Tuesday 5 December 2023

Being An AP Manager

In trying to continue the recent theme and finding myself trawling through back numbers, I came across this contribution from last year:- 

I’m an Approved Premises Manager and I ensure that all of my team follow the advise, assist and befriend motto. Of course fundamentally we are a risk management facility but if you are responsive to the needs of the resident the risk management element often supports itself. For example- When a resident lapses, rather than immediately withdraw a bed, I meet with the resident and we collaboratively put a plan of action in place. My team then work with resident to implement the plan, adding extra support in place like going with them to drug/alcohol appointments, CA/AA meetings in the community and putting on additional 121 relapse prevention sessions in the AP.

It still blows my mind however that there are a pool of POs who as soon as they find out a resident is struggling want to recall them straight away without even giving them a chance to get back on track.

Now as I said earlier, of course if situations like this mean that risk is entirely unmanageable then recall needs to happen, but I find in 9/10 of situations it really doesn’t. I’ve noticed we get a far better response from residents if they can see we are trying to help them succeed. It saddens me that for some this approach seems to be diminishing.

Monday 4 December 2023

Being On Licence

Probation - what's the point?

I’ve just completed 27 months of probation supervision following my release from prison, and I don’t really know what to make of it. Of course it was much better than being in prison, but I can’t see any real benefit that arose from my time on licence. In fact it probably made my mental health worse.

From August 2021 until November this year I dutifully travelled to a Probation office most
months, often meeting a COM who I had never seen before and would never meet again. On each visit they’d ask if I had taken drugs, had a problem with drinking, had any relationship problems and whether I’d committed any new crimes. My (truthful) answers were always “no”, but I always wondered under what circumstances someone would say “yes”.

During my time on licence I moved house twice, so I experienced Probation in
Buckinghamshire, South Wales and Gloucestershire. Depending on the area practices differed a lot. As a low risk offender Welsh Probation were mostly happy to speak to me on the phone, while Gloucestershire insisted on a home visit followed by in-person meetings. Staff seemed stretched. At times I’d arrive for an appointment with no idea who I was meeting, and whoever happened to be available would see me. On one occasion in Gloucestershire I realised that no one had booked my next meeting, which was soon to be overdue, and so I had to call the office twice before someone was able to make an appointment for me.

The best COM I had was a smart, capable young woman who supervised me for almost
a year. She was helpful, supportive and even used her personal network to help me secure more paid work. This summer she left the Probation Service to become a Clinical Psychologist. I’m sure she’ll be a success at that too.

However, after every meeting my mood crashed. At home I’d draw the curtains, and sit
quietly, assembling and painting toy soldiers, just as I had in prison. I’d often take days to
recover. If it hadn’t been for my beautiful dog, Marmalade, I’d not have left the house at all.

Why did I react like this to such an innocuous meeting? I’m not alone in having such a
response. I often talk to men I was in prison with. Feelings of stress, fear, tension and
depression are common before and after Probation meetings.

There’s a contradiction inherent in the relationship between a Probation Officer and the
people they supervise. As much as individual Officers may be kind, patient and compassionate, they will always represent a threat to the people they supervise. People on probation, even those who are complying with every rule and requirement, live in fear of recall. We worry that at any moment our freedom will be taken away, we’ll be dragged back to a 10 foot by 6 foot cell surrounded by pain and despair. The Probation Officer, and the Probation Office symbolise the power of the state to imprison us again.

I would encourage Probation staff and managers to be conscious of this power dynamic,
and the potential to further traumatise people who’ve survived our prison system. Where
possible, phone or zoom check-ins are much easier for those on probation to cope with. If there’s no risk requiring attendance in person then perhaps a nationwide standard remote contact would help.

I recognise that regular in-person meetings with the same Probation Officer have a value
as changes in mood and appearance may provide an experienced Officer with warning signs. But really, what are we achieving by having a different officer meet the person on Probation each time, spending five minutes asking standard questions and then waving them on their way? It felt like box-ticking, the kind of administrative activity organisations perform to ensure no one can be blamed if things go wrong.

I still don’t know what to make of it. 27 months, one COM who actually sticks in my
memory. I feel that a good, functioning Probation service would care for its staff, retaining them and ensuring that offenders have a consistent relationship with the officer supervising them. That might actually do some good, reduce reoffending and provide meaningful work for the Probation staff.

David Shipley is a former prisoner who now writes and speaks on prison and justice issues. He is currently researching the probation service for a piece of investigative reporting and would love to speak (anonymously) with current or former Probation Officers.

Sunday 3 December 2023

Lets Look At Napo

It's been some time since I've said much about Napo and that's for a variety of reasons. I didn't attend the AGM and conference and somewhat unusually, I didn't have a lot to say about the motions up for debate because to me the absolutely key issue was a campaign to get probation out of the clutches of HMPPS command and control and the dead hand of the civil service. So where did that feature on the list of motions? Nowhere, apart from Wales where Napo Cymru got their act together as I outlined here. 

Lets remind ourselves of what the 2022 AGM produced for the current years Operational Plan:-

National Executive 

  • Fight for our professional integrity and our professional status by working with other Criminal Justice partners and unions to maintain our professional standards in Courts; fight the changes to the Parole process and fight to reinstate our ability to make recommendations; support staff involved in open parole hearings; continue to fight Offender Management in Custody (OMiC) especially the line management of probation staff by prisons; and campaign to take us out of the Civil Service in order to regain our independent professional status (Resolution 7)

  • Napo will redouble our demands for Probation to be taken out of the civil service, and unshackled from the Prison Service. Napo members will write to their MPs making this position clear. The NEC will draft a suggested briefing note and letter, and Napo will engage in a press and communications exercise, responding to each of the inevitable future “poor” and “needs improvement” inspection report making this position clear (Resolution 9)
Pretty feisty stuff and clear cut. Fast forward to AGM 2023 and had it not been for Napo Cymru putting forward a spirited motion making the case for probation in Wales being fully devolved, the absolutely key issue of divorce from HMPPS wouldn't even have been discussed at all at Nottingham! 

Thank goodness for the the valiant efforts of Napo Cymru and their unstinting campaigning and assiduous political lobbying. I would venture to suggest that Napo England has much to learn from their efforts and should they bear fruit post the general election and a new UK Labour Administration, probation England is going to look pretty stupid as a totally isolated example of how not to do it. Sadly, Napo will look even more irrelevant than many feel it has already become. One can only speculate how the union is regarded by the MoJ and the HMPPS command and controllers! . 

So, this is what the new 2024 Operational Plan has to say:-


Maintaining Napo’s high profile in successfully campaigning, promoting and communicating Napo’s policies and values. Organise the re-instatement of a national, amalgamated public Probation service and keep Cafcass as a public service, both with sufficient resources to guarantee jobs and service delivery. To work with unions, relevant organisations, MPs, Assembly Members, peers, parliamentary groups and others as appropriate in relation to wider public service campaigns.
  • Actively, urgently and persistently campaign for the devolution of Probation in Wales, focussing these efforts on the Westminster Labour Party, demanding that the devolution of Wales Probation is included in the UK Labour manifesto for the next General Election (Resolution 19)
National Executive Committee 
  • Raise awareness of the impact of staff shortages on serious further offences, highlighting this is increasingly through unsafe working practices and negotiate with the employer the circumstances in which Corporate Responsibility will be applied (Resolution 5).
  • Call on the MOJ and government to put immediate measures in place to alleviate dangerously high workloads and address recruitment and retention with a decent pay rise (Resolution 6)
  • Review recommendations in respect of possible industrial action when reports are received from Officers and Officials in respect of the formal One HMPPS dispute; the recent call from the outgoing HM Inspector of Probation for an independent enquiry into the state of Probation; the Lord Chancellor’s announcement of the early Release scheme and the removal of Divisional Sex Offender Units, which is detrimental to the public protection, the wellbeing of case managers and the communities we serve (Resolution 7)
Pretty feeble and mealy-mouthed I would venture to suggest. But the last reference provides a good example of why probation needs to be out of HMPPS completely. Lets look at what the position is regarding Divisional Sex Offender Units and indeed the MoJ/HMPPS track record on this important and key area of probation work. We've had the scrapping of the much maligned Sex Offender accredited programme; removal of funding for Circles UK; intended scrapping of the DSOU's; no sign of much encouragement of initiatives such as the Safer Living Centre in Nottingham, and then I spotted this from a notice of a forthcoming NOTA training event in Leeds:-
"This training is not available to staff of His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service who use their own programmes and toolkits."

