Around 200,000 criminals released from prison every year are to be supervised by the private sector, in a move opponents are calling the demise of public probation in England and Wales.
The changes, outlined in a Ministry of Justice consultation document, will see responsibility for low- and medium-risk offenders passed to voluntary organisations and security companies, who will then compete for future contracts on a payment-by-results basis.
Ministers are pressing on with their 'rehabilitation revolution', which is seeking to dramatically reduce the number of criminals who go on to commit further offences and eventually return to jail. Nearly six out of every ten prisoners in jail for a short period of time currently go on to commit further offences within 12 months.
"What we do at the moment is send people out of prison with £46 in their pocket, and no support at all," justice secretary Chris Grayling said.
"No wonder we have such high levels of reoffending. It is madness to carry on with the same old system and hope for a different result."
He said the government wanted to "unlock" the "wealth of expertise and experience" currently in the private and voluntary sectors in order to bring down reoffending rates.
"Our proposals will see all of those sentenced to prison or probation properly punished while being helped to turn away from crime for good. They will also mean we only spend taxpayers' money on what works when it comes to cutting crime," Grayling added.
Only the monitoring of about 50,000 high-risk offenders, including sexual and violent offenders, will continue to be carried out by a public probation body.
Napo, the probation officers union, has reacted with horror to the proposals. Its assistant general secretary Harry Fletcher told the Guardian the move was "purely ideological", adding: "It is being rushed through without proper thought to the consequences. It will be chaotic and will compromise public protection."
Shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan went further, calling the reform a "reckless gamble with public safety".
He attacked Grayling for choosing to ignore payment-by-results pilot schemes, which are not yet completed, before pressing ahead with plans for a broader rollout of the changes.
"Rushing into payment by results is a danger to the offenders who might not receive the rehabilitation support they require, and to the safety of communities up and down the country," Khan said.
"And the Work Programme is showing that experienced and dedicated small and local providers won’t be doing the delivery, but will be crowded out by the usual large private sector companies."
The probation service was recently awarded the British Quality Foundation Gold Medal for Excellence. But rehabilitation remains a significant problem in the UK, with over 500,000 crimes committed each year by convicted criminals.
The reforms outlined today will see England and Wales divided up into local areas aligned to the police and local authority boundaries, which private and third companies and organisations will bid to work in. Voluntary organisations will be able to begin bidding for services via a £500,000 fund made available by the government.