ideas will be stifled because they plump for
    tried-and-tested services to ensure they meet targets. It will be
    crucial that regional offender managers commission services that
    work with offenders’ other problems, such as housing, addiction,
    mental health, and employment, as this is the most effective way to
    successfully resettle offenders and prevent reoffending.

    Ultimately, if Noms is to stand a chance of working, it has to be
    accompanied by a concerted effort to reduce the prison population,
    says Cavadino. “This means that instead of indulging in tough
    rhetoric, government ministers have to strongly sell the case for
    reducing custody. And guidance from the new sentencing guidelines
    council must have an explicit emphasis on a reduction in the use of
    prison.”

    It’s a tall order. We’ll have to wait to see if it is mission
    impossible. 

    Good practice in Portland

     The first in a regular series of columns accompanying features
    supporting our Back on Track campaign and describing best
    practice

    Advice on what to eat with a baked potato and a request to
    accompany a newly released young offender to a sexual health clinic
    are just two of the text messages that John Bayley has received
    recently. “This is where the real personal side to mentoring comes
    in,” says the Nacro development worker at the charity’s On-side
    Project at Portland Young Offender Institution, Dorset.

    The project was set up five years ago to work with juveniles at the
    YOI, offering pre- and post-release support. Juveniles have now
    been moved out of the YOI, and the project has switched its
    attention to the most vulnerable young offenders aged between 18
    and 21. Risk factors include family breakdown, drug and alcohol
    problems and mental health problems, says Bayley. Invariably the
    most crucial need is housing.

    The project takes referrals from the prison’s multidisciplinary
    resettlement team – a project worker sits on this – from the
    chaplaincy and from wing officers. As so much of the support is
    post-release, the project works only with those young offenders who
    will live within a two-hour journey from Portland. Those living
    further afield receive support from the prison team.

    The project refers the young men to different agencies for
    post-release support, as well as providing practical support. This
    support starts on the day they leave the YOI. Project staff take
    them to the local Safeway for a fried breakfast and then home and
    to their probation meeting, rather than leaving them to bump into
    local drug dealers.

    “Post-release work is probably the most vital thing they can have,”
    says Bayley. “Once they are out it gives them someone to turn to.
    We spend a lot of time taking them out, and supporting them in
    reaching goals.”

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