Once again I am indebted to the Justice of the Peace blog for alerting me to the front page interview in the Yorkshire Evening Post by Mark Siddall, Operations Director of the West Yorkshire Probation Trust. It seems that this is merely a curtain raiser to a week-long in-depth look at probation up there in West Yorkshire and he kicks things off with a spirited case for abolishing short-term prison sentences of six months or less.
I must admit I did wonder when probation was going to finally find its voice with Ken Clarkes Green Paper consultation period ending shortly, together with the House of Commons Select Committee currently taking evidence on the future of the Service. Of course probation chiefs are no longer civil servants and are once again free to speak out, and they don't have long to try and save the Service with privatisation looming. But with the Service having no national champion and the Probation Chiefs Association and Probation Association keeping quiet of late, I think we can nevertheless safely assume that Mr Siddall is on-message given that his boss, Sue Hall, chairs the former and their boss Stan Hardy is on the Board of the latter.
Oleaginous or not, it is obviously no mere coincidence that probations thoughts on short-term sentences might well find favour with Justice Secretary Ken Clarke. The trouble is it just might be seen as a barely disguised attempt to try and drum up business because of course probation is not currently funded to deal with adults who get less than 12 months anyway. That new work is destined to be farmed out to other organisations under Payment by Results initiatives, which the Probation Association are on record as stating they support. Indeed it's quite possible that some Probation Trusts might try bidding for that work in partnership with other organisations. In this fight for survival, I think we can expect further high profile statements from other Service chiefs in the coming weeks.
Stirring up a hornets nest like this is undoubtedly a bit risky in possibly aggravating sentencers as clearly there can be a place for a short custodial sentence in certain circumstances. But he's right to point out that they can also be damaging and counter-productive in trying to achieve changes in behaviour. This is why a full Pre Sentence Report rather than an FDR is important in helping to decide an appropriate disposal. Of course short custodial sentences do little or nothing to protect the public either.
To sum up, I don't think this is really about highlighting short sentences and how they are an expensive waste of money with very little chance of encouraging rehabilitation. What I really think it's about is reminding Ken Clarke and whoever else is willing to listen, that the Probation Service is still here and is going to put up a fight in order to ensure it remains so for awhile longer. And I'm prepared to drink to that.