Monday, 31 January 2011

Is This Right?

A worrying conversation overheard the other day has prompted me to bring the subject up here. A young man was complaining vociferously about having to appear in court in order to answer a charge of failing to keep a DIP appointment. He was basically saying that he didn't see why he had to keep any appointment because he didn't have a drug problem. This reminded me of similar instances that used to crop up when I was a Court Duty Officer a couple of years ago.

The Drug Intervention Programme has been running in my area for some time with people arrested on suspicion of having committed 'trigger offences' such as shoplifting being routinely tested for opiates at the police station. It is an offence to refuse the mouth swab test in the first place and if found to be positive for opiates, the person is given an appointment with a DIP worker, usually a day or two hence. This is a mandatory appointment and failure to attend is a criminal offence punishable by up to 3 months imprisonment. This is just one example of a whole host of new offences that were created by the last Labour government. 

Although the idea is laudable enough in trying to ensure that people with a drug addiction and who are committing acquisitive crimes in order to fund their habit are put into treatment as soon as possible, but there are a couple of problems with the operation of the scheme. The first is that the test is not very sophisticated and is quite likely to indicate positive for a wide range of painkillers taken legitimately for headache, 'flu or toothache. The second and more worrying in my view is when having tested positive, the police decide for what ever reason not to proceed with the original charges, but the DIP appointment is left in place.

I vividly recall listening to instances of people in just such a situation when they were surprised to find themselves in court having failed to keep the DIP appointment, but were facing no other charges. The offence is treated seriously by the courts and I've even been asked to conduct an interview for a Fast Delivery Report. But surely it cannot be right to end up in a situation where the so-called war on drugs is leading to the prosecution of some people who may not be drug  users at all or indeed even in possession of illegal drugs? As far as I know it is not yet an offence to be found under the influence of drugs.

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Why Did They Do That? 3

One of the most challenging areas of probation work is our involvement with sex offenders. It was interesting to see that the subject was tackled by the Yorkshire Evening Post in their third article about the work of the West Yorkshire service. Since the introduction of accredited programmes some ten years ago, the Sex Offender Treatment Programme has been adopted by all services and many prisons as the preferred method of 'treating' such male offenders. It is only men because amazingly it has only been in fairly recent time that women have been recognised as being capable or likely to commit sexual offences at all. Numbers are still small though, so work has to be undertaken on an individual basis.

I have said before and I repeat that I have the greatest difficulty with the nomenclature associated with SOTP, in fact the whole notion that something is 'done' to these men and as a result they stop offending. Being the age I am, my experience of sex offenders was in a very different groupwork setting where we developed a loose and flexible agenda that adapted to the differing nature of each group. On the other hand the accredited programme is rigid and enforced by the video recording of each group leaders performance. After each session the recordings are monitored by so-called treatment managers for any deviation from the set agenda. Of course this represents almost the complete antithesis of what I and my colleagues were doing prior to the arrival of SOTP and explains why we reluctantly declined to cease working with groups of sex offenders. The reasons are not just philosophical they are practical. 

It is interesting to note from the YEP's article that victims are referred to, but readers would be forgiven for thinking that they were a completely different group to perpetrators. In fact experience and evidence points to the fact that they are often the same people. I well recall that some of the most scary and dangerous sex offenders that we worked with had been victims themselves in early life. But because this was never dealt with in terms of the victim being believed, a successful prosecution or counselling, each man had great difficulty coping with the subsequent anger and hate that was played out in the form of sex offences in later life.

It was quite common for a theme of hate to be directed either at themselves or in many cases against society in general. We found that in order to be able to start trying to address their offending, we had to help them go over painful experiences from their own childhood. Ideally this should be undertaken individually by the tutors, but as far as I am aware this is not possible as part of the current accredited SOTP programme and therefore represents a significant omission in my view.

It is a sad fact that many victims of sexual abuse can in turn become perpetrators through their inappropriate and deviant sexualisation. There is a cycle of offending and therefore it is very important for perpetrators to understand this. To put it bluntly, in the absence of dealing with perpetrators as victims first, I fail to see how the current SOTP programme can be as effective as the claims made for it. But it's possible that I'm still irritated that our methods were abandoned with the move to accreditation. I know we achieved some significant changes in some very damaged men who would have been deemed as simply not suitable for SOTP. 'One size' does not and never can fit all.       

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Was it an FDR?

