Probation and youth offending services – strong early response to COVID-19, but more work needed to tackle longer-term challenges

Probation and youth offending services have responded well to the COVID-19 pandemic but attention must now turn to tackling backlogs and longer-term problems, according to inspectors.

HM Inspectorate of Probation inspected the work of 11 probation services and seven youth offending services across England and Wales. Inspectors looked at samples of cases, interviewed staff and senior leaders, and sought the views of adults and children supervised by these services.

Chief Inspector of Probation Justin Russell said: “Overall, the initial response to the COVID-19 pandemic was commendable. Probation and youth justice leaders recognised the gravity of the situation, and mobilised staff and resources to support a rapid response. Staff have worked tirelessly to keep services running and to support vulnerable individuals.”

At the start of the national lockdown in March, 241,350 people were under probation supervision and around 26,700 children were known to youth offending teams.

Key findings – probation services

  • Probation services prioritised the management of risk of harm posed by individuals under supervision.
  • Assessment and planning for new cases was satisfactory, reviewing of ongoing cases less so. Three-quarters of the higher harm cases we inspected had weekly contact with probation during lockdown, mainly by phone. Multi-agency work was good.
  • Lockdown led to a reduction in a number of support services that probation relies on, including mental health and drug and alcohol provision.
  • Probation and local authorities worked well together to place service users who were homeless in emergency accommodation during the national lockdown, with additional funding made available.

Mr Russell said: “Probation providers are to be applauded for the compassion and professionalism they have shown in quickly and effectively changing their working methods in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Delivery models were redesigned overnight to comply with government social distancing guidelines while retaining a primary focus on public protection. Contact with individuals on probation supervision has continued at satisfactory levels, albeit remotely by phone. Work to manage immediate risk of harm was generally good.”

“Many service users need ongoing support with their lives and livelihoods. Accommodation provision for homeless service users improved during lockdown but probation providers are deeply concerned that, as society returns to a new normal, emergency housing provision will disappear. We urge HM Prison and Probation Service to work with government agencies to ensure service users have permanent accommodation.”

Key findings – youth offending services

  • Local Youth Offending Teams responded well to COVID-19, showing great commitment and initiative to keeping services going for the most vulnerable.
  • Inspectors found concerning cases of child violence towards parents/carers.
  • Youth justice workers found it difficult to contact children in custody.
  • Education provision for children on YOT caseloads was very poor. Very few went to school. Almost half of the inspected sample lacked the IT to do school work at home or to communicate with their YOT worker.

Mr Russell said: “The national lockdown was very difficult for children who have offended and their families. Many of these children already have complex needs; isolation from friends and support networks often exacerbated their difficulties. We were very concerned to see cases where children were violent towards their parents/carers – this was not a new problem but became more acute as families were locked in together. The typical processes to protect domestic abuse victims do not apply because of the age of the perpetrators, so a new approach is needed to keep people safe in their own homes.

“Youth justice workers reported problems with contacting children in custody, whether they were on remand or serving custodial sentences. There were communication problems with staff based in young offender institutions because they do not have adequate IT access. This situation must be resolved as soon as possible to enable regular contact, wellbeing checks, and to prepare children for resettlement in the community.

“We found a stark digital divide among children. Almost half of the children in our sample (47 per cent) did not have access to internet-enabled technology. Some families did not have computers or broadband packages, including families where parents/carers had lost their jobs or were on furlough. Consequently, it has been difficult for youth offending services to keep in regular contact with some children. Forty per cent of the children in our sample did not access any form of education or training during the national lockdown – these children cannot afford to be left behind. Some youth offending services distributed IT equipment to help bridge the gap; we would like the Youth Justice Board to lead a more comprehensive response to ensure better contact with children.”

Key findings – probation and youth justice staff

  • Staff adapted relatively well to the switch from face-to-face meetings to contact by phone, door-step visits and messaging.
  • Increased use of technology brought some unexpected benefits as well as challenges.
  • The nature of probation and youth justice work made homeworking especially difficult for some staff.

Probation and youth justice work is typically conducted face to face. During the national lockdown, most staff switched to phone calls and used door-step visits, emails and messaging to keep in touch with individuals under supervision.

Some adults and children preferred speaking by phone rather than in person: some were concerned about the health risks of travelling and meeting during the pandemic; some found it more convenient; some children found building a relationship with their officer less scary over the phone. Conversely, some service users felt short phone calls did not give them adequate support for issues such as poor mental health.

At the start of the national lockdown, some staff experienced IT issues that made it difficult for them to do their work effectively. Some probation officers did not have work laptops so were using their own devices without additional security measures; staff at one of the youth offending services in our inspection could not access social care records because they were stored in an incompatible system. Some staff were unable to talk to partners easily because they used different video-conferencing platforms.

Mr Russell said: “The increased use of technology did bring some benefits. Many staff have saved substantial travel time and have had greater freedom in delivering their work. Probation and youth offending services often take part in multi-agency meetings with organisations such as the police and local authorities – there was improved attendance when these meetings moved online. This was a positive development because these meetings are often held to discuss individuals who have committed violent, sexual or domestic abuse offences. We recommend services consider keeping these meetings online to improve the coordination of activity to manage offenders and protect victims.

“We were pleased to hear so many accounts of managers supporting their staff, as well as staff supporting their peers and the individuals they supervised. However, there has been an emotional toll for many probation and youth justice staff. Challenging conversations are an accepted part of supervision, but many staff and service users have found conducting these discussions in their own homes to be a difficult and uncomfortable experience. In one case, a small child overheard a service user threatening their parent on the phone and asked: ‘Mummy, is he going to come and get us?’. Many staff have struggled to balance work with other responsibilities such as home-schooling children or caring for vulnerable relatives.”

The future

The Inspectorate has made a series of recommendations for probation and youth justice leaders.

Mr Russell said: “Probation and youth offending services should work with other criminal justice agencies to build on the elements that have worked well. Probation leaders must look to increase rehabilitation activity which reduced to very low levels during the lockdown period, and secure longer-term accommodation and access to support services for those who need it. Youth justice leaders must address child-on-parent violence, improve access to children in custody, and bridge the digital divide.

“The closure of all courts has led to a significant build-up of cases. Probation and youth offending services must prepare to deal with these backlogs strategically.

“The Inspectorate will be resuming our inspections of local youth offending and probation services next year. We will continue to scrutinise how services respond to the ongoing challenges of the pandemic.”


Notes to editor

  1. HM Inspectorate of Probation will be publishing two thematic reports on the Exceptional Delivery Model arrangements in probation services and youth offending services in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Both reports will be available at on 18 November 2020 00.01.
  2. HM Inspectorate of Probation is the independent inspector of youth offending and probation services across England and Wales.
  3. All references to “national lockdown” refer to the lockdown that the Prime Minister announced on 23 March 2020.
  4. Paragraph 2 – the inspection included a mix of National Probation Service divisions and Community Rehabilitation Companies. Please see the reports for full details of the methodology.
  5. Paragraph 4 – 241,350 people were under probation supervision as of 31 March 2020 (source: Ministry of Justice). Around 26,700 children were known to youth offending teams in 2018/2019 – these are the latest figures available (source: Youth Justice Board).
  6. For media enquiries, please contact Head of Communications Catherine Chan on 07889 405930 or (E-mail address)