Saturday, 26 February 2011

More on PSR's

The starting point for virtually all our work with clients is at the stage of a request for a Pre Sentence Report from either the Magistrates or Crown Court. There will have either been a guilty plea or finding of guilt and before passing sentence the court feels that more information about the defendant would be appropriate. The days have long gone when we routinely prepared reports for Crown on not guilty pleas.

As I have previously bemoaned, the PSR situation has changed dramatically in recent years with the introduction of so called Fast Delivery Reports prepared by unqualified Probation Services Officers, together with the introduction of OASys which computer-generates reports from data input in the form of answers to questions. Nevertheless, the PSR or Standard Delivery Report as it is now termed, even in it's current debased format, is still a key part of the Criminal Justice System in ensuring fair outcomes and the laying of sound foundations for rehabilitation. 

At the PSR interview stage the probation officer will be gaining as much information about the person as possible, making assessments about the reasons for their offending, identifying areas where they might require guidance or practical assistance and begin to develop a plan of action in order to assist rehabilitation and hopefully an end to offending. All this in addition to being mindful of the requirement to address the need for punishment. To me this has always been one of the best bits of the job. Identifying what's wrong, what needs doing and how it can be sorted, all explained in about three pages of A4. If done properly, not only will the sentencing bench go along with it because it makes eminent sense, but it sets out neatly to any subsequent colleague who might pick up the case what needs doing and why.

As a result of skilfull and attentive interviewing, it's not unknown for significant issues to be picked up at this stage for the very first time. Two that spring immediately to mind are a history of sexual abuse or an unrecognised learning disability. In the case of the former understandably victims will have buried painful experiences very deep and disclosure may not surface until years later and when dysfunctional behaviours are played out in the form of some form of criminal activity. In the case of the latter, incredibly a significant number of people in my experience get to early adulthood without a learning disability being properly diagnosed. In both circumstances I feel it is important to bring the information to the attention of the court before sentence is passed, and sometimes with a request for a specialist report from a clinical psychologist. 

To be honest, even as I write this I realise that many colleagues are simply not prepared to stick their neck out at PSR stage and risk going back to the court either with a Nil Report or full report recommending further adjournment for a specialist report. I can understand why because the whole system is now geared up for speed and supposed efficiency, but I need to point out that it is only at this pre-sentence stage that a specialist report and diagnosis can be obtained. It is the only point at which funding is available and it will be appreciated that it is only when there has been a definitive diagnosis that appropriate treatment can be identified or even arranged as part of any plan for rehabilitation. 

I have often been told that cost is a factor. Clinical Psychology reports are not cheap and significantly more expensive than Psychiatric Reports. But is it not worth society spending the money at this stage in getting to really understand what lies behind a persons offending and identify a route for treatment, than paying much more further down the line in terms of more offending and costly incarceration? Research continually shows how many people are in prison with either mental health issues, learning disability or psychological damage. It's at the PSR stage that these can be identified by skilled probation officers and who sometimes request specialist reports as a result. Can I make a plea to sentencers for such rare suggestions to be heeded, as potentially they could be hugely beneficial to us all in the long term. Thanks. 

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