Presumption success is dependent on probation reforms

Revolving Doors’ Policy Manager Kelly Grehan spent 20 years working as a probation officer. She explains why the recent proposed presumption against short sentences will have limited success without reforms to a struggling Probation Service.

In my twenty years as a probation officer, I saw the damaging effects of short prison sentences. Instead of deterring crime, these sentences often entangle individuals in a cycle of crime and chaos, depriving them of housing, employment, and vital support services for substance use and mental health issues.  

The BBC’s recent drama Time poignantly illustrates this: a minor crime escalates into life-altering consequences, spurring further offences, trajectories I have encountered throughout my career. 

As part of a wider package of measures to address the crisis of prison overcrowding, the Government are proposing a presumption against short sentences. This is a welcome move which we have long called for. However, I hold grave concerns about the severely depleted Probation Service’s ability to supervise individuals effectively without setting them up for failure. 

Over recent decades, poor legislation has seen the Probation Service go from being a service which prioritised rehabilitation and resettlement to one consumed by risk management and little else.  

It is a fact of life that people leading chaotic lives miss appointments – often for reasons that are aligned to why they are in the criminal justice system in the first place. Sometimes they cannot afford travel to their appointments – a growing problem in a cost-of-living crisis, with Probation Centres now more spread out as lots of buildings have closed and been amalgamated. Others have neurodiversity issues, problematic drug and alcohol use or mental health issues. These are all things that make compliance with orders difficult. Around 5,000 people on community orders are also homeless.1 

Traditionally, Probation Officers had a lot of discretion about breaching people. There was some room for understanding when people missed appointments. But, as the service, which was originally set up to ‘advise, assist and befriend’ those who had committed offences has become more risk averse, the service has seen recall and breach become the default position – not necessarily for new offences but for other breaches of the expectations of their Orders.  

In 1993, fewer than 100 people were in prison following recall. By 2023, over 12,000 were.2  At the same time the number of people sentenced to Community Sentences has plummeted. This is widely thought to be down to sentencers losing faith in them, post Chris Grayling’s part privatisation of the Probation Service in 2014. Although the Service was re-amalgamated in 2021 it has continued to perform badly – only one area has received a ‘good’ grade from the Probation Inspectorate since the Service came fully back into government control. 

This week, talking about his plans for a presumption against short sentences, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice Alex Chalk told the Telegraph non-compliance would not be tolerated, saying  

You breach court orders at your peril. And if you do so, you can expect no mercy...  they have a very clear choice, comply, or go to prison.” 

All evidence shows that what people who are trapped in the revolving door need is help and support to address the causal factors of their offending. Seeing attendance at appointments as the only measure of success, as the Minister’s new measures seem to, is destined for difficulty.  

It does not need to be like this. Over 15 years ago I was a Probation Officer supervising Drug Treatment and Testing Orders (DTTOs). These were Orders given to people whose problems with drugs was linked to their offending. Everyone on the Order had twice weekly drug testing – but crucially failing a drug test was not linked to any punitive measures. Testing people twice a week, separate to my supervision session with them meant I got to know the people I supervised and could support them, alongside a local drug project. A doctor and Nurse also joined the Probation team, providing prescriptions and helping people get access to treatment to address their wider health needs. 

In short – this was a holistic, treatment- based approach to dealing with drug-related offending.  

Significantly those on the Order returned to Court regularly for Reviews – often reserved to the Judge who sentenced them. Showing the progress, they were making to the Court was hugely motivating for those on the Order. The reviews also gave judges an insight into the challenges of recovery.  

Of course, those on the Order often missed appointments,  vanished for several weeks and/or relapsed. However, this was seen in the context of their recovery journey. The order generally continued, often to changed behaviour. 

It is hard to imagine such an Order being used now. 

I worry that nothing has been learnt from the disaster that is Post Sentence Supervision (PSS). 

Under changes introduced in 2015, anyone leaving custody who has served two days, or more is required to be supervised in the community for a minimum of 12 months. Previously they would have had no involvement with the Probation Service. This move has had a devastating effect on prison numbers. 8,357 people serving a sentence of less than 12 months were recalled to prison in the year to December 2022.3  Many of these are for non-compliance, rather than new offences. Far from PSS offering people a way out of offending it has trapped many in the revolving door, whilst burdening Probation Officers with extra workload, seemingly to little benefit for those on the sentence or society at large. 

I had hoped that the negative impacts of the Post Sentence Supervision might underscore the need for a re-evaluation of the purpose and effectiveness of our current approach. But it seems this was naïve. 

At some point we need to stop and reassess what Probation is for. Rebranding efforts to project Community Orders as stringent measures have inadvertently transformed Probation into a predominantly punitive agency, leaving overburdened staff entangled in administrative tasks rather than providing essential support to those under supervision. 

If we are ever to end the revolving door of crisis and crime, we need to look at solving its causes. I hope the Minister’s words in The Telegraph are simply part of an effort to look tough, and that some evidenced based support systems will finally be reintroduced to those subject to Community Orders. That is how we will end the revolving door of crisis and crime. 

1 Lack of housing jeopardising public protection and rehabilitation of offenders ( 

2 What’s been going on with the prison population? | Centre for Crime and Justice Studies 

3   Table 5.2, Ministry of Justice (2023) Offender management statistics quarterly: October to December 2022, London: Ministry of Justice

4   Table 5.2, Ministry of Justice (2023) Offender management statistics quarterly: October to December 2022, London: Ministry of Justice