Now NOTA are an extremely well respected outfit that have been around a long time in the field of work with sex offenders:- 

NOTA’s Charitable Objectives are to advance education for the benefit of the public, amongst members of the profession or persons working with or providing services for people who have committed sexual abuse or others having a legitimate professional interest in the field, and to promote or assist in promoting research into the skills associated with the professions who work with or provide services for people who have committed sexual abuse and into the efficiency of existing skills and practices, and to disseminate the useful results of such research for the benefit of the public.

Why on earth are probation staff forbidden from attending? In the past we were encouraged to join NOTA and attend events. Methinks it's a perfect example of control freakery from HMPPS, an organisation that is rapidly demonstrating it is unfit for purpose.

Friday 1 December 2023

That Bloke From Napo Again

Since we all learned the sad news of Mike Guilfoyle's passing, all who knew him will have no doubt been reflecting on their encounters with the staunch defender of the probation ethos. In addition to his 20 years as a frontline practitioner, Mike was a prolific author, speaker, raconteur and eulogiser for everything 'probation'. It was inevitable that our paths would cross almost from the very beginnings of this blog, and he remained a staunch supporter and contributor in a variety of ways right to the end. 

I particularly have fond memories of our regular wide-ranging conversations over a beer or several and his vast back catalogue of stories, anecdotes and informed reflections will be much missed, along with his turn of phrase and well-crafted use of the english language. 

Many will no doubt recall the 2014 Napo AGM at Scarborough when, as usual, Mike was proposing a motion and happily he very kindly provided me with a transcript of his somewhat revealing speech, containing as it does a strong hint as to why he ceased practising:-   

"Chair, Conference - Mike Guilfoyle, Professional Associate Member, Greater London Branch.

Colleagues, just before I left Probation in 2010, a Senior Manager described my relationship with the service as akin to a 'marriage that had broken down due to irreconcilable differences'. My retort was that it was more like an 'enforced separation occasioned by unreasonable behavior'. A politically driven and bewilderingly stupid bureaucratic target mania meant that processes trumped people. What now of the totemic achievement of Trust Status, ostensibly set up to liberate probation from the suffocating prison-centric carapace of Noms? An association that has since proved to be, as this union knows all too well, a truly unmitigated disaster for probation. Although in spite of these enforced changes and NOMS bullying culture, probation still performed!

My late mother used to say 'I know that something's amiss in probation when I see one of Michael's letters in the papers'. Indeed former General Secretary Judy McKnight once paid me the accolade of being an 'indefatigable letter writer' intent as I was in rebutting in letters and debate some of the lattice of half-lies and MoJ speak that has so soured the probation landscape. And I take some wry satisfaction from the belief that at the MoJ there is a fusty sub-office entitled 'replies to Mike Guilfoyle'. At one MoJ presentation a civil servant in an audible whisper to a former Justice Minister and with weary familiarity noted after I had asked a pointed question on TR, 'it's that bloke from Napo again'..

Conference, I arrived late for AGM yesterday (missing Ian's Keynote Address) as I was being sworn-in as a newly appointed Magistrate. Greater London colleagues please note that I will be sitting on the SE London bench. Due notice having been shared, but I can promise you that I will continue to unashamedly champion probation at every available opportunity.

At the reception following the swearing-in ceremony, a magistrate colleague asked 'who is speaking up for probation these days?' I hesitated for a moment, 'of course this union with its many parliamentary, academic and high profile supporters'. The now defunct Probation Association in its valedictory report 'A Parting Shot' provides a grim timeline leading up to its own, dare I say it predictable, demise. Aside from a snide reference to Napo, and some self-serving, supine observations noting without a hint of irony the positive engagement of probation trusts in securing thus far an almost unruffled passage for a politically driven TR timetable.

It is important to acknowledge the principled and fearless contributions from a handful of PA members in the fight to save the Probation Service. How could such an untried, untested and uncosted and unevidenced ideological experiment pass with such little vocal dissent? I note the MoJ's Stalinist gagging clause, but what a truly shameful collusive silence in the destruction of the service has shrouded the PA's dismal epitaph. The paper does however provide a tally sheet of pivotal questions which should send out a clear message to politicians to think again before rushing into a hasty CRC share sale. If this is allowed to proceed will those with the power and influence look back and recoil when they fully appreciate the true consequences of TR? Will these reforms reduce reoffending? Has the CRC bidding process enabled funding to be released for those serving under 12 months? Is the Payment by Results mechanism now just a specious loss leader? How much have these reforms 'really' cost? What has been the lasting effect on staff professionalism, engagement, morale and motivation?

Colleagues - you are now at the sharp end of this pernicious TR process. The service and union are at an existential moment. We know that Chris Grayling has nothing but withering contempt for all those who he sees as a hindrance to his dismantling not only of an internationally recognised Probation Service but a decent, accessible and humane Criminal Justice System with a veritable origami of private providers perched to feed off the carcass of an already fragmented service. With a contract culture displacing any semblance of public accountability, just how many Judicial Review's can he afford to lose before he bows out? If ever the designation of defender of justice was so poorly served in one office holder. And as for Lib Dem Justice Minister Simon Hughes stating at his party's Conference 'Day in, day out we are holding Ministers feet to the fire on justice issues' - seems TR has yet to flame up!

With the run-in to the 2015 election now months away and the prospect of further targeted draconian public sector cuts in store, whatever the political stripe of the party in power, this union, in spite of its recent travails, remains a bulwark and bastion in defence of a publicly owned and accountable Probation Service.

With the planned share sale now in December it will need to summons together its most resolute fighting strategies to challenge and defeat TR, raise a deafening cacophony of noise to resist the potentially irrevocable sale of CRC's to new (read single contractor dominant) commercial providers, cloaked by confidentiality and seemingly immune to public scrutiny, with profit the only driver, with rehabilitation being downgraded, a significant rise in Electronic Monitoring at the cost of more human interventions, and warehousing and processing becoming the name of the game?

This motion aligns itself with what Napo is already doing, it simply seeks to reaffirm and reinforce the need to critically question, challenge, call to account and record all responses from those politicians supporting the implementation of TR in the forthcoming election that it remains ideologically unworkable dangerous dogma and also serve to remind those now unthinkingly doing the bidding of politicians in the MoJ of the undoubted risks that when you decimate a professional probation service, things start to go wrong and this whole sorry TR mess crashes. The confidence of victims, communities, probation staff and partners, courts and users will take a very long time to repair.

Colleagues, it's that bloke from Napo again this time saying,
Conference, I move..."


The motion was of course about TR and the impending part-privatisation of probation by Chris Grayling. It was particularly blistering in relation to the collusion of probation leaders at the time:-

"This AGM views with considerable interest the valedictory report from the Probation Association (PA) ‘A Parting Shot -The Questions Remain’ published in July 2014. Colleagues will note that although the report offers a critical timeframe of the progress of the Ministry of Justice's Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) programme. The PA, with few honourable exceptions, offered little effective opposition to the unwarranted privatisation and abolition of a public probation service and maintained throughout this period a shameful collusive silence to TR, best captured in this tell tale quotation from page 7 of the NOMS Annual Report 2013/14: “progress could not have been achieved without the positive engagement and support we have received from Probation Trusts."

As was often the case, the motion was seconded by Mike's long term friend and colleague Chris Hignett, whose reflections published yesterday by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies I thought are particularly poignant and rounded:- 

"Travelling back from Cambridge and that year’s McWilliams lecture, Mike Guilfoyle regaled us with another of his great passions: Ladywell Cemetery, its occupants and their histories. So encyclopaedic was his knowledge that, despite the train having to return to Cambridge when two-thirds of the way to King’s Cross and set out again, Mike’s discourse never faltered.

Mike was a great talker and had so much knowledge because he was also a great enquirer and listener, qualities that made him a fine candidate for his chosen profession of probation officer. Of course the probation service of which he was so proud, serving in Middlesex until amalgamation and many years in all, has been severely distorted since.

At least a part of the motivation for his regular contributions to the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies website was the hope of keeping the original idea of probation as a social work and justice agency alive. Advocacy for his clients and care for their well-being was at the centre of his work, as so many of his vignettes made clear.

But compassion of this kind, built on the injunction to advise, assist and befriend, inevitably led to disagreement with an increasingly unsympathetic management. Fortunately the lay magistracy recognised his humanity and desire to serve, and in more recent years provided a new home for his compassion and energy. His talent for individual support found fresh impetus, working as a mentor for the Longford Trust.

Enthusiasm for keeping abreast of the concerns of Napo and the criminal justice system more generally saw him as a regular speaker at Conference and perhaps, most intriguingly, the poser of apposite questions at any number of meetings, lectures and talks where these topics were to the fore.

