Too few people on probation get help with drug problems

Work with offenders looks at a critical new report from probation inspectors

Further evidence emerged today of the damage done to the probation service by the government’s ill-advised Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) project. A new “thematic” inspection conducted jointly by HM Inspectorate of Probation and Care Quality Commission examined the community-based drug treatment and recovery work with people on probation and described it as “poor” and “disappointing”.

TR split the probation service into two sectors with 21 private Community Rehabilitation Companies supervising low and medium risk offenders but the project was abandoned earlier this year when ministers accepted that the initiative had resulted in a fragmented and poorly performing service. The service was reunified at the end of June this year and the government is currently recruiting an additional thousand probation officers.

Headline findings

Probation services across England and Wales supervise nearly 156,000 people in the community and the Inspectorate estimates that almost 75,000 of these individuals have a drugs problem. Yet fewer than 3,000 people (less than 1 in 25) were referred by probation services to specialist drug misuse treatment in 2019/2020, the last year for which figures are available. The report’s headline conclusions are:

  • too few people on probation receive help to tackle drugs misuse – and when referrals are made, the quality of services is often not good enough
  • funding for treatment has reduced and criminal justice programmes to identify and refer people for treatment have “withered on the vine”
  • very few drug users on probation are being tested for drug use – just one in six of the inspected sample of known users
  • key information is missing, not captured properly or used to commission services. Probation services were unable to tell inspectors how many Class A drug users were on their caseload or how many were in treatment
  • six out of 10 magistrates that the Inspectorate surveyed said they were not confident probation was delivering the necessary treatment.

In his foreword to the report, Chief Inspector of Probation Justin Russell focused both on poor probation practice and the lack of focus and funding across the whole criminal justice system to tackle drug use and supply. He echoed many of the findings of Dame Carol Black’s Review of Drugs, particularly her call for substantial investment in the drug treatment sector to restore the quality of services available.

Partnership and court work

Inspectors concluded that the reorganisation of probation services through the Transforming Rehabilitation reforms seven years ago had fractured partnerships. Probation organisations have been involved in a lot of internally facing activity to set up new organisations and deliver probation services. This has squeezed capacity for external work with partners. The probation service’s contribution is further limited as probation case databases do not collect information about the profile of drug users, which could be used to inform commissioning decisions.

Sentencers told inspectors that they hear few recommendations from probation court teams for specific interventions to address drug misuse as a driver of people’s offending. This is consistent with the steep decline in the use of Drug Rehabilitation Requirements with the report arguing for an increase in court-ordered interventions.

Casework and interventions

Inspectors found varied probation practice including much excellent work but concluded that overall “the picture was inconsistent and relied too much on the interest of individual practitioners”. Inspectors found that assessment and planning required significant improvement and that there was a need to re-establish multi-agency work, particularly partnerships between probation and drug treatment providers. The probation inspectors reviewed a large data set from their area inspections and found that only 47 per cent of people on probation for whom drug use was identified as a priority factor received an intervention for it.


National data and the inspectors’ own work tells us that two-thirds of prison leavers who received treatment for drugs misuse while in custody did not continue to receive help on release. Inspectors were concerned to see poor follow-up arrangements in the community, with the situation considerably worse in England and better in Wales.


Inspectors concluded that the poor quality of work with people who use drugs should be set in the context of longstanding heavy probation workloads.

They found that practitioners did not always have the time to examine individuals’ back stories and identify factors that could help support them into recovery, stay safe and move away from drug-related offending. Probation court teams made too few recommendations for treatment.

Much of the expertise that the probation service had in working with people who use drugs has been lost through a combination of an internal focus during the now-abandoned Transforming Rehabilitation experiment and the loss of flourishing partnerships with treatment providers.

This finding was echoed by probation staff with two-thirds of the practitioners interviewed for this inspection saying they needed more training on the impact of drugs and how to support individuals with trauma and recovery.