Probation Board warning over cuts
Proposed cuts to probation services in Northern Ireland will have a dramatic impact on how offenders are managed in the community, the Probation Board has warned.
The resources the board can commit to engaging with those on probation will be hit by the envisaged 12% cut, including its contribution to multi-agency efforts to manage sexual and violent offenders, chairman Vilma Patterson said.
Draft Department of Justice spending plans would see £2 million sliced off the Probation Board for Northern Ireland's (PBNI) current £18.25 million a year spend.
Ms Patterson said a decrease of that scale would "fundamentally change how we carry out our business". She said it would be remiss of the board not to highlight the "risks to preventing re-offending and reducing crime" such a cut would create.
"Research shows that investing in probation has the potential to save money throughout the criminal justice system, so these proposed cuts are not only going to impact adversely on probation but also on all of criminal justice," she said.
"In the last year we have sought as far as possible to ensure our systems and structures are efficient and effective. However the reality is that approximately 82% of our current budget is spent on salaries and fixed costs. We are already under-resourced at front line probation grade staff, due to having to make savings to our budget over the last four years and it is inevitable that we will be required to further examine staff costs in the next year.
"In the last number of months we have had to change our practice as a result of staffing pressures. For example the level of contact with most offenders has been decreased, and our service to victims will be impacted. We will now have to reduce our contribution to a range of multi-agency partnerships including those which manage offenders who have committed certain serious sexual and violent offences
"Previously the Criminal Justice Inspectorate found that PBNI's financial and staffing contribution to the multi-agency arrangements in place to manage serious sexual and violent offenders far outweighed its caseload in this area. In future the resources we supply to this critical area of work will have to be reduced."
"Public safety remains our priority but we would be remiss if we did not highlight the risks to preventing reoffending and reducing crime which may arise from such significant cuts to our budget."
Pam Hunter, Chief Executive of Nexus, a charity for survivors of sexual abuse and violence, also expressed concern on the level of cuts earmarked for probation in the draft budget.
"Probation play a leading role is protecting the public through multi-agency arrangements which were placed on a statutory footing in 2008," she said.
"I am deeply concerned about the fact that they may have fewer resources to dedicate to this area of work. As an organisation representing victims and survivors of sexual violence we have seen at first hand the positive impact of probation programmes and probation officer's specialist skills in helping prevent reoffending. Successful rehabilitation of offenders will mean fewer victims.
"Unfortunately without sufficient investment in probation services there is the potential that there will be more victims of crime for which there is already limited funding also."
Ms Patterson encouraged service users and those who benefit from probation services to respond to a DOJ consultation on the draft budget.
Justice Minister David Ford said he had already warned of the consequences of the Executive cutting his departmental budget to such a degree.
"I have warned that the severity of budget cuts would have front-line service impacts and indeed highlighted that the Probation Service will be affected on a day to day operational basis," he said.
"The reality is that despite our successes in protecting front line services over the last four years, we will now have to take very difficult decisions that will impact on peoples' experience of the justice system."