Probation system ‘not doing enough to learn from past mistakes’

The probation system is not doing enough to learn lessons from serious crimes committed by offenders under supervision, according to inspectors.

Nearly a quarter of a million people are on probation in England and Wales. Around 0.2 per cent of these individuals are charged with serious further offences each year while under supervision. These crimes include murder, rape, and other violent and dangerous offences.

HM Inspectorate of Probation examined the way probation services review and learn lessons in these cases. Inspectors also looked at how HM Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) quality assure those reviews, and use information to improve national policies and practice. Victims and their families were asked about their experiences too.

Chief Inspector of Probation Justin Russell said: “Serious further offences have a devastating impact on victims and their families. The review process must examine the period leading up to the offence and how the probation service managed the risk of serious harm.

“Our inspection found that individual reviews were good in parts, but a fifth (22 per cent) of those we inspected failed to give a clear judgment as to whether all reasonable steps had been taken to manage the risk of serious harm. At a national level, more needs to be done to identify trends and themes to drive changes to probation policies and guidance.

“Until this work is done, the government and probation services are not doing enough to learn from past mistakes. Lessons must be learnt to prevent more tragedies in the future.”

Probation services in England and Wales are delivered by a mix of providers. The National Probation Service (NPS) supervises high risk offenders in the community, while 21 Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRC) supervise low and medium risk offenders.

When an individual who is on probation commits a serious further offence, a manager in the relevant NPS division or CRC conducts an internal review.

Inspectors found:

  • Serious Further Offence reviews often set out the timeline of events, but are less effective at explaining why the offence took place. Reviews should draw clear conclusions on failures of probation practice.
  • Serious Further Offence reviews focus solely on probation practice, unlike reviews conducted in other parts of the criminal justice system, such as those following domestic homicides. Offenders are usually known to other agencies, so these interactions are not explored and important opportunities for joint learning are being missed. Inspectors recommend external agencies that have been involved in the case, such as the police and children’s services, should be involved in the Serious Further Offence review. Consideration should also be given to whether this should be mandatory for all homicide cases not currently covered by other multi-agency procedures. There should be a requirement for SFO reviews that include findings on the actions of other agencies to be shared with those agencies.
  • Individual probation officers involved in cases are interviewed by the Serious Further Offence review teams, but often do not see the final reports and have limited opportunities to question the findings. Some staff view the process negatively and believe its primary focus is to attribute blame. The Inspectorate concluded this ‘culture of fear’ undermines the ability of organisations to learn from the process.

Relatively few victims or their families ask to see the Serious Further Offence review and take up of this offer is not monitored centrally. More effort needs to be made to increase the uptake of this offer.

Victims and their families that do ask to see the review found the process open and honest about failings, and appreciated the chance to discuss the case with a senior manager.

The Inspectorate found the content and length of the reviews would be difficult for some victims and family members to digest. Inspectors also urged greater consideration to individual circumstances before disclosing reviews, for example to ensure vulnerable victims have proper support.

HMPPS is responsible for quality assuring Serious Further Offence reviews and providing feedback to probation services.

Inspectors found:

  • Reviews are not analysed nationally to identify themes, which could improve policy and practice.
  • Staff shortages have led to backlogs and unacceptable delays – the HMPPS quality assurance process should take 20 days but takes six months on average.
  • There is a lack of independent oversight and transparency in the process with HMPPS auditing the quality of its own work.

Mr Russell said: “Significant resources are rightly invested in the Serious Further Offence review process. In our view, the current arrangements are inefficient and lack independence and transparency.

“We recommend an independent agency should get involved in quality assuring this vital work. The agency should look at a proportion of completed reviews each year and publish its findings on a regular basis. This will help to increase public confidence in the process.

“Following our inspection, we have made a number of recommendations to the Ministry of Justice and HMPPS. These aim to refocus the Serious Further Offence review process on learning lessons, improving probation policies and practice, and increasing access for victims and their families.”

Earlier this year, the Secretary of State for Justice asked Mr Russell to conduct an independent review into the case of Joseph McCann, who committed a series of serious further offences while under probation supervision. The first part of that report will be published in June 2020.



Notes to editor

  1. The report is available at on 14 May 2020 00.01.
  2. HM Inspectorate of Probation is the independent inspector of youth offending and probation services across England and Wales.
  3. People under probation supervision include people who are leaving or who have left prison, and those serving community sentences.
  4. There were 247,759 people under probation supervision across England Wales as of end December 2019 (source: Ministry of Justice).
  5. Serious further offences are committed by individuals under probation supervision or within 28 working days of the end of their probation. A full list of the 76 offences appears in Annexe 1 of the report.
  6. In 2018, 493 SFO reviews were undertaken, including 124 related to murder or manslaughter. Fifty-seven per cent of the offenders committing these SFOs were managed by NPS; 43 per cent by CRCs. Of the offenders involved in murder or manslaughter SFOs, 66 per cent had previously been assessed as low or medium risk, rather than high risk, by the probation service (see page 12 of the report for details).
  7. Fieldwork for this inspection took place in November and December 2019. The Inspectorate visited eight probation providers and HMPPS’s SFO review team.
  8. On 05 March 2020, the Secretary of State for Justice asked the Chief Inspector of Probation to conduct an independent review of the case of Joseph McCann. A copy of the Serious Further Offences review is available on the uk website; information about the independent review is available on the HM Inspectorate of Probation website.
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