Sunday, 30 October 2011

Community or Custody?

According to their website, "Make Justice Work is a campaign which aims to boost public support for a change in how Britain deals with minor offenders." In order to further this aim they've had a panel of 'the great and the good' conducting an enquiry over the last year or so.

Chaired by Daily Telegraph journalist Peter Osborne, not particularly known for being a bleeding heart liberal, it had the commendable aim of trying to inject some sense into that tired old political game of reducing all argument about sentencing to being either soft or tough on crime.

I've written on this topic myself a number of times and in particular highlighted how disastrous it has been to allow politicians to use criminal justice policy as a political football over recent years. For too long policy has been dictated by pandering to public opinion in the hope of gaining some short-term political advantage. The Probation Service has been one major casualty of this absurd and uninformed meddling and blame for the mess we now find ourself in should be placed firmly at the politicians door.

When first announced, I must admit I did not feel it was a particularly good omen that it was not felt appropriate to include a panel member with extensive probation experience. Now that the final report has been published, sadly I feel somewhat vindicated in this view, having had the opportunity of absorbing the analysis and conclusions. In a sense I don't think the report has come up with anything remotely surprising in saying that community sentences would be preferable to custody for many offenders. But what I do find startling is some of the analysis.

The panel visited four projects, each working in a particular field; Intensive Supervision for 18-25 year old men; women; drug and alcohol and mental health diversion. Clearly the Intensive Supervision scheme 'did what it said on the tin' and involved electronic tagging and what is described as an out of hours 'community outreach' service. It lasted from between 12 and 24 months and occupied offenders five days a week. Now this is just the sort of onerous community sentence that would be likely to get support from the likes of the right-wing press and it's clear the panel were mightily impressed.

However the report did identify one small problem that will not come as any great surprise to seasoned probation officers. I love this bit:-

"The panel were concerned to hear that the tough nature of these orders can sometimes lead to unintended consequences. Offenders have sometimes been known to breach the terms of their sentences so that they are sent to prison instead. Providers of effective community sentences need to find ways to work with offenders to understand the order and see it as an opportunity to reform."

Who would have thought that then? The sentence did indeed prove extremely onerous for some participants: so much so that some were either breached or just opted for custody instead. It's all very well designing an intensive punishment as an alternative to custody, but if the balance is tipped too far towards stick with not enough carrot content, the aim becomes self-defeating.

Many a time I have discussed with clients at PSR stage, often in custody, the relative merits of various sentences and for significant numbers their problems are so numerous and seemingly so intractable, that a period in prison is seen as a blessed relief and often allows release with a relatively 'clean slate.' The panel seem to have completely missed the point that this issue is absolutely key to the success or not of intensive supervision schemes. 

In relation to offenders with drug or alcohol problems, the panel fails completely to address whether current drug treatment models are working and just concerns itself with lamenting that alcohol treatment is very much the poor relation. I am mystified by these two statements:-

"Diversion from custody to residential drug treatment produces a lifetime cost saving to society of approximately £200,000 per offender."

"£980 million would have been saved if those offenders given custodial sentence of twelve months or less in 2007 had instead been diverted to residential drug treatment."

Clearly the panel are not aware that 'residential drug treatment' is a facility akin to hens teeth in terms of availability. I suspect they might mean 'community' drug treatment. But how can you get the terminology wrong in a supposed high-powered report like this? Residential drug treatment, ie in a purpose-built facility, would be an enormous step forward for certain people with long-standing drug problems. But it simply isn't available nowadays, due to the cost of course. Pretty much all that is on offer is methadone while a person continues to live in the same often drug-riddled community whence they developed their dependency in the first place. Or they're homeless of course.

In the section about diversion from custody of persons suffering from mental health problems, there is no mention at all of learning disability or those suffering emotional distress or from psychological problems. Instead they seem to put great store on the abilities of early mental health assessments - no doubt by Community Psychiatric Nurses or equivalent - being able to  obviate the need for 'expensive and time-consuming' psychiatric reports. Indeed they trumpet this as a significant improvement and cost-saving measure.

Sadly my experience tells me that what is proposed is unlikely to be adequate and encouraging less specialist medical reports, ultimately counter-productive. If anything I believe there is a greater need for expert medical opinion in far more cases because of the failings of the National Health Service generally. I have always been amazed that it is often only at court stage that long-established mental health, learning disability and psychological problems can be properly diagnosed, but only when expert reports are commissioned. It's a disgrace, but a situation that this report seems to want to compound on the grounds of cost and expediency. 

I cannot over-emphasise the benefit to society - not to mention the individual - that can accrue just from obtaining a definitive diagnosis that would give insight into a persons offending and map out a suitable treatment plan. This cannot be done 'on the cheap' and requires the skill and expertise of a forensic psychiatrist or psychologist, not a CPN. Once again we seem to have a report that is completely unable to differentiate between the disciplines of psychiatry and psychology and the appropriate role boundaries of CPN's. 

In short I found this report disappointing. It reaffirmed much of the blindingly obvious, came up with nothing new, but in the process managed to miss some key issues along the way. 

1 comment:

  1. Couldn`t agree more. Depending on sources criminal activity initiated by or to pay for alcohol or drug addiction accounts for anything from 70% - 90% of known criminal offending. Few can afford to attend The Priory or similar facilities. Like many others this topic has been aired often by me the last being on October 22nd.

    Please join me at my favourite brick wall where we can together knock our heads whilst hearing the argument becoming louder so that the voices of reason are obliterated by the cacophany.