30 August 2023 - Does good quality probation work reduce reoffending rates?

When I became Chief Inspector four years ago, I said that one of my early priorities was to establish if there was a link between effective probation supervision and real-life outcomes for people on probation. Our underlying assumption had always been that there is a golden thread that links great leadership and good services in local probation via high quality individual supervision to reduced reoffending by the people getting that supervision. But that was difficult to prove and we lacked conclusive evidence one way or the other on whether there was such a correlation.

In an effort to fill this gap, we introduced a new standard for our case assessments in 2021 to capture our inspectors’ judgements about the early progress that people on probation make during the first months of supervision. This included a judgement about evidence of reoffending and of intermediate outcomes like improved accommodation and employment status, and whether risk had reduced. We don’t rate this standard on our local inspections but we do publish the data for every PDU so that it’s available to service managers and to external researchers or others with an interest.

At the same time we launched an ambitious research project to match data on over 3,000 individual cases from our first cycle of NPS and CRC inspections in 2018-2019 to the longer-term outcomes for these individuals, as captured by PNC data on reoffending rates and by nDelius data on whether sentences were successfully completed.

Though the pandemic delayed this analysis, I was delighted that we were able to publish the first outputs from analysis of both of these datasets last week. These three research bulletins can be found here. Much to my relief (and I imagine to the Probation Service itself too), both sets of data show a positive and significant link between good quality probation delivery, as judged by our inspectors, and outcomes for people on probation. So, for 1,539 cases we inspected from 2021 onwards, where we have inspection data on early outcomes, our inspectors’ judgement on those outcomes was positive in 72 per cent of cases where inspectors had concluded that delivery of the community order or post-release licence (a) engaged the person on probation, (b) supported their desistance and (c) kept others safe – compared to just 8 per cent where we felt none of these things applied.

And for the longer-term cases which started supervision in 2018 or 2019, the results were also highly encouraging. For those cases where our inspectors judged that the delivery of supervision plans both engaged the person on probation and supported their desistence from further crime (which was about half of the inspected cases), the sentence completion rate was 24 percentage points higher and the reoffending rate was 14 percentage points lower, compared to those cases where both judgments were negative. This is powerful confirmation that our inspection quality standards are indeed capturing things that make a difference to real world outcomes, but also, more importantly, that high quality probation work is both essential and well worth investing in. Given that 170,000 people are being supervised in the community at any one time and that reoffending costs the country £18 billion a year, the pay off from investing in probation and in ensuring that this is delivered to the highest possible standard, could be enormous.