As a consequence he had an amazing array of contacts, whom he could and did approach to be speakers at union branch meetings. He loved reading and regularly produced book reviews for the Probation Journal, realising, incidentally, how this enterprise could ensure he received desired texts almost by return of post.

Together with his appreciation of which organisations provided decent refreshments at their annual bashes, these small perks offered some reward for his diligence and the opportunity for this writer to get to the terrace of the House of Commons and meet many impressive people.

Indeed Mike’s generosity as a companion and loyalty to the causes he adopted are what I shall most miss. For others I suspect his love of football, of which in earlier days he was a keen player and always a fierce supporter of Manchester United, will probably be as important, while pride in his family and their extraordinary achievements will trump all of the above.

He was never a conventional preacher but his faith, to which he remained steadfast throughout his illness, enabled him to be amused at his pre-occupation with the Cemetery. His example wonderfully demonstrates that the role of the missionary, police court or otherwise, is capable of constant and enlightening reinvention."

Chris Hignett

Thursday 30 November 2023

On Being a Client

So far this series has covered POs, SPOs, PSOs PQiPs, so in an attempt to keep going, here is a clients view from February 2015. I wonder if anything's changed over the last eight years? 

Guest Blog 22

“Go ahead and judge me, just remember to be perfect for the rest of your life”

At the invitation of Jim, I am writing a guest blog for the site looking at the experience of probation from the client’s point of view and touching on some of the points made in various recent posts about the probation service.

I wish I could say that my experience of probation has been a positive one but it has, unfortunately been anything but. This applies to probation both inside prisons and outside in the community. To date I have had five different offender supervisors and four offender managers in four and a half years. Just one of those individuals, an offender supervisor, was what I would deem even competent at the job and who treated me as a human being and did anything to help. The rest have left a lot to be desired on a professional level. This, to me is a shocking indictment that lays bare a crisis in the probation service that seems not to be touched on at all by anything I’ve read in the media or on blogs and goes far beyond the current reorganisations and the chaos thereby caused. The attitude of a large percentage of probation staff towards clients appears to be, at best, unproductive and, at worst, offensive and potentially a breach of legal rights.

At the end of the day, all of the OM’s and OS’s, bar the one mentioned, have treated me as nothing more than a crime statistic; an attitude everyone who has been in prison gets heartily sick of because it appears to be the default setting of the majority of prison staff, that is when they aren’t treating you as a really really stupid child.

Absolutely none of my OM’s and OS’s have bothered getting to know me as a human being or have attempted to find out what my background is (no PSR was done so there is nothing in my file about my background). I apparently came into being the moment I was imprisoned and everything that went before is completely irrelevant according to these various OM’s and OS’s simply because it is not in the file. If it’s not in the file apparently it doesn’t exist. Quite how I managed to get through life to my late 40’s apparently not existing is perplexing.

On a personal level, I find this attitude highly offensive, not the least of which is that a crime statistic didn’t commit any crime, a human being did. I am the sum of my experiences and if you do not understand where I come from you will not be able to understand what I did or where I am going or what I need to get there.

On a more esoteric level this complete lack of interest in me as a human being is really disturbing. How can anyone possibly help me to lead a law abiding life, help me reduce my risk of committing crime and help me turn my life around if they have not the slightest understanding of me as an individual, as a human being or even any interest in getting to know that human being? All the assessment tools in the world will fail to accurately predict my actual risk or my actual needs if you do not engage with me and ask those very basic questions that for some really bizarre reason simply do not get asked. Ever. These are:

What caused you to offend in the first place?

And what would stop you from reoffending in the future?

I know the answers to those central questions. Absolutely no probation officer does because they simply haven’t bothered to ask these questions. Therefore every single OASys or other assessment that has ever been done of me is a waste of paper because these central and essential questions have not been asked. This is clearly a major failing in the system and appears to be directly due to a total lack of interest in the offender as a person.

“But we have no time to get to know clients” I hear many voices wail. Really? You don’t have the time or the interest in making the time to get to know the client? Just consider that there may well be a lot less breaches of licence and community sentences and a lot less offences committed by people on licence if you did.

If you really did have a genuine interest in getting to know your client and this attitude was built into all interactions with a client this would raise your ability to accurately predict risk and identify needs and problems as assessments would be based on actual fact and accurate information rather than guesswork, assumption and personal bias. You’d also build up a relationship based on trust and mutual respect which could only be beneficial for everyone involved. On a personal level I’m far more likely to be open and honest and forthcoming if I believe that that person has a genuine interest in me and is someone I can trust to act in my best interests and who works with me not against me. I can’t see that this would be any different for anyone else.

I would suspect that any offender if asked would be able to tell you, based on their actual experience of probation, what they understand the role of a probation officer is. We also understand what it SHOULD be and the huge gulf that exists between the two. Theory and practice simply do not meet.

Shouldn’t one of the central tenets of a probation officer’s role be to get to know and understand the client and what their needs actually are (as opposed to what their perceived needs are) so that you are able to tailor any challenges and interventions to the actual, real, tangible needs of the client? If you don’t bother to engage the human being and get to know the human being and only go by what is in a file (which is quite often completely inaccurate with incomplete information and in some cases information that is so wildly wrong as to verge on defamatory) how can anything you do possibly be argued to be of any use, relevance or applicable?

What follows on from this is absolutely no probation officer actually understands what my needs are and makes decisions based on an assessment of what they think my needs are which bears zero relation to what the needs are. They certainly don’t understand my needs better than I do - after all I am the one living my life and not my PO. I live my life every day; they see me once a month for 20 – 30 minutes and an awful lot less than that when I was in custody. I am not stupid (in fact I have more qualifications and a much higher IQ than my current OM). I am perfectly capable of analyzing my behaviour accurately especially after having undergone several years of very productive counselling both in and out of custody. I know myself and my needs far better than my current OM who has never made the slightest effort to get to know me as a human being in the two years she has had my file. She wields enormous power over me and clearly relishes being able to wield such power over people leading to what I can only describe as the most dysfunctional relationship I have ever had with anyone to the extent that I feel physically sick with stress and worry in the 48 hours before each monthly meeting.

Challenging me, which Jim has said is the role of probation (whatever happened to befriend and advise?), is a fruitless exercise because the challenge is being made without the proper knowledge behind it. I have already identified the problems, the needs and yes, the wants, which to be frank are often completely indistinguishable from the needs. I know what needs to be put in place to help me get back on an even keel and lead a law abiding life. My PO doesn't because she has never bothered to get to know me in any way in the past two years. Our “conversations” degenerate into total farce as a result.

In fact, nothing any PO has ever said to me has been in any way helpful, reasonable, viable or useful in terms of either analyzing my behaviour, challenging it or providing help and support as to the way forwards because they have pretty much zero knowledge of me as a human being, of the way I think and how I view the offence. Of course this may be down to PO's who are simply bad at their jobs and who really shouldn't be working in probation just as there are a significant number of prison officers who took the job so that they can legitimately bully people and shouldn't therefore be in the job.

Ironically considering challenge is supposed to be a central feature of the probation relationship, I've noticed that PO's don't like to be challenged by clients over anything even when the client is wholly justified such as when a PO breaches a client’s legal right. Why? It’s a very hypocritical stance to take. If someone is able to challenge me about my failings, I am certain able to and will turn round to judge them for their failings whether that be a failure to do the job properly and in accordance with the law or whether that is an actual breach of my legal rights. If I am expected to take responsibility for my actions so is the PO. It’s hardly unreasonable to expect that a PO does their job in accordance with the law and the provisions laid out in the various PI’s at the very least, leaving aside anything else and I very much doubt anyone would disagree with me on that. Yet simply because someone is a probation officer this apparently gives them leave to never accept responsibility for any of their actions. Being a PO does not mean that you have some magical get out of jail free card that excuses and are absolved of any failure of responsibility. Stones and glass houses and all that.

I agree with Jim that the relationship between client and PO shouldn't be about winning popularity contests but there is a huge difference between winning a popularity contest and actually treating clients as human beings who have a brain and use it. What the probation relationship should be about is building a genuine meaningful relationship where there is trust and respect on both sides. Where the PO has a genuine interest in the client and in helping them with their actual (as opposed to perceived) needs and the client genuinely does their best to comply with their licence and lead a law abiding life you will have a meaningful, productive and beneficial relationship. It’s not rocket science but it does require that both parties in that relationship invest the same level of commitment into making the relationship work and it isn’t left to just one party to do so. Which appears in the minds of the PO’s and also management to be the sole responsibility of the client.

