One of the most enjoyable and satisfying parts of the job used to be writing court reports. When I started they were called Social Enquiry Reports, but they were renamed Pre Sentence Reports some time ago. The astute will not have failed to notice the use of the past tense. The concept is quite straight forward - following a guilty plea or finding of guilt, the sentencers request a probation officer to interview the defendant, assimilate all relevent information and provide in written form background information about the defendent, their current situation, the circumstances of the offence and most importantly a suggestion as to possible sentence and with reasons. The probation officer has a priviledged opportunity of speaking directly to the sentencers from an independent viewpoint and as such can be extremely persuasive in being able to influence the eventual outcome. Not surprisingly therefore this has always been seen as a key skill and most officers take enormous pride in producing high quality reports that result in courts following their recommendations. In the past it was felt to be good practice to attend court in person with either a controversial, unusual or brave recommendation in order to be able to re-inforce it on oath if necessary. Sadly, hardly any of this is true nowadays.
Several years ago I was offered the opportunity of moving out of a field office and into a Court Officers post. Many, including myself, felt that this meant being put out to grass, but I needed a break from the front line and I was flattered when management said they wanted 'a safe pair of hands; someone who looked smart and could talk whilst stood on their feet'. It didn't take long to discover just how far the art of PSR writing had deteriorated. On I daily basis I found myself having to try and explain, correct and apologise for colleagues poor quality work. How could this have possibly happened? To a large degree, but not completely, the answer is OASys - the all-singing, all-dancing universal offender assessment tool. Unbelievably nowadays this mammoth, brain-numbing, 90 page computer form is required to be completed before the magic button 'prepare report' is pressed. Yes, modern-day PSR's are computer-generated, so it really shouldn't be that surprising if many of them are unintelligable, riddled with repitition and impossibly 'cranky' sentences. Old timers like myself gave up long ago trying to edit the result into something readable and just throw the whole lot away and start again. More recent officers say they haven't got the time, and to be honest why should they if the system is that crap? What beats me is how did any intelligent human being think that this was a good way to write a report for court? As an aid to sentencing, I think the days of the PSR are numbered. Not surprisingly, the 'authors' never seem to show up at court either. Me? - I do on occasion, just out of sheer devilment.