There has been a 30 per cent rise during the last decade in the number of people going to prison for serious crimes who have already committed at least 15 previous offences.  And the cost of reoffending runs into billions of pounds – somewhere between £7 billion and £11 billion, in fact.  This is a waste both of taxpayers’ money and peoples’ potential.  Can it be turned round?

Chris Grayling believes it can, that the Probation Service’s record of trying to do so can be improved – and that the best means of bettering it is to bring in private, voluntary and social providers (including mutuals) who have experience in helping offenders.  This is what his Transforming Rehabilitation Programme is all about.  As he wrote in a piece on this website describing the programme:

“Virtually every offender leaving prison will receive 12 months of guidance and support, as well as the statutory supervision required by the Courts. There will be an increased focus on mentoring and guidance, and the creation of a proper through the prison gate service, with most prisoners spending the last few months of their sentence in the areas they will be released into so that there are better preparations for that release.”

The Justice Secretary listed some of the organisations who have been taken on: Ingeus, Interserve, Working Links, Sodexo, St Giles Trust, Nacro, and Shelter – “backed by hundreds of smaller local charities that will be able to do more great work with offenders…crucially, the new rehabilitation providers won’t be paid in full unless they deliver real reductions in reoffending”.

Writing on ConservativeHome, Edward Boyd of the Centre for Social Justice pointed out that “probation officers only spend a quarter of their time engaging with offenders”, and argued that Transforming Rehabilitation will incentivise providers by paying them for outcomes, rather than holding them accountable solely for inputs. In his view –

“Their effectiveness stems from an ability to work relationally, rather than bureaucratically – proving to an offender that they care about them and their rehabilitation. They are often experts at making offenders believe they can change their ways and receive a second chance, rather than feel like they are part of a box-ticking exercise. This is a remarkably effective approach…The last Government set a target of handing out a tenth of the budget to the voluntary and private sectors. This never happened.”

These are early days, but in Boyd’s view “the scale of the problem requires a radical response, and this is what is being delivered. The ambition should not be faulted”.  Grayling argues that “trial partnerships between private and voluntary sectors in Peterborough and Doncaster to provide better help for offenders leaving prison have shown real progress in bringing down reoffending”.

It would have been easy for the Justice Secretary to look at the status quo, sit back – and do nothing very much: there are few votes in better rehabilitation.  Instead, he has added the Probation Service to the already long list of those he is tangling with.  He is striving to help people – a quarter of whom were children in care – from returning to crime (and trying to protect others from them in doing so).

The Coalition has seen a lot of compassionate conservatism in action.  We will return to some of it during this immediate run-up to May 7.  Grayling isn’t a man who wears his heart on his sleeve, but Transforming Rehabilitation is a classic illustration of how Ministers have been quietly toiling away putting One Nation politics into practice.

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