Last week’s findings from the HM Inspectorate of Probation reveal that private probation companies are failing to provide sufficient supervision and support to people released from prison. This is the latest in a long line of critical reports since the overhaul of probation in 2014.
Often it is the prison system that is left to pick up the pieces. In November 2016, the Prison Reform Trust (PRT) reported that more women than ever before in England and Wales were being recalled to prison following their release. Since that time, the number of women recalled to prison has continued to rise, and is now more than double the number it was before these reforms were introduced.
Over the same period there has also been a 17% increase in recall for men. Most return to prison for a matter of days causing significant disruption to their resettlement plans and to the prisons themselves.
Why has the use of recall for women continued to increase when they are far less likely to commit serious offences, and why is the trend not slowing down as it did for men?
The Ministry of Justice (MOJ) publish very little gender disaggregated data on recall, however, figures released to PRT under the Freedom of Information Act, following a judgement by the Information Commissioner, provide a clearer picture of current practice. This reveals that the rise in the women’s recall population has progressed through two discreet phases.
The initial spike in the number of women (and men) recalled to prison is almost certainly linked to the expansion of post-release supervision. The Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014 (ORA) extended mandatory supervision to all prisoners serving 12 months or less with the possibility of recall to custody if they breach the conditions of their release. As women generally commit non-violent and acquisitive crimes, they are more likely to serve sentences of this duration than men, and so have been disproportionately affected by the introduction of mandatory supervision.
Before these changes were introduced on 1 February 2015, no women serving 12 months or less were recalled to prison. Fast-forward one year and the majority of women recalled to prison were short sentence prisoners under the supervision of the newly created Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs).
In this sense, the first phase of the recall story must be understood as the intended consequence of government policy. PRT, along with many other voluntary sector organisations, raised serious concerns before these changes were introduced, that if the new supervision regime was not implemented with care it would drive up the use of recall for the lowest risk individuals.
This is precisely what has happened, and raises serious questions about whether the Ministry of Justice is failing in its legal duty to ensure that the supervision and rehabilitation of offenders takes into account the distinct needs of women.
More concerning still, the number of women recalled to prison has continued to increase despite a levelling out of the CRCs’ caseload. This can be attributed to changes in recall practice, particularly amongst CRCs who, over time, appear to have become more risk averse.
Since July 2016, the number of women subject to post-release supervision has stabilised at around 4,000 cases per quarter. However, since that time the number of women recalled to prison has increased steadily from 336 to 420 cases per quarter.
Analysis of recall reasons can be extremely difficult but MOJ figures indicate that most women are recalled for administrative reasons. ‘Failure to keep in touch’ is by far the most common reason cited in recall cases, followed by ‘poor behaviour - non-compliance’. In less than a fifth of cases women were recalled for a ‘further charge’, raising fundamental questions about the circumstances in which the deprivation of liberty can be justified for administrative non-compliance.
More work is needed to understand the trigger points for recall from post-release supervision and PRT will shortly embark upon a new research project to better understand the circumstances in which women have been recalled to custody.
Suffice it to say here that the growth in post release supervision appears to be a classic case of net widening, where administrative changes result in many more people being kept under the control of the criminal justice system. A measure justified on rehabilitative grounds is now reinforcing the revolving door of prison, breach and recall back into custody and this has contributed to recent increases in the women’s prison population and prison population forecasts up to 2022.
There are however grounds for optimism. Our analysis indicates that the recent increases in recall are almost certainly the result of changes in practice and parity between men and women could be restored without further legislation.
National figures can obscure significant local variations in recall practice. Since the ORA came into effect, Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire & Rutland CRC (DLNR) have reported an overall recall rate of 10% and Kent, Surrey and Sussex CRC a recall rate of 9%. In contrast, large CRCs such as Wales and Staffordshire & West Midlands have recall rates in the region of 5% of their post-custody caseloads. There is no reason why similar rates could not be mirrored nationally.
It is apparent that current guidance on the use of recall is inadequate, particularly in relation to women released from short prison sentences. The thematic report by HM Inspectorate of Probation demonstrates yet again that there is still not adequate provision for women and this is often exacerbated by significant workload pressures, the complexity of cases and organisational upheaval which are undermining opportunities for rehabilitation.
The government should urgently look at differences in current local practice and encourage greater emphasis upon community interventions to stem the growing numbers of people ending up back behind bars. Until they do, the revolving door looks set to keep spinning.