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Local authorities must be at the heart of criminal justice reforms, says SASW

Plans to radically overhaul community justice in Scotland must put local authorities and social workers at the heart of any reform, the Scottish Association of Social Work warned.

Responding to the Scottish Parliament’s consultation on proposals to redesign community justice, SASW said local authorities were best placed to provide the leadership, accountability, co-ordination and innovation needed to reduce reoffending in the country.

The Association added that the skills and knowledge of social workers were key to preventing criminal behaviour within communities.

At the end of last year, the Scottish Parliament initiated a consultation on three options for reducing the cost of reoffending on the public purse, estimated at £3 billion a year. The move came in the wake of a series of reports criticising the existing community justice system.

In one, an independent commission established by the Government claimed the current service co-ordinated by eight regional Criminal Justice Authorities (CJAs):
• Lacked strategic leadership
• Provided a “grossly” cluttered landscape of more than 200 organisations
• Showed unclear accountability
• Delivered inconsistent service provision

Scotland’s Cabinet Secretary for Justice, Kenny MacAskill, said the status quo – which includes the country having one of the highest incarceration rates in Europe – was “untenable”. He stressed the need for structural change that supports “rather than hinder practitioners, managers and leaders working in the field”.

The three proposals for transforming the community justice system outlined in the Redesigning Community Justice System Consultation document are:
a) Enhanced CJA model: Strengthen existing CJAs and give them strategic commissioning responsibility for services to cut offending within the community. Operational responsibility and power to commission services for criminal justice social work, currently with local authorities, would transfer to CJAs.
b) Local authority model: Abolition of CJAs and transferring their current role to local authorities.
c) Single service model: Abolition of CJAs and creating a new national “social work-led” service headed by a Chief Executive accountable to Parliament with strategic and operational responsibilities.

In its submission to ministers, SASW said option ‘b’ was the best way forward to address existing shortcomings, while retaining effective partnerships and professional skills built up across all sectors.

Association members have expressed particular concern at option ‘c’, the proposal to create a national service. SASW is concerned at any move that might see Scotland following a similar model to England where probation and social work have been separate since the 1970s.

Concern among social workers in Scotland have been further heightened by recent Westminster Government proposals to replace the existing network of 35 local probation trusts in England with a pared down National Probation Service for the most high-risk offenders – with other functions put out to private tender.

The Association’s submission states: “SASW members are not in favour of a centralised model divorced from other mainstream social work services as people with whom they work are not individuals isolated from others but living in families and communities. Evidence from England shows that this model does not work.”

Tim Parkinson, SASW Professional Officer and a criminal justice specialist, said there were “distinct advantages” to criminal justice practice being integrated into local authorities.

He said these include being able to provide a more holistic, person-centred approach, helping to reduce reoffending and fostering greater integration between partnership organisations operating at local level.

He added: "It is worth remembering that reoffending rates in Scotland are currently at a 20-year low and the occupancy rate at the National Young Offender Institution has reduced by 22% over the last two years. The current matrix of social workers and local partnerships and relationships on the ground has achieved this and will be decimated if a single agency is created."

Highlighting the role of social workers in community justice, Mr Parkinson added: “Utilising and investing in their skills and knowledge is vitally important in reducing rates of reoffending in Scotland.

“Social workers offer a wealth of interpersonal skills, informed by their specialist training and understanding of human psychology and society. Through this, they are able to create the kind of individual approaches when working with offenders that can make the difference between success and failure.”