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United Kingdom: government’s probation policy driving up prison population and trapping offenders in cycle of crime

The government’s flagship probation policy is driving up the prison population and trapping people in an endless cycle of low-level offending, a report has suggested.

As justice secretary, Chris Grayling said radical changes introduced in 2014 would “bring down stubbornly high reoffending rates”.

Five years on, HM Inspectorate of Probation found there had been “no tangible reduction in reoffending” as freed prisoners commit further crimes costing the economy up to £10bn a year.

The government is renationalising the supervision of offenders after private companies failed to properly monitor them. But the probation watchdog said the long called-for change would not be a “silver bullet” to stop prisoners committing more crime on release.

It found that almost two-thirds of people freed from prison sentences of under one year reoffend, and the problem is being worsened by homelessness and difficulties accessing benefits.

A report warned that the introduction of a year’s post-release supervision for all offenders, even those jailed for just weeks, was driving an “expensive merry-go-round” in and out of jail.

Dame Glenys Stacey, the chief inspector of probation, said the changes had increased the prison population amid a crisis with record levels of violence, self-harm and rife drug abuse.

“A good number of people are being recalled to prison because they miss appointments we saw one individual recalled after three days,” she told The Independent.

“Prisons are spending time and public resource receiving people and releasing them a short time later.”

The government said it would keep one key aspect of Mr Grayling’s Transforming Rehabilitation policy, which extended post-release supervision to around 40,000 extra offenders a year.

Officials hailed the change a “success” when announcing reforms last week, but Dame Glenys said the “one size fits all approach” was causing more people to be needlessly jailed for violating conditions.

She called for a “more tailored approach” that takes into account people’s circumstances, addictions, family circumstances and mental health needs.

“There needs to be a more holistic and system-wide approach for people with chaotic lifestyles and complex needs,” Dame Glenys said.

“The standard supervision for some of these people is just not enough.”

Analysis by the Prison Reform Trust found that since the reforms were introduced, the rate of people being recalled to prison had risen by 29 per cent for men and 166 per cent for women.

Head of policy Mark Day said: “While the reforms appear to have had no discernible impact on reoffending, recall rates have rocketed, disrupting lives and placing unnecessary pressure on an already overcrowded and overstretched prison system.”

“The justice secretary has signalled his willingness to follow the evidence by bringing offender management back into the public sector. He should now follow the advice of his chief inspector by ending the unfair and disproportionate mandatory supervision of short-sentenced prisoners.”

The Howard League for Penal Reform said the changes had “not made the public any safer”.

Chief executive Frances Crook added: “It has trapped tens of thousands of people in the criminal justice system for even longer than necessary. This has blighted lives and put an intolerable strain on prisons, and it should be abandoned immediately.”

Almost one in three people being released from prison are homeless, and 83 per cent of homeless ex-offenders monitored by inspectors committed more crime. Officials believe some are being jailed for stealing food.

The inspectorate said that universal credit can only be claimed after people are released from prison, and with great difficulty if they do not have a permanent address, documentation and internet access.

“The lack of accommodation and money make the first days following release particularly difficult,” Dame Glenys added. “Those leaving custody after a short sentence are very likely to need early help and are likely to return to prison promptly without it.”

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