Self-inflicted deaths on probation: the disturbing figures

Work with Offenders explores the latest worrying statistics showing a jump in the number of people dying while under the supervision of the probation service.

Many readers will be aware that the Ministry of Justice publishes its prison safety statistical bulletin with information about the number of people dying in our prisons (as well as the number of assaults and incidents of self-harm) every three months. The equivalent information on deaths of people who die while under the supervision of the probation service is published just once a year.

This year’s edition of Deaths of Offenders in the community, England and Wales 2018/19 was published on 31 October and makes for particularly grim reading. The number of people dying whilst on supervision jumped by 13%. The figure is particularly disappointing because last year’s bulletin also revealed a 17% rise. So the number of people who die each year whilst on probation supervision has risen from 819 in 2016/17 to 1,093 last year.

The saddest feature of this information is that it is a big increase in the number of self-inflicted deaths which is mainly responsible for this rise. No fewer than one in three (31%) of the people who died whilst under probation supervision last year took their own lives. Since more than a quarter (27%) of deaths remain unclassified, this figure is sure to rise.

There are other concerning features to this information. One point which stands out is the number of men dying as a result of homicide: this number increased from 27 in 2017/18 to 47 this year, giving a homicide rate amongst men of the probation caseload of 204 per million, almost 10 times that of the highest risk group in the general population.

The data also tells us that the self-inflicted mortality rate is higher for women than for men. Although statisticians urge caution in comparing these rates directly to those across the general population it is worth pointing out that the self-inflicted mortality rate for women under the supervision of the probation service was 200/100,000 last year while the female suicide rate for the general population in England and Wales is just 5.4/100,000.

One factor in this worrying increase was the introduction of the Offender Rehabilitation Act in 2015 which increased the number of offenders supervised by the probation service, by applying mandatory supervision to all short-term (those serving less than 12 months in custody) prisoners. However, this, in itself, does not explain last year’s rise in the number of deaths. While the number of people dying whilst on probation supervision rose by 13% in 2018/19, the overall caseload actually fell by 4%.

When the rise in the number of people dying while on probation was first widely noticed last year, a number of commentators were quick to put the blame on the new private sector Community Rehabilitation Companies. It is no secret that the CRCs were both underfunded and, in almost all cases, delivering a substandard service. As nearly always, though, the truth is rather more complicated. Indeed, while deaths rose last year, the proportion of these relating to people supervised by the CRCs actually fell 3% with a corresponding 3% rise in the number of people who died while under the supervision of the National Probation Service.

The failed reorganisation of the probation service must be linked to this distressing rise in the number of people dying. Yet in my opinion it is likely that the most significant factors are the cuts in public funding over the years of austerity which have made it much more difficult for people on community orders or release from prison both to find stable accommodation and to access the drug, alcohol and mental health treatment services so many of them badly need.