Offender rehabilitation schemes 'not tested'

Danny Shaw
Home affairs correspondent
@DannyShawBBCon Twitter

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More than 118,000 offenders have taken part in rehabilitation programmes that have yet to be fully tested to see if they work, BBC News has learned.

Courses for sex offenders and domestic abusers are among those which haven't been subject to an "outcome evaluation".

The charity Transform Justice, which compiled the data, said it meant they "have no idea" if the programmes have a positive or negative impact.

The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) said although it aimed to conduct evaluations to an "academic standard" it could take years to develop a "robust data sample".

According to MoJ figures supplied to Transform Justice, 25 offender behaviour programmes currently run by HM Prison and Probation Service have not had an outcome evaluation.

The evaluation consists of a research study which investigates the impact of an intervention - whether it worked and, if it did, how well it worked.

Between 2010 and 2018, 16,434 prisoners in England and Wales began non-evaluated courses and 101,662 offenders serving community sentences started such programmes between 2009/10 and 2016/17.

In custody, the non-evaluated programme most commonly used was RESOLVE, a cognitive-behavioural intervention that aims to reduce violence, which was started by 7,444 inmates.

The two community-based schemes with most participants were Building Better Relationships, for male domestic violence perpetrators (15,090), and the Thinking Skills Programme, which helps offenders set goals and make plans without committing crimes (42,215).

In addition, more than 20,000 sex offenders - in jail or on community orders - began courses which hadn't been fully evaluated.

Peter Neyroud, a former chief constable and an independent member of the MoJ's Data, Evidence and Science Board, said he was "concerned" about the findings and wanted them to be addressed.

"You would have expected that every significant programme that the Ministry of Justice is funding and recommending out for delivery would have a clear basis in evidence, and would be tracked to make sure that it's actually matching the outcomes you'd expect - and I can't see from the evidence I've seen here that this is happening," he told BBC News.

In March 2017, the MoJ scrapped its main sex offender treatment scheme (SOTP) after research found that prisoners completing the programme were slightly more likely to offend than a control group.

Penelope Gibbs, a former magistrate who set up Transform Justice, said the "scandal" of SOTP - which had initially been devised in 1992 - must not be allowed to happen again.

"There could be more disasters like the Sex Offender Treatment Programme but we just don't know," she said.

A number of courses, run by the Prison and Probation Service or outside agencies, have been evaluated but the MoJ accepted that for some programmes, with only a small number of participants, it could take five years to find out if they've had any impact.

A spokesman said: "The effectiveness of these types of programmes, many of which are used successfully around the world, is constantly assessed on the ground and subject to rigorous academic-standard evaluation when there is sufficient data."

The department added that offending behaviour schemes were approved by a group of "independent, international experts" - the Correctional Services Accreditation and Advice Panel.

But Mr Neyroud, who lectures in criminology at the University of Cambridge, questioned whether the accreditation panel had sufficient information on which to base its decisions.

"If as it seems the word 'accreditation' doesn't take in that this programme has got a clear evidence base and secondly that we've clearly tracked the outcomes and it's meeting those outcomes, it's good value and the public are being kept safe with it... then it simply isn't good enough," he said.