“COMPLETE institutional indifference” shrouds the deaths of hundreds of offenders who died while under the supervision of North-East probation services, experts say.

Ten people were murdered while another 158 killed themselves while on probation between 2015 and 2017/18.

During that period, up to 468 people died while on the books of the four organisations managing probation services in the region.

Natural causes accounted for 132 of those deaths while 26 were accidental, 132 unclassified and ten were recorded in Ministry of Justice data as ‘other’.

Research by the BBC’s Shared Data Unit found that the number of people dying while under supervision has risen by almost a third nationally since arrangements for managing offenders were overhauled by the Government in 2014, from 752 in 2015/16 to 966 in 2017/18.

The introduction of the Transforming Rehabilitation Programme saw the probation service split in two, with the National Probation Service and its eight divisions now supervising high risk offenders while 21 privately run companies work with those deemed low and medium risk.

Darlington’s MP Jenny Chapman, who was Shadow Prisons Minister at the time, said the latest research raised questions over “whether the supervision provided under the new privatised arrangement is sufficient”, adding: “The programme was opposed by Labour and the probation service itself at the time.

“Because offenders can have issues in their lives around addiction, mental health and relationships, you could expect there to be a higher rate of early deaths than for the rest of the population.

“But if the numbers are increasing, it could point to there being problems with the service itself.

“When you put this together with recent inspection reports, it makes Transforming Rehabilitation look like a very expensive mess and the Government needs to bring the contracts back together.

“The split service was never going to work – Chris Grayling thought he could separate offenders by risk but that’s not how it works.

“Offenders can change and we need to have supervision of a high enough quality so that risks can be anticipated and appropriate support put in place. It’s about public protection.”

The Northern Echo:

QUESTIONS: Darlington's MP Jenny Chapman has questioned probation service reforms

Ms Chapman added: “Probation officers work hard doing one of the most difficult jobs there is in increasingly difficult circumstances – they are as sad as anybody about what has happened to their service in recent years.”

A Ministry of Justice spokesman highlighted the difficulties in obtaining conclusive information about an offender’s cause of death and said probation services do not have sole responsibility for caring for them.

He said a significant increase in the volume of offenders supported meant caution should be applied when analysing data on deaths.

However, caseloads for the four services operating across the North-East – NPS North East, Durham Tees Valley CRC, Northumbria CRC and Humberside, Lincolnshire and North Yorkshire CRC –collectively dropped between 2015 and 2018.

NPS North East’s caseload increased and it was one of two services in the region that saw an increase in the number of its supervised offenders dying - from 64 people in 2015/16 to 95 in 2017/18.

Durham Tees Valley’s caseload decreased but the service saw an increase in deaths from 21 to 34 people.

The MoJ spokesman said an extra £22m was being invested into helping offenders find support on issues such as housing, health care and employment, adding: “Our probation reforms were a positive change for public safety, extending supervision and support to approximately 40,000 extra offenders each year.”

The National Probation Service is working on a Suicidal Prevention strategy to help staff identify and support vulnerable offenders.

Rebecca Roberts, from charity Inquest, said a lack of formal investigation of post-custody deaths meant facts surrounding them could be unlikely to come to light.

She said deaths following police custody were investigated and called for the same levels of scrutiny to apply to those who leave prison, adding: “There’s been complete institutional indifference towards the lives and deaths of people following release from custody and a total lack of visibility and investigation.

“Transforming Rehabilitation reforms to probation services have been a disaster and many people are just abandoned after release.

“Deaths have been rising year after year and we need more scrutiny on why this is and what can be done to prevent these deaths in future.”