I’ve had some interaction with management due to being forced to file a complaint about my PO. I was very patronisingly informed by a senior manager that it was MY responsibility and mine alone to build a productive relationship with my OM. Excuse me? Any relationship is a two way street and both parties in the relationship need to put in the effort to build a productive working relationship not just one party. We’ve all had at least one relationship in our lives where we did all the giving and the other party did all the taking and know how destructive that relationship was. But apparently management does not consider it part of a PO’s role to make any effort to build a productive relationship with a client because they have made it abundantly clear that my OM has no responsibility at all to make any effort to build a productive working relationship with me. No wonder there is no interest from the OM in doing this.

Unfortunately my experience is far from unusual. During the time I was inside and since release I have talked to hundreds of people who have first hand experience of the probation service. Sadly, very few of them have had positive experiences of probation because of the way probation officers both inside and outside of prison treat their clients. Oh the client may tell you to your face when they leave supervision that you’ve helped them and no doubt some of them will genuinely mean it. But far from all of them.

Most of them are probably telling you what you want to hear. Just as 99% of those going on offender behaviour courses tell the course facilitators what they want to hear. Sorry if this comes as a surprise. I’ve seen so many offenders literally blow sunshine up the ass of the course facilitator and their probation officer simply to be able to progress/get parole/get probation off their back and not mean a single word of what they are saying.

They are simply playing the game because that is what the system is all about at the end of the day. Just like the judicial system is not about finding out the truth of what happened but about which side plays the game the best, progression through prison or probation in the community is not based on understanding why you committed an offence and putting in place concrete and productive steps to ensure you don’t reoffend, it’s about keeping probation happy with your answers by telling them what they want to hear and fulfilling the tick box mentality that appears to exist throughout the sector even if you don’t mean a word of it. This also strikes me as a wholly dishonest way of running anything. Ticking boxes, fulfilling criteria, hearing what you want to hear seems to be more important than building productive working relationships with human beings. Absolute madness.

Prisons do not work in cutting or reducing crime no matter what Michael Howard and Chris Grayling like to think. Probation does not work either. Sorry to burst the bubble. I’m pretty sure that the recent statistical reduction in people reoffending whilst on probation has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the probation service but is more likely to be a direct result of people doing what needs to be done themselves to get their lives straightened out.

Until the whole ethos of probation changes, probation is going to fail as a service. I honestly can’t see how reporting to a kiosk once a month is going to be any less advantageous to either client or service provider than the current system is because the current system is failing clients for the most part. In fact for a lot of people it may well be more productive. I’m aware that politics and political rhetoric and agendas have overtaken probation and changed it from its original goals and ways of working but that does not excuse the change in attitude of either probation management or probation staff towards clients which has apparently occurred over time.

I do not know what the answer is nor whether the changes that are occurring in the system will make it better or worse but I can categorically state that probation will continue to fail clients for as long as the majority of PO’s fail to see or treat clients as human beings.

Probation Client.

Wednesday 29 November 2023

Fool Me Once, Shame On You:

Fool Me Twice, Shame On Me

Those with long memories will recall the electronic tagging scandals of the past when the dead and a false leg were tagged as part of a massive and systematic fraud committed over many years by both G4S and Serco. Well, the hapless HMPPS have decided both companies are now rehabilitated and each has been rewarded with brand new contracts, as reported here on the Civil Service World website:- 

HMPPS says ‘lessons have been learned’ as Serco and G4S bag electronic monitoring contracts

Deals worth up to £450m come almost a decade after firms admitted overcharging government to the tune of £170m. The boss of HM Prison and Probation Service has told MPs that lessons from past experience with electronic tagging contracts have been learned as Serco and G4S have been awarded new deals worth up to £450m.

The firms wrongly billed the Ministry of Justice for tens of millions of pounds under electronic-monitoring contracts first awarded in 2005. Sometimes multiple charges were made in relation to the same offender, in other cases charges were made for offenders who were dead.

G4S repaid the department more than £100m after details of the overcharging scandal emerged in 2013; Serco repaid £70.5m. Both firms removed themselves from the procurement process for the “next generation” of electronic monitoring devices. G4S subsequently returned to supplying electronic tags to government.

Investigations by the Serious Fraud Office resulted in Serco being fined £19.2m plus £3.7m costs and G4S being fined £38.5m plus £5.9m costs over the scandal.

Earlier this month Serco landed a £200m MoJ contract to deliver electronic-monitoring services in England and Wales for six years to May 2030. The deal will be worth an additional £75m if two one-year extension options are exercised. G4S was granted a £175m contract to deliver monitoring technology, which includes devices for location monitoring and alcohol monitoring.

In a letter to members of parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, HMPPS chief executive Amy Rees said the service’s approach to the new contract arrangements had “been informed by previous experience and lessons learned, as well as government best practice”. She said specific supplier “accountabilities, roles and responsibilities” had been set out in the respective contracts agreed with Serco and G4S.

“During implementation of the new service, both suppliers will be required to report on progress and risks through an implementation board,” she said. “This board will oversee delivery of the integrated implementation plan and ensure risks are appropriately managed through the various phases of transition. The implementation board will report into a service delivery board, chaired by the head of EM operations, where ultimate responsibility for holding suppliers to account and dealing with any issues will take place. This will ensure there is senior-level oversight of progress and risks.”

Rees’ letter was prompted by a recommendation in PAC’s Transforming electronic monitoring services report last year, which called for HMPPS to set out how it would handle risks in the programme once suppliers had been appointed. The letter was dated 27 October but was only published yesterday. The Serco and G4S contracts were announced on 8 November.

Rees said that as field and monitoring services supplier, Serco would act as service integrator and be responsible for the running and management of the end-to-end service. She said that in addition to their individual contractual obligations, Serco and G4S had also signed a separate collaboration agreement setting out clear expectations on behaviours and ways of working.

“Both suppliers will appoint a suitably senior lead officer who will be specifically accountable for ensuring their respective teams adhere to the requirements set out in the collaboration agreement,” she said. “These leads will attend the service delivery board.”

Published in October last year, PAC’s Transforming electronic monitoring services report detailed a litany of concerns about HMPPS and MoJ’s handling of tagging.

Committee chair Dame Meg Hillier said the current system was “outdated” and at “constant risk of failure”, while the report flagged £98.2m wasted on the scrapped Gemini case-management system, which MPs described as “high-risk and over-ambitious”. MPs also criticised the MoJ and HMPPS for failing to rigorously evaluate whether tagging reduces reoffending before pushing ahead with a £1.2bn programme to expand it to another 10,000 people. As of March last year around 15,300 offenders were tagged, according to the report.


Of course tagging is seen by politicians as a 'silver bullet' and cheaper way of punishment for much criminal behaviour, alongside community service as part of so-called 'tough' community sentences as alternatives to imprisonment. However, it does nothing to address rehabilitation, but that's just indicative of politicians never understanding what's involved in that. 

Anyway, there's a chronic shortage of prison capacity and I notice the Sentencing Council have launched a consultation on the whole subject and this must surely be the opportunity for some serious submissions on the central role a reformed probation service could play from PSR through to proper, meaningful supervision. Reported here on the BBC news website:-

Courts to issue fewer short jail terms under plans

Courts could soon be handing out more rehabilitative community sentences, rather than sending people to jail for short terms, under radical new plans. The Sentencing Council for England and Wales says judges and magistrates should think more about sentences that are proven to reform offenders. The plans tell courts to think twice about jailing women because of the impact on children. The plans, years in development, come amid a prison overcrowding crisis.

The council is the official body that advises all criminal judges and magistrates on how they should sentence criminals fairly and consistently, following rules set out by Parliament. The new consultation covers the principle of choosing community sentences, such as unpaid work or drug treatment programmes, or prison.

For almost 30 years the trend in sentencing has meant that more criminals have been sent to jail and for longer periods. However, academic studies show that community sentences do more good in rehabilitating low-level offenders than prison. In the major consultation, the council argues that if judges and magistrates conclude that an offender potentially deserves to be jailed, they must first pause and consider if a community order would actually be more effective at achieving rehabilitation, one of the key purposes of sentencing.

"Increasing academic research has covered the importance of rehabilitation in reducing reoffending," says the council. The Council believes it is important to reflect the findings."

The document suggests that judges needs to take extra care in assessing the lives of offenders from specific backgrounds including young adults, women, people with dependants, people who are transgender, ethnic minorities or people with addictions, learning disabilities or mental disorders. Crucially, before judges jail a woman, the council says they must consider the harm that could be caused to a pregnant woman's unborn child.

"A custodial sentence may become disproportionate to achieving the purposes of sentencing where there would be an impact on dependants, including on unborn children where the offender is pregnant," says the council. "Courts should avoid the possibility of an offender giving birth in prison unless the imposition of a custodial sentence is unavoidable."

