How can Sadiq Khan fix London's struggling probation system?

Some justice. Image: Getty.

London’s probation system is in trouble. Last week's damning report by the probation inspectorate found an alarming deterioration in provision in the capital, posing a serious risk to public safety. So what can mayor Sadiq Khan do to get probation back on track?

The core challenge for the mayor is that the current structure of the probation service leaves him with few direct powers to improve the quality of provision. Oversight, budgets, and commissioning powers for the most part lie with central government.

This is all the more problematic because it is clear that the issue with probation largely stems from the current nationally established structures. Dame Glenys Stacey, the Chief Inspector of Probation, was last week particularly damning of the work carried out by the London Community Rehabilitation Company (CRC), one of the new privately owned probation providers recently introduced by the government to rehabilitate low and medium risk offenders.

As many argued when the government was considering its reorganisation of probation, the new structures are proving wildly ineffective at reducing reoffending. The changes have added further complexity to an already fragmented system, by splitting probation into a National Probation Service for high-risk offenders and CRCs for low and medium risk offenders.

The current system is also too centralised: CRCs are nationally commissioned, so have little incentive to work together with other local services, many of whom hold key policy levers to reduce reoffending. Add to that problems with staffing, uncontrollable caseloads, and poor oversight, and it’s no wonder that the system is under strain.

As IPPR argue in our new report, the priority for Sadiq is therefore clear: he needs a deal with the Ministry of Justice to be granted new probation and prison powers from central government.

The obvious ideal solution would be for the mayor to be granted full commissioning powers over probation services, as he has suggested himself. But in the short term this is unlikely: the CRC contracts have only recently begun and last for a total of seven years. Short of an early termination of the London CRC contract by the government (which after this week’s inspection is not as far-fetched as it might sound), there is little hope of securing significant new probation powers before the end of this parliament.

But there is still plenty that can be done now. For inspiration, Sadiq should look to Greater Manchester, where there is considerable momentum towards a more devolved, innovative system. In particular, there are three things he can focus on in the short term.

First, as in Manchester, Sadiq can bid for the control of custody budgets for certain cohorts of offenders in London – particularly young and short-sentence offenders, given they have such high reoffending rates. While the mayor does not currently have control over probation, he does have a number of other policy levers to help reduce demand on the prison system – particularly as he sets London’s policing and crime priorities. Controlling these new budgets would allow any savings made from reduced demand to be reinvested in other ways to bring down offending rates, such as preventative service and alternatives to custody. He would also need to secure some upfront "transformation funding" to make sure there is some extra initial money to play with for these services, rather than just relying on savings to be made down the line.

Second, the mayor can argue for more powers over the youth justice system. The mayor should make the case to central government to break up Feltham Young Offender Institution into a range of smaller "secure schools" – a new type of secure accommodation for young offenders that puts education at the centre of provision. He should then bid for powers to commission places at secure schools for young offenders within London. This would allow for a far more joined-up approach at the local level between youth custody and probation (which is already devolved to local authorities).

Third, Sadiq should prioritise reform for women offenders. Women are significantly more likely to self-harm and develop mental health issues in prison, and many have dependent children. In many cases, custodial sentences cause more harm than good.

The closure of Holloway women’s prison in North London therefore provides an opportunity to rethink women offender provision, reduce the use of custody, and invest in more effective alternatives. Sadiq should make the case for some of the substantial savings from the closure of Holloway to be passed to City Hall, for them to be reinvested in a new women’s centre and a new approach to women offenders in London.

He can take a leaf out of Greater Manchester’s book: their "whole system approach" to female offenders has created an alliance between nine women’s centres for female referrals and has helped to share best practice, streamline reporting processes and facilitate closer partnership working.

But the mayor should not be limited to these three ideas: he should explore with the Ministry of Justice a range of options for London to be granted greater control over budgets and commissioning. This week’s report highlights the need for immediate action. There should be plenty of scope for London to secure a more locally driven, innovative, and joined-up approach to prisons and probation in the coming year.

Marley Morris is a research fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).

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Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.