Coronavirus impact on probation and youth justice services

Work with Offenders looks at the conclusions of two new reports from the probation inspectorate

The challenge of coronavirus

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. That is the verdict of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation (HMI Probation) in two separate reports published today.

HMI 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.”

Probation

The probation service redesigned the way it went supervising offenders in order to comply with government social distancing guidelines while retaining a primary focus on public protection. Contact with individuals on probation supervision has largely been carried out remotely by phone and has been matched with assessed levels of risk and need. Inspectors found that work to manage immediate risk of harm is generally good. Practitioners told inspectors that the enhanced focus on effective risk management had sharpened their practice, and inspectors reported increased participation at the virtual multi-agency meetings which replaced face-to-face case discussions. However, inspectors found that not all staff and agencies involved in public protection and safeguarding work have access to the same digital technology.

Lockdown has led to a reduction in a number of support services that probation relies on, including mental health and drug and alcohol provision. While inspectors found some encouraging innovations in work with and support for individuals with complex needs, the most vulnerable experienced a deterioration in their emotional wellbeing. Service users whose personal circumstances were relatively stable before lockdown adjusted well to the new supervisory arrangements. However, others felt lonely, disconnected and anxious about their futures. For them, remote contact by itself was insufficient to meet their needs. Immediate housing outcomes were good because of the effective mobilisation of partnership working and the additional funding that was made available by government to prevent homelessness. Inspectors called for this temporary accommodation to be followed by more permanent provision and noted a deep concern among probation providers that, as society returns to a new normal, the current emergency housing provision will disappear.

Inspectors urged probation services to increase rehabilitation activity which reduced to very low levels during the lockdown period.

Youth Justice

Inspectors found that youth justice leaders responded quickly to the needs of children and families. Methods of working and the delivery of services were reviewed, prioritising those children in greatest need and the safety of the workforce. Planning was shared with staff teams and was reviewed and adapted as lessons were learned and the pandemic progressed. Children and families remained at the heart of the work; inspectors found examples of innovation, care and commitment to supporting children. Many were already facing significant difficulties, and they were supported to cope with the additional trauma that the coronavirus and lockdown brought. The alignment of Youth Offending Teams (YOTs) with local authorities and their ability to plan with and alongside partners allowed them to respond flexibly to local need.

However, inspectors also highlighted that local authorities and YOT partners were inundated with guidance and documents, which they needed to read, understand, cross-reference and implement. This process was hampered by the lack of a standard format, which would have made it easier to extract key information.

Some work, such as referral order panels and out-of-court disposals, was initially halted. However, over time, each YOT made decisions on which activities it could safely reintroduce. Out-of-court disposal panels resumed quickly, and work to support desistance was delivered. As courts closed, the number of new court-ordered cases reduced. This allowed case managers to focus on children who were identified as high priority.

Inspectors did raise a number of concerns. They highlighted the experience of parents who were victims of child and adolescent violence, calling for a sharper focus and more detailed planning for the protection of parental victims. The nature of this abuse and age of the perpetrators means that the arrangements for adults that would normally be part of victim safety planning and multi-agency risk assessment conferences (MARAC) don’t all apply. Victims were advised to call the police if they were under threat or being attacked, but there are specific difficulties for parents when the perpetrator is their own child. There is also a potential conflict when the YOT worker is trying to reduce the child’s challenging behaviour and support the victim at the same time. Inspectors say that a new approach is needed to tackle this issue.

There was also concerns that joint work with custodial establishments has been difficult. It has been significantly affected by the lack of IT systems in custody to enable communication with YOTs in the community and the need to stop visits to control the spread of the virus. Inspectors found this had had a detrimental impact on resettlement planning.

Inspectors found a stark digital divide among children. Almost half of the children whose cases were reviewed for the report 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.

Another major concern was that forty per cent of the children in the sample for this report did not access any form of education or training during the national lockdown.

Conclusion

It is no surprise that the pandemic has had an equally profound impact on the probation and youth justice services as it has on all other areas of our lives. Many adults and children subject to supervision by the criminal justice system were, frankly, delighted to have their requirements reduced to one or two short phone calls per week. However, many others, particularly those with complex needs found that this form of service provision was of little help. It will be interesting to see if the probation and youth justice services can find a more balanced form of provision if the current period of lockdown continues past the start of next month.