That highly significant guidance comes after the death in 2019 of a baby whose mother went into labour unaided in a cell. The proposals also tell judges for the first time to consider whether older women who commit crimes may be experiencing changes in their mental health caused by the menopause.

Sentencing Council chairman, Lord Justice Davis, said the existing guidelines were among the most important in use. "The revised guideline updates and extends the current guidance," he said. "It reflects new information and research in relation to young adult and female offenders and findings from research on the effectiveness of sentencing."

Tom Franklin, head of the Magistrates Association, said it welcomed the "robust emphasis on alternatives to custody. Magistrates want effective community sentences and more information about their impact on the people who are given them," he said. The consultation runs until 21 February next year on the Sentencing Council's website.

Tuesday 28 November 2023

What's the Recipe Today, Jim?

Yes, it was a long time ago - google it if it means nothing. At three in the morning, I often find myself pondering on what to publish that just might be of interest and keep a discussion going. We could run with any number of possibilities on the academic front, but experience tells me they generate little interest and are just too long for reading on a smart phone which is mostly how the blog is accessed nowadays. That's a shame of course and not how it used to be at the start. 

Overnight I see a regular contributor has brought to my attention an academic work from 2015, Privatising Probation: Is Transforming Rehabilitation the End of the Probation Ideal? by John Deering and Martina Feilzer - apparently the blog gets about a page for having  "meticulously documented the implementation of TR". Well, that's good to know because one of my intentions was to provide an audit trail for future historians when researching the background and reasons for the demise of probation. 

Naturally I looked back through the archive and noticed that the authors gave extensive evidence to the Justice Select Committee in 2018 and ended with this:- 

In our view the cumulative effect of the changes to probation’s corporate values, the divergence of values between practitioners and government and the recent dramatic changes to governance and organisational arrangements, may have already started to affect practitioners’ sense of self-legitimacy. This, in turn may have a long-term corrosive effect upon probation practice and its wider legitimacy. An important aspect of self-legitimacy is the extent to which practitioners feel that they are enabled and supported by their organisation and that they internalise the values represented by their organisation (Bradford and Quinton 2014). In our view, the current situation means that the self-legitimacy of many practitioners is, at the very least, in some doubt. This in turn may lower morale and foster discontent with the quality services provided to those under supervision. If practitioners come to feel that the service provided to supervisees is not what it had previously been, this may have a negative effect on their feelings of being the holders of legitimate authority.

There is evidence to suggest that practice is already changing and that probation provision is becoming increasingly fragmented with clear differences emerging between NPS and CRCs, different CRCs owners, and different regions (HMIP 2016a). In our view, considerable damage has been done to some individual probation staff’s sense of being a member of a ‘collective of professionals doing an important job well’ (Ugelvik 2016).


Well, as we now know, their concerns have sadly been proved to be well founded and it's interesting to note the miserable path to where we have now arrived, and evidenced by the weekend outpourings on OASys, was well established even back in 2018:-

"An important aspect of self-legitimacy is the extent to which practitioners feel that they are enabled and supported by their organisation and that they internalise the values represented by their organisation (Bradford and Quinton 2014). In our view, the current situation means that the self-legitimacy of many practitioners is, at the very least, in some doubt. This in turn may lower morale and foster discontent with the quality services provided to those under supervision"

A few days ago, under pressure, I cancelled an appointment to visit a vulnerable, traumatised woman in prison, in order to get ahead of the "performance" priorities. I didn't seek authority for this decision, and when I mentioned it to my manager, it was nodded through. After an afternoon battering a keyboard, and hitting every performance target I had, I came home feeling... like a bit of me had died. Lord knows how my client feels, I don't, seeing as I wasn't there.

Monday 27 November 2023

The Need For Probation Reform

Yesterday's spirited discussion of OASys confirms in my mind the almost complete disregard and contempt the thing is still held in throughout the probation service and indeed well beyond. How it came about, was imposed upon us and is still outrageously consuming vast quantities of practitioner time to virtually no effect whatsoever some twenty years on should be a cause of great shame and embarrassment to all. 

But that's just so typical of what happens as a result of centralised bureaucratic control in the form of HMPPS. If anything of use can be salvaged from the wreck probation has become under civil service direct command and control, a way must be found to get it out of their grip and back to local control and operation, free from the toxic influence of HM Prison Service.

Having got that off my chest, here is a blog from charity Revolving Doors confirming just how necessary proper probation reform is:-   

Presumption success is dependent on probation reforms

Revolving Doors’ Policy Manager Kelly Grehan spent 20 years working as a probation officer. She explains why the recent proposed presumption against short sentences will have limited success without reforms to a struggling Probation Service.

In my twenty years as a probation officer, I saw the damaging effects of short prison sentences. Instead of deterring crime, these sentences often entangle individuals in a cycle of crime and chaos, depriving them of housing, employment, and vital support services for substance use and mental health issues. The BBC’s recent drama Time poignantly illustrates this: a minor crime escalates into life-altering consequences, spurring further offences, trajectories I have encountered throughout my career.

As part of a wider package of measures to address the crisis of prison overcrowding, the Government are proposing a presumption against short sentences. This is a welcome move which we have long called for. However, I hold grave concerns about the severely depleted Probation Service’s ability to supervise individuals effectively without setting them up for failure. Over recent decades, poor legislation has seen the Probation Service go from being a service which prioritised rehabilitation and resettlement to one consumed by risk management and little else.

It is a fact of life that people leading chaotic lives miss appointments – often for reasons that are aligned to why they are in the criminal justice system in the first place. Sometimes they cannot afford travel to their appointments – a growing problem in a cost-of-living crisis, with Probation Centres now more spread out as lots of buildings have closed and been amalgamated. Others have neurodiversity issues, problematic drug and alcohol use or mental health issues. These are all things that make compliance with orders difficult. Around 5,000 people on community orders are also homeless.

Traditionally, Probation Officers had a lot of discretion about breaching people. There was some room for understanding when people missed appointments. But, as the service, which was originally set up to ‘advise, assist and befriend’ those who had committed offences has become more risk averse, the service has seen recall and breach become the default position – not necessarily for new offences but for other breaches of the expectations of their Orders.

In 1993, fewer than 100 people were in prison following recall. By 2023, over 12,000 were. At the same time the number of people sentenced to Community Sentences has plummeted. This is widely thought to be down to sentencers losing faith in them, post Chris Grayling’s part privatisation of the Probation Service in 2014. Although the Service was re-amalgamated in 2021 it has continued to perform badly – only one area has received a ‘good’ grade from the Probation Inspectorate since the Service came fully back into government control.

This week, talking about his plans for a presumption against short sentences, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice Alex Chalk told the Telegraph non-compliance would not be tolerated, saying
“You breach court orders at your peril. And if you do so, you can expect no mercy... they have a very clear choice, comply, or go to prison.”
All evidence shows that what people who are trapped in the revolving door need is help and support to address the causal factors of their offending. Seeing attendance at appointments as the only measure of success, as the Minister’s new measures seem to, is destined for difficulty.

It does not need to be like this. Over 15 years ago I was a Probation Officer supervising Drug Treatment and Testing Orders (DTTOs). These were Orders given to people whose problems with drugs was linked to their offending. Everyone on the Order had twice weekly drug testing – but crucially failing a drug test was not linked to any punitive measures. Testing people twice a week, separate to my supervision session with them meant I got to know the people I supervised and could support them, alongside a local drug project. A doctor and Nurse also joined the Probation team, providing prescriptions and helping people get access to treatment to address their wider health needs.

In short – this was a holistic, treatment- based approach to dealing with drug-related offending. Significantly those on the Order returned to Court regularly for Reviews – often reserved to the Judge who sentenced them. Showing the progress, they were making to the Court was hugely motivating for those on the Order. The reviews also gave judges an insight into the challenges of recovery.

Of course, those on the Order often missed appointments, vanished for several weeks and/or relapsed. However, this was seen in the context of their recovery journey. The order generally continued, often to changed behaviour. It is hard to imagine such an Order being used now.

I worry that nothing has been learnt from the disaster that is Post Sentence Supervision (PSS). Under changes introduced in 2015, anyone leaving custody who has served two days, or more is required to be supervised in the community for a minimum of 12 months. Previously they would have had no involvement with the Probation Service. This move has had a devastating effect on prison numbers. 8,357 people serving a sentence of less than 12 months were recalled to prison in the year to December 2022. Many of these are for non-compliance, rather than new offences. Far from PSS offering people a way out of offending it has trapped many in the revolving door, whilst burdening Probation Officers with extra workload, seemingly to little benefit for those on the sentence or society at large.

