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Guide to the voluntary sector


The voluntary sector working in criminal justice is large and wide ranging. It includes small, unstaffed community groups and large national organisations, which employ hundreds of people. Within this diverse group are: campaigning organisations; self help groups; and service providers running a wide range of services, including arts projects, counseling services and financial advice and drug and alcohol rehabilitation, to name just a few.

What these organisations have in common is a commitment to the rehabilitation of offenders for the benefit of both the offender and society as a whole. At its best, the sector and its staff are inspiring in their creativity, dedication and determination to make a difference.

The sector plays a unique and valuable role in its work with offenders. Through its local services, it often engages with some of the most excluded communities, and those suffering multiple disadvantages - those who mainstream services fail to reach.

Clinks’ represents, supports and promotes the voluntary sector working in this area, in order to realise its vision of a vibrant and independent sector working with informed and engaged communities to enable the rehabilitation of offenders for the benefit of society.

From a voluntary mission to a statutory duty

The sector has a long history of supporting offenders, often leading the way in identifying and meeting need, which is later acknowledged by government and incorporated into mainstream statutory services. Sometimes services return to the sector again, which we are seeing with the present trend to commission services from outside the statutory sector.

The probation service, for example, began life as a voluntary organisation in the 1870s when the Church of England Temperance Society appointed two missionaries to the London courts. The London Police Courts Mission was formed as a result, working with magistrates to release offenders on condition that they kept in touch with the missionary and accepted guidance. Legislation in the early 20th century gave these missionaries official status as ‘officers of the court’ – later known as probation officers.

After the First World War, debates about the respective roles of national and local government and philanthropic organisations continued until the Home Office assumed control of the probation service in 1938.

The Coalition Government's Transforming Rehabilitation Programme is putting the majority of probation services out to tender. Services will no longer be delivered by the statutory sector, but by the private and voluntary sectors, including social enterprises. Find out more about this here

What is the voluntary sector?

The voluntary sector includes charities, but also non-profit organisations which are not charities. People also talk about the Third Sector and Civil Society, which are broader terms, incorporating all those that are not statutory or private sector, including Housing Associations, Universities, and Trades Unions.

In January 2010, the Charity Commission reported that more than 160,000 organisations were registered charities, and NCVO’s 2010 Almanac says there are an estimated 900,000 Civil Society Organisations.

There are an estimated 171,000 voluntary sector organisations employing around 668,000 people, many highly trained and qualified professionals. The sector also attracts an estimated 20.4 million volunteers annually. Some organisations have multi-million pound turnovers delivering services nationally, regionally and locally, while others operate from makeshift premises with no paid staff.

The sector is funded through grants from charitable trusts, and the statutory sector, which also commissions services from the Sector. Voluntary sector organisations fundraise from individuals, run fundraising activities and raise income from selling goods and services. In recent years, contracts awarded to the sector have increased while grants have seen a reduction. The sector overall is experiencing cuts to grants and contracts under the coalition government, and is expecting to be hit hard by cuts over the next few years.

Clinks’ members are part of a network of an estimated 1,750 organisations whose primary beneficiary group is offenders, or 4916 who say that criminal justice is one of their areas of work. [Source: TSRC]

See the NCVO Almanac 2010 for more information on the sector as a whole and Guidestar for more detail on charities.

The sector's work with offenders – how does it differ?

Most voluntary sector organisations in criminal justice are locally run. This local connection, in addition to the commitment and independence of the sector, can give credibility with (ex)offenders, who may believe that the state has failed them. These factors can help the sector to build and maintain trust with a group that can be difficult to engage with. Volunteer involvement can also be important; sometimes this will be the first time someone spends time with an offender who isn’t being paid to do so. Peer mentoring schemes have proved particularly effective.

The sector can be more innovative and responsive than the statutory sector. Its tendency to be holistic allows it to meet complex individual needs in changing circumstances before, during and after sentencing.

“While a serving offender I was involved in an arts project. It changed my life and gave me a sense of worth and hope. For the first time I began thinking about going straight and being a part of a community that I had shunned and felt had written me off. It opened the doors just enough to make me believe that I might be able to walk through them – and not only that, I wanted to!” Karen Desai, ex offender

More than criminal justice

Thousands of voluntary sector organisations don’t specifically target ex/offenders but include them within their clients because of the nature of their work.

Did you know:

  • Half of women in prison have suffered domestic violence
  • 49% of men in prison were excluded from school
  • 72% prisoners suffer from more than two mental health disorders
  • 64% have alcohol or drug related problems
  • Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups account for 26% of the prison population, but just 9% of the population as a whole

What does the sector do?

The voluntary sector plays a major role in helping the statutory sector meet their aims. The sector has intelligence about offender and community need which is useful to commissioners, policy makers, among others. It delivers a wide range of services and activities to support rehabilitation, reduce re-offending, improve community safety and community cohesion, for example. This work is conducted inside and out of prisons, with the type, nature and extent of services varying greatly.

Information on hundreds of organisations providing services of this nature can be found on Clinks’ Directory of Offender Services. You can use the Directory to find organisations working in the community or in custody, or by geographical location. You can search by the type of service, who it is aimed at or both. It is used widely by the statutory sector and the voluntary sector.

In conclusion

The voluntary sector working in criminal justice forms a varied network of support stretching across the whole country, often set up in response to local need and motivated by the belief that their work can make a difference to those they work with, their communities and society as a whole.

Services provided by the sector to offenders and their families help to create fairer and safer communities and support rehabilitation. Local commissioning of CJS services strengthens co-operation between voluntary and statutory agencies, leading to more effective outcomes.

A community-oriented CJS with a vibrant and valued voluntary sector can deliver the holistic and flexible services needed to support rehabilitation and crime reduction on the ground.  This in turn helps to build community confidence in a system that over the past decade has seen a large increase in the number of people sent to prison. Whatever the future holds, the voluntary sector has an important role to play.