Proposals to transfer the bulk of probation services to the private sector are “dangerously misguided” and threaten public safety, unions have warned.
Lower-risk offenders will be supervised by private firms and charities on a “payment by results” basis as part of a major shake-up of rehabilitation unveiled yesterday.
Prisoners serving sentences under 12 months will also be forced to undertake a period of rehabilitation upon release for the first time.
Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said the overhaul was necessary as reoffending had been “too high for too long”, with 48 per cent of prisoners re-convicted within 12 months of release.
But the National Association of Probation Officers (Napo) and public service union Unison hit out at the proposed reforms.
Napo assistant general secretary Harry Fletcher, who estimates that 70 per cent of the probation services will be put out to tender, said the decision was “astonishing”. He said: “If this plan proceeds it will be chaotic and will compromise public protection.”
Unison national officer for probation staff Ben Priestley said the plans will dismantle the 105-year-old probation service in “one fell swoop”.
He added: “We support the ambition of the Justice Secretary to revolutionise rehabilitation, but he is dangerously misguided in his approach.”
Total spending on prisons and offender management was £4bn in 2011-12, Mr Grayling said, but the wider economic impact is estimated at as much as £13bn.
He said he wanted to see more competition in probation services and bring in a wider mix of providers in a bid to increase efficiency and drive down costs.
Mr Grayling said the “great majority” of community sentences and rehabilitation work will be delivered by private firms and voluntary organisations.
He said: “Providers will be commissioned to deliver community orders and licence requirements for most offenders in broad geographic areas, and will be paid by results to reduce reoffending. What we do at the moment is send people out of prison with £46 in their pocket, and no support at all. No wonder we have such high levels of reoffending.
“It is madness to carry on with the same old system and hope for a different result.”
However, the reforms will see the public sector probation service continue to deal with the most high-risk offenders, including all serious sexual and violent offenders.
The final reforms will be set out in spring this year with the roll-out across England and Wales by spring 2015.
Mr Grayling said short custodial sentences will include a period of rehabilitation in a bid to curb reoffending. Inmates serving under 12 months currently undertake rehabilitation only on a voluntary basis and are otherwise released into the community with no supervision or support.
Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan said payment by results in criminal justice was “untested” and the Government was taking a “reckless gamble” with public safety.
Mr Khan said every probation trust in the country was rated either good or exceptional by the Government in 2011 and warned that Mr Grayling’s proposals risked replacing them with private firms such as G4S.
He said: “Rushing into payment by results is a danger to the offenders who might not receive the rehabilitation support they require, and to the safety of communities up and down the country.”
The Government will launch a nationwide Justice Data Lab to help rehabilitation organisations access reoffending data.
Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, called for greater use of community sentences, which were outperforming short-term jail sentences.
But Max Chambers, head of crime and justice at think-tank Policy Exchange, said there was no alternative to much greater use of the private sector.
He said: “Payment by results will mean the taxpayer only paying for what works – reducing reoffending and cutting crime, or your money back.”