I had hoped that the negative impacts of the Post Sentence Supervision might underscore the need for a re-evaluation of the purpose and effectiveness of our current approach. But it seems this was naïve.

At some point we need to stop and reassess what Probation is for. Rebranding efforts to project Community Orders as stringent measures have inadvertently transformed Probation into a predominantly punitive agency, leaving overburdened staff entangled in administrative tasks rather than providing essential support to those under supervision.

If we are ever to end the revolving door of crisis and crime, we need to look at solving its causes. I hope the Minister’s words in The Telegraph are simply part of an effort to look tough, and that some evidenced based support systems will finally be reintroduced to those subject to Community Orders. That is how we will end the revolving door of crisis and crime.

Kelly Grehan


Kelly is our Policy Manager. She works to coordinate our influencing and communications relating to policing and diversion, sentencing and probation, resettlement, multiple disadvantage, and systems change.

Before joining Revolving Doors, Kelly spent nearly two decades working for the Probation Service, before working for Members of Parliament in the House of commons. She has also led on work on Women and Justice in the Fabian Women’s Network.

Outside of work Kelly is a councillor, charity trustee and runs a small community organisation. She also spends far too much time listening to podcasts, trying to read books and has a secret love of the TV show Neighbours.

“I love the fact Revolving Doors works with people with lived experience to bring systemic change. Having worked on the frontline with those going through the justice system and having experienced frustration with the way the system is set up I feel very privileged to be able to work with our members to ensure their voices are heard.”

Sunday 26 November 2023

A Reminder How OASys Did For Probation

Thanks yet again to ace researcher and contributor 'Getafix, here is a long but incredibly well-researched article on theConversation.com website into risk assessment and particularly the dreaded OASys so hated by many probation staff. In many people's eyes, including mine,  OASys has been the single most significant factor in probation's demise as a useful endeavour, hence here is the complete article:-   

A ‘black box’ AI system has been influencing criminal justice decisions for over two decades – it’s time to open it up

Justice systems around the world are using artificial intelligence (AI) to assess people with criminal convictions. These AI technologies rely on machine learning algorithms and their key purpose is to predict the risk of reoffending. They influence decisions made by the courts and prisons and by parole and probation officers.

This kind of tech has been an intrinsic part of the UK justice system since 2001. That was the year a risk assessment tool, known as Oasys (Offender Assessment System), was introduced and began taking over certain tasks from probation officers. Yet in over two decades, scientists outside the government have not been permitted access to the data behind Oasys to independently analyse its workings and assess its accuracy – for example, whether the decisions it influences lead to fewer offences or reconvictions.

Lack of transparency affects AI systems generally. Their complex decision-making processes can evolve into a black box – too obscure to unravel without advanced technical knowledge.
Proponents believe that AI algorithms are more objective scientific tools because they are standardised and this helps to reduce human bias in assessments and decision making. This, supporters claim, makes them useful for public protection.

But critics say that a lack of access to the data, as well as other crucial information required for independent evaluation, raises serious questions of accountability and transparency. It also calls into question what kinds of biases exist in a system that uses data from criminal justice institutions, like the police, which research has repeatedly shown is skewed against ethnic minorities.

However, according to the Ministry of Justice, external evaluation poses data protection implications because it would require access to personal data, including protected characteristics such as race, ethnicity and gender (it is against the law to discriminate against someone because of a protected characteristic).

Oasys introduced

When Oasys was introduced in the UK in 2001 it brought with it sweeping changes to how courts and probation services assessed people convicted of crimes. It meant that algorithms would begin having a huge influence in deciding just how much of a “risk” people involved in the justice system posed to society. These people include those convicted of a crime and awaiting punishment, prisoners and parole applicants.

Before Oasys, a probation officer would interview a defendant to try to get to the bottom of their offending and assess whether they were sorry, regretful or potentially dangerous. But post 2001 this traditional client-based casework approach was cut back and the onus was increasingly put on algorithmic predictions.

These machine learning predictions inform a host of decisions, such as: granting bail, outcomes of immigration cases, the kinds of sentences people face (community-based, custodial or suspended), prison security classifications and assignments to rehabilitation programmes. They also help decide the conditions on how people convicted of crimes are supervised in the community and whether or not they can be released early from prison.

Some attempts at more rigorous risk assessments predate Oasys. The Parole Board in England and Wales deployed a re-conviction prediction score in 1976 which estimated the probability of a reconviction within a fixed period of two years on release from prison. Then, in the mid-1980s, a staff member with the Cambridgeshire Probation Service developed a rather simple risk prediction scale to provide more objectivity and consistency about predicting whether probation was an appropriate alternative to a custodial sentence. Both these methods were rather crude in terms of using only a handful of predictors and deploying rather informal statistical methods.

Harnessing computer power

Around this time, Home Office officials noticed the increased interest in the UK and the US authorities for developing predictive algorithms that could harness the efficiencies computers offered. These algorithms would support human opinions with scientific evidence about what factors were predictive of reoffending. The idea was to use scarce resources more effectively while protecting the public from people categorised as being at high risk of reoffending and causing serious harm.

The Home Office commissioned its first statistical predictive tool, which was deployed in 1996 across probation offices in England and Wales. This initial risk tool was called the Offender Group Reconviction Scale (OGRS). The OGRS is an actuarial tool in that it uses statistical methods to assess information about a person’s past (such as criminal history) to predict the risk of any type of reoffending.

The OGRS is still in use today after several revisions. And this simple algorithm has become incorporated into Oasys which has grown to incorporate additional machine learning algorithms. These have developed over time, predicting different types of reoffending. Reoffending is measured as reconviction within two years of release.

Oasys itself is based on the “what works” approach to risk assessment. Supporters of this method say it relies upon “objective evidence” of what is effective in reducing reoffending. “What works” introduced some basic principles of risk assessment and rehabilitation and it gained currency with governments around the world in the 1990s.

Risk factors can include “criminogenic needs” – these are factors in an offender’s life that are directly related to recidivism. Examples include, safe housing, job skills and mental health. The “what works” approach is based on several principles, one of which involves matching appropriate rehabilitation programmes to a person’s criminogenic needs. So, a person convicted of a sex crime, with a history of alcohol abuse, might be given a sentence plan that includes a sex offender treatment programme and drug treatment. This is meant to reduce their likelihood of reoffending. Following Home Office pilot studies between 1999 and 2001, Oasys was rolled out nationally and His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) have used the technology widely ever since.

What the algos do – scoring ‘risk’

The Offender Group Reconviction Scale and variations of Oasys are frequently modified and some information about how they work is publicly available. The available information suggests that Oasys is calibrated to predict risk. The algorithms consume the data probation officers obtain during interviews and information in self-assessment questionnaires completed by the person in question. That data is then used to score a set of risk factors (criminogenic needs). According to the designers, scientific studies indicate that these needs are linked to risks of reoffending.

The risk factors include static (unchangeable) things such as criminal history and age. But they also comprise dynamic (changeable) factors. In Oasys, dynamic factors include: accommodation, employability, relationships, lifestyle, drugs misuse, alcohol misuse, thinking and behaviour, and attitudes. Different weights are assigned to different risk factors as some factors are said to have greater or lesser predictive ability.

So what type of data is obtained from the person being risk assessed? Oasys has 12 sections. Two sections concern criminal history and the current offence. The other ten address areas related to needs and risk. Probation officers use discretion in scoring many of the dynamic risk factors.

The person becomes a set of numbers

The probation officer may, for example, judge whether the person has “suitable accommodation”, which could require considering such things as safety, difficulties with neighbours, available amenities and whether the space is overcrowded. The officer will determine whether the person has a drinking problem or if impulsivity is an issue. These judgments can increase the person’s “risk profile”. In other words, a probation officer may consider dynamic risk factors like having no fixed address and having a history of drug abuse, and say that the person poses a higher risk of reoffending.

The algorithms assess the probation officers’ entries and produce numeric risk scores: the person becomes a set of numbers. These numbers are then recombined and placed into low-, medium-, high-, and very high-risk categories. The system may also associate the category with a percentage indicating the proportion of people who reoffended in the past.

However, there is simply no specific guidance on how to translate any of the risk of reoffending scores into actual sentencing decisions. Probation officers conduct the assessments and they form part of the pre-sentence report (PSR) they present to the court along with a recommended intervention. But it is left to the court to determine a sentence, in line with the provisions of the Sentencing Council.

There is no dataset available to us that directly links Oasys predictions to the decisions they are meant to inform. Hence, we cannot know what decision-makers are doing with these scores in practice. The situation is muddier considering that multiple risk tools put out results in different ratings (as in high, medium, or low) for the same individual. That’s because the algorithms are predicting different offence types (general, violent, contact sexual and indecent images). So a person can collect several different ratings. It could be the person is labelled high risk of any reoffending, medium risk of violent offending, and low risk of both sexual offending types. What is a judge to do with these seemingly disparate pieces of data? Probation officers provide some recommendations but the decision is ultimately left to the judge.

Impact on workloads and risk aversion

Another issue is that probation officers have been known to struggle with completing Oasys assessments considering the significant amount of time it takes for each person. In 2006, researchers spoke to 180 probation officers and asked them about their views on Oasys. One probation officer called it “the worst tax form you’ve ever seen”. In a different study, another probation officer said Oasys was an arduous and time-intensive “box-ticking exercise”.

What can also happen is that risk-aversion becomes entrenched in the system due to the fear of getting it wrong. The backlash can be swift and severe if a person assessed as low risk commits a serious offence - there have been many high-profile media scandals that prove this. In a report for the Prison Reform Trust, one long-term prisoner commented:
They repeatedly go on about ‘risk’ but I realised many years ago that this has nothing to do with risk … it’s all about accountability, they want someone to blame should it all go wrong.
The fear of being blamed is not an idle one. A probation officer was reportedly sacked in 2022 for gross misconduct for rating Damien Bendall as medium risk rather than high risk after a conviction for arson. Bendall was released with a suspended sentence. Within three months, he murdered his pregnant partner and three children. Jordan McSweeney, another convicted murderer, was released from prison in 2022 with an assessment of medium risk. Three days later, he raped and brutally killed a young woman walking home alone. A review of the case determined that he had been incorrectly assessed and should instead have been labelled high risk. But unlike in the Bendall case where an individual probation officer was apparently blamed, the chief inspector of probation, Justin Russell, explained:
Probation staff involved were … experiencing unmanageable workloads made worse by high staff vacancy rates – something we have increasingly seen in our local inspections of services. Prison and probation services didn’t communicate effectively about McSweeney’s risks, leaving the Probation Service with an incomplete picture of someone who was likely to reoffend.
‘Bias in, bias out’

Despite its widespread use there has been no independent audit examining the kind of data Oasys relies on to come to its decisions. And that could be a problem - particularly for people from minority ethnic backgrounds. That’s because Oasys, directly and indirectly, incorporates socio-demographic data into its tools.

AI systems, like Oasys, rely on arrest data as proxies for crime when they could in some cases be proxies for racially biased law enforcement (and there are plenty of examples in the UK and around the world of that). Predicting risks of reoffending on the basis of such data raises serious ethical questions. This is because racially biased policing can permeate the data, ultimately biasing predictions and creating the proverbial “bias in, bias out” problem.

In this way, criminal history records open up avenues for labelling and punishing people according to protected characteristics, like race, giving rise to racially biased outcomes. This could mean, for example, a higher percentage of minorities rated in the higher risk groups than non-minorities.

Another source of bias could stem from the way officers “rate” ethnic minorities when answering Oasys-led questions. Probation officers may assess minority ethnic people differently on questions such as, whether they have a temper control problem, are impulsive, hold pro-criminal attitudes, or recognise the impact of their offending on others. Unconscious biases could be at play here resulting from cultural differences in how various ethnic groups perceive these issues. For instance, people from one cultural background may “see” another person with a bad temper whereas that would be seen as acceptable emotional behaviour in another cultural background. Read more: How can black people feel safe and have confidence in policing?

In its review of AI in the justice system in 2022, the justice and home affairs committee of the House of Lords noted that there are “concerns about the dangers of human bias contained in the original data being reflected, and further embedded, in decisions made by algorithms”. And it’s not just the UK where such issues have arisen. The problem of racial bias in justice systems has been noted in various countries where risk assessment algorithms similar to Oasys are deployed.

In the US, the Compas and Pattern algorithms are used widely, and the Level of Service family of tools have been taken up in Australia and Canada. The Compas system, for instance, is an AI algorithm used by US judges to make decisions on granting bail and sentencing. An investigation claimed that the system generated “false positives” for black people and “false negatives” for white people. In other words, it suggested that black people would reoffend when, in reality, they did not and suggested that white people would not reoffend when they actually did. But the developer of the system has challenged these claims. Read more: AI: why installing 'robot judges' in courtrooms is a really bad idea

Studies suggest that such outcomes stem from racially biased decision making embedded in the data which the developers select to represent the risk factors that will determine the algorithm’s predictions. Criminal history data, such as police arrest records, is one example.

Other socio-economic data that developers select to represent risk factors may also be problematic. People will score as being higher risk if they do not have suitable accommodation or are unemployed. In other words, if you are poor or disadvantaged the system is stacked against you. People are also classed as “high risk” for personal circumstances which are sometimes beyond their control. Risk factors include “not having a good relationship with a partner” and “undergoing psychiatric treatment”.

Meanwhile, a report issued by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Probation in 2021 alludes to the problem of conscious and unconscious biases which can enter the process via probation officers’ assessments, thereby infecting the outcomes. More transparency could be useful for tracking when and how probation officer discretion has potentially tainted the final assessment, which could have resulted in people being incarcerated unnecessarily or being allocated inappropriate treatment programmes. This could result in flawed risk predictions.

For example, the report states:
It is impossible to be free from bias. How we think about the world and consider risk is intrinsically tied up with our emotions, values and tolerance (or otherwise) of risk challenges.
Social engineering?

Miklos Orban, visiting professor at the University of Surrey School of Law, recently engaged with the Ministry of Justice seeking information on Oasys. One of us (Melissa) spoke with Orban about this and he expressed concerns that the system might be a form of social engineering. He said that governmental officials were eliciting personal and sensitive information from defendants who may think they are making these disclosures to get help or sympathy. But the officers may instead use them for another purpose, such as labelling them with a drinking or drugs problem and then requiring them to go on a suitable treatment programme. He said:
As a convict, you know very little of how risk assessment tools work, and I have my doubts as to how well judges and parole officers understand statistical models like Oasys. And that’s my number one concern.
Not much is known about the accuracy of Oasys in relation to gender and ethnicity either. One available study (though a bit dated as it looked at a sample from 2007) shows the non-violent and violent predictive tools are less accurate with women and minority ethnic people. Meanwhile, Justice, a legal reform organisation, recently cited a lack of research on the accuracy of these tools for women and trans prisoners.

In terms of racial bias, an HM Inspectorate of Prisons’ audit found that an Oasys assessment had not been completed or reviewed in the prior year for almost 20% of black and minority ethnic prisoners. This is a serious issue because further evaluation can help ensure that minority ethnic people are receiving similar treatment or being assigned to helpful programming. It can avoid probation officers simply assuming the risk status of minority ethnic people is unchangeable and thus reduce their chances of early release since Oasys assessments are required to ascertain whether interventions have reduced risks of reoffending.

Researchers with the Inspectorate of Probation encouraged designers of Oasys to expand the ways it can incorporate a person’s personal experiences with discrimination and how it may impact their relationship with the criminal justice system. But, so far, and to the best of our knowledge, this has not been done.

Algorithms affect real people

Oasys results follow a person’s path through the criminal justice system and could influence key decisions from sentencing to parole eligibility. Such serious decisions have huge consequences on peoples’ lives. Yet officials can decline to disclose Oasys results to the defendant in question if they are thought to contain “sensitive information”. They can ask and be shown their completed assessment, but they are not guaranteed to see it.

Even if they are given their scores, defendants and their lawyers face significant hurdles in understanding and challenging their assessments. There is no legal obligation to publish information about the system, although the Ministry of Justice has commendably made certain information public. Still, even if more data were released, defence lawyers may not have the scientific skills to examine the assessments with a sufficiently critical eye.

Some prisoners describe additional challenges. They complain that their risk scores do not reflect how they see themselves. Others believe that their scores contain errors. While some also feel that Oasys mislabels them. In another report compiled by the PRT, one prisoner stated: “Oasys is who I was, not who I am now.” And a man serving a life sentence described the repeated risk assessment when he spoke to a researcher at the University of Birmingham:
I have likened it to a small snowball running downhill. Each turn it picks up more and more snow (inaccurate entries) until eventually you are left with this massive snowball which bears no semblance to the original small ball of snow. In other words, I no longer exist. I have become a construct of their imagination. It is the ultimate act of dehumanisation.
Not all judicial officers are impressed either. When asked about using a risk assessment tool that the state required, a judge in the US said: “Frankly, I pay very little attention to the worksheets. Attorneys argue about them, but I really just look at the guidelines. I also don’t go to psychics.”

There have been relatively few legal challenges to any of the risk assessment algorithms in use across the world. But one case stands as an outlier. In 2018, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled in the case of Ewert v Canada that it was unlawful for the prison system to use a predictive algorithm (not Oasys) on Indigenous inmates.

Ewert was an Indigenous Canadian serving time in prison for murder and attempted murder. He challenged the prison system’s use of an AI tool to assess his risk of recidivism. The problem was the lack of evidence that the particular tool was sufficiently accurate when applied to the Indigenous population in Canada. In other words, the tool had never been tested on Indigenous Canadians.

The court understood that there might be risk-relevant differences between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples as to why they commit crimes. But since the algorithms had not been tested on Indigenous people, its accuracy for that population was not known. Therefore, using the tools to assess their risks violated the legal requirement that information about an offender must be accurate before it can be used for decision making. The court also noted that the over-representation of Indigenous people in the Canadian justice system was in part attributable to discriminatory policies.

Individual vs group risk

The feeling that the scores produced by risk assessment algorithms such as Oasys may not be properly personalised or contextualised finds merit when considering how predictive algorithms in general work. They assess people and produce risk scores and this has a longer history in business. The lending industry uses algorithms to assess the creditworthiness of customers. Insurance companies deploy algorithms to generate quotes for car insurance. The insurance algorithms often use driving records, age and gender to determine the likelihood of claiming against the policy.

But an all too common and mistaken assumption is that algorithms can provide a prediction about the specific person. On the contrary, publicly available information shows that the algorithms rely upon statistical groups. What does this mean? As we said earlier, they compare the circumstances and attributes of the person being risk assessed with risk factors and scores associated with criminal justice populations – or groups.

For example, what if “John” is placed in the medium-risk category, which is associated with a reoffending likelihood of 30%? This does not mean there is a 30% chance that John will reoffend. Instead, it means that about 30% of those assigned medium risk are forecasted to reoffend based on the observation that 30% of the medium risk had in the past been reconvicted.

This number cannot be directly assigned to any individual within that medium-risk group. John may, individually, have a 1% chance of reoffending. The scales are not individualised in this way and so John, himself, cannot be assigned specifically with a number. The reason for this is that the predictive factors are not causal in nature. They are correlated, meaning there may be some relationship between the factors and reoffending. Oasys uses male gender as one of the predictive factors of reoffending. But being male does not cause reoffending. The relationship as perceived by Oasys merely suggests that males are more likely to commit crimes than females.

There are important consequences to this. The individual can thereby be seen as being punished, not for what he or she is personally predicted to do. They face imprisonment because of what others – who share a similar risk score – have done. This is why more transparency of predictive algorithms is needed.

But even if we know what the inputs are, the weighting system is often obscure as well. And developers are frequently changing the algorithms for a host of reasons. The purposes may be valid. It could be that predictors of reoffending change over time in connection with societal shifts. Or it could be that new scientific knowledge suggests a modification is necessary.

Nevertheless, we have been unable to discover much about how well the Oasys system, or its components, performs. The Ministry of Justice has, to our knowledge, only released retroactive results. Those statistics cannot inform on the predictive performance of the tool for predictions made today, or for how accurate they are when we relook at the offenders in two years. Frequent retrospective results are needed to provide up to date information on the performance of algorithms.

Independent evaluation

To the best of our knowledge (and to the knowledge of other experts in the field), Oasys has not been independently evaluated. There is a clear need for more information on the effectiveness and accuracy of these tools and their impact on gender, race, disability and other protected characteristics. Without these sources it is not possible to fully understand the prospects and challenges of the system.

We acknowledge that the lack of transparency surrounding Oasys is a common, though not universal, denominator that unites these types of algorithms deployed by justice systems and other sectors across the world. A court case in the state of Wisconsin that challenged the use of a risk assessment tool that the developer claimed was confidential succeeded only to a point.

The defendant, convicted of charges related to a drive-by shooting, claimed that it was unfair to use a tool which used a private algorithm because it prevented him from challenging its scientific credentials. The US court ruled that the government did not have to reveal the underlying algorithm. However, it required authorities to issue warnings when the tool was used.

These warnings included:
  • the fact that failure to disclose meant it was not possible to tell how scores were determined
  • the algorithms were group-based assessments incapable of individualised predictions
  • there could be biases toward minority ethnic people
  • the tool had not been tested for use in the state of Wisconsin.
Opening up the black box

Problems such as AI bias and lack of transparency are not peculiar to Oasys. They affect many other data-driven technologies deployed by public sector agencies. In response, UK government agencies, such as the Central Digital and Data Office and the Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation (CDEI) have recognised the need for ethical approaches to algorithm design and implementation and have introduced remedial strategies. A recent example is the Algorithmic Transparency Recording Standard Hub which offers public sector organisations the opportunity to provide information about their algorithms.

A relatively recent report published by the CDEI also discussed bias-limitation measures, such as reducing the significance of things like arrest history as they have been show to be negative proxies for race. A post-prediction remedy in the CDEI report requires practitioners to lower the risk classification allocated to people belonging to a group known to be consistently vulnerable to higher risk AI scores than others.

More generally, researchers and civil society organisations have proposed pre and-post implementation audits to test, detect and resolve AI problems of the kind associated with Oasys. The need for appropriate regulation of AI systems including those deployed for risk assessment has also been recognised by key regulatory bodies in the UK and around the world, such as Ofcom, the Information Commissioner’s Office and the Competition and Markets Authority.

When we put these issues to the MOJ, it said the system had been subject to external review, but it was not specific on the data. It said it has been making data available externally through the Data First programme and that the next dataset to be shared with the programme will be “based on” the Oasys database and released “within 12 months”.

An MOJ spokesperson added: “The Oasys system has been subject to external review and scrutiny by the appropriate bodies. For obvious reasons, granting external access to sensitive offender information is a complex process, which is why we’ve set up Data First which allows accredited researchers to access our information in an ethical and responsible way.”

In the end, we recognise that algorithmic systems are here to stay and we acknowledge the ongoing efforts to reduce problems with accuracy and bias. Better access to, and input from, external experts to evaluate these systems and put forward solutions would be a useful step towards making them fairer. The justice system is vast and complex and technology is needed to manage it. But it is important to remember that there are people behind the numbers.


The article generated some interesting responses:-

Not an AI in 2001. The article goes on to refer to an algorithm which is likely correct. An AI is not an algorithm. I’d imagine the one being used by Oasys probably started out like something used by actuaries to calculate risk, the two fields look like there considerable overlap. Also the calculations done to calculate a credit score. I doubt it’s an AI even now..

Nitpicky stuff out of the way, it does illustrate the problems with black box systems and peoples reactions to them. First you can’t easily work out why the results are what they are. Secondly people tend to blindly accept the output even when it clearly diverges from reality, remember when people just followed satnav systems into fields or rivers? Generative systems are already fairly opaque, but it’s going to get worse.

“I have likened it to a small snowball running downhill. Each turn it picks up more and more snow (inaccurate entries) until eventually you are left with this massive snowball which bears no semblance to the original small ball of snow. In other words, I no longer exist. I have become a construct of their imagination. It is the ultimate act of de-humanisation”. The person quoted is maybe not aware just how accurate they are. It used to be my practice to share what their files said with the person I was assessing for a DV or a Sex Offenders group. In every single instance the range of inaccuracies was enormous, from those with insignificant impact to those with monumental impact. Clearly, just like Chinese whispers, the initial mistake is made, repeated by the second worker with another couple added in and so on and so on. 

With AI taking over so much and humans more and more cut out of the equation in gaining information based on relationship (and hopefully a highly skilled interviewer aware of their own inherent biases) God knows where all this might end up. Whilst outcomes for this AI system have not been analysed outcomes for the What Works Approach (imported here into Western Australia) and for Sex Offender Treatment programs have both been analysed and found to be significantly flawed with positive outcomes seriously over-estimated. We still use these patently flawed systems in Western Australia. 

When I was first employed by the (in)Justice system I was one of about 15 Senior Programmes Officers delivering these awful programs with 1 worker only focusing on prisoners education and job seeking stuff. It needed to be the other way around. And any money saved on the fairly useless work we were doing (and I was a very highly skilled and experienced practitioner) would have been better spent on dentists, tattoo removals, and secure accommodation post release. What would AI make of that I wonder?

I have no doubt that OASys has many flaws and would benefit from rigorous academic assessment of its accuracy and biases, but it remains a risk assessment tool and is not AI. Now, if a computer was tasked with analysing videos of defendants in court and generating assessments based on their behaviour, that would be dangerous reliance on AI. On the other hand, analysing OASys outcomes and suggesting improvements in the algorithm would be, if properly managed and evaluated, a positive use of AI.