A particularly heavy evenings imbibing seems to have left me so tired and emotional that there was a significant danger of there being no post today. However, a glance at the front page of the Daily Mail in the corner shop has rectified this. 'Judge slams soft sentencing options' screams the headline. Judge Julian Lambert sitting at Bristol Crown Court has taken the opportunity of making his views on sentencing guidelines public as a result of hearing a case of domestic burglary. He says that he was 'forced' into giving a community sentence rather than immediate custody by a combination of the guidelines and the probation service Pre Sentence Report that advocated 80 hours of Unpaid Work.

Now I have previously stated that commenting on cases without full knowledge is often unwise and possibly unlikely to get us very far in terms of a sensible debate. But in anticipation of the furore this type of story tends to stoke up, I think I might make an exception, particularly as I think it raises certain key issues for me. The first is the type of offence. This was an instance where the occupant of the house disturbed the hooded burglar and as a consequence they ran off, but with little of value.

As someone who has written a good number of PSR's in his time, this type of offence is reasonably unusual as burglars normally go to some lengths to make sure properties are not occupied. This is not just so that they run less risk of getting caught, it is because burglary of an occupied dwelling is a significantly aggravating feature. Being disturbed by the occupant aggravates the offence even further and to me puts it straight into the custody category, even if no assault took place. There may have been a victim statement and if there was, it seems most unlikely to me that the victim was anything but shocked and traumatised by coming face to face with an intruder.

The second issue for me is that the author of the PSR spelt out the details of a suggested community sentence of 80 hours Unpaid Work, apparently as a stand alone order with no additional conditions. Although probation management has often suggested that this is acceptable PSR practice, I have always disagreed and refused to comply. I simply do not believe it is our place to be so prescriptive in suggesting sentencing options and it is only likely to result in irritating the sentencer. It was quite sufficient in my view to suggest and argue a case for Unpaid Work, if that was felt appropriate, without being insulting to a Crown Court Judge by having the temerity of specifying the number of hours.

This brings me on to the third issue of who the author was and what type of PSR was provided. Increasingly it is becoming clear that probation services are replacing full Standard Delivery Reports written by qualified Probation Officers with short format Fast Delivery Reports written by unqualified Probation Services Officers. Whilst this just might be deemed appropriate in Magistrates Courts, it is quite unacceptable in my view in the Crown Court. It would be interesting to know what sort of report was supplied in this case. Although I might think it has all the hallmarks of an inadequate FDR, such is the decline of PSR writing in general of late that it could indeed have been a full SDR written by a PO. I'd like to think not though.

Based on the information in the news report, but without the benefit of seeing the antecedant record or details of the offenders personal situation, I think I would have been recognising that custody was almost inevitable, but could possibly have been suspended if coupled with supervision. I remain surprised that no mention seems to have been made about the need for supervision, especially as alcohol appears to have been a problem. In the end the Judge awarded 240 hours Unpaid Work combined with a 6 month curfew, condition not to enter licenced premises for 12 months and supervision for 18 months. All quite understandable but still surprising in my view for burglary of an occupied dwelling. I think I can safely say the author of this report got it completely wrong and if ever there was a case for re-instating 'gate-keeping' for reports, this is it.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Crispin Being Blunt

On Tuesday this week the prisons and probation minister Crispin Blunt made a major speech to a conference organised by the Social Market Foundation on the coalition governments plans for the so-called rehabilitation revolution. The centrepiece of this vision is the desire to see voluntary, private and social sector players enter the field and bid for work. I have this vision of a room full of company fatcats, sorry putative bidders absolutely hanging on his every word and salivating at the mere thought of lucrative government contracts in the offing. Interestingly Mr Blunt said that 'several Probation Trusts were amongst potential bidders' so the coming weeks will indeed be interesting as players begin to show their hands in this high stakes game of poker. At the nub of the plan is the great new idea 'Payment by Results' :

"There has also been far too much prescription from the centre with providers not being held to account for their outcomes. It could be characterised as a ‘command and control’ approach to running public services. The results of this are predictable: large sums spent; constrained professionals; insufficient return; a lot of time spent on processes; little time spent on outcomes.

Payment by results by contrast does exactly the opposite. The commissioner specifies a goal and increasingly pays for what gets delivered against this benchmark. Because we will allow providers discretion in how they manage individual offenders – that’s up to them – they are free to innovate. But they know they will be held to account for their performance against the outcomes that they achieve. So they have strong incentives to do what works. It’s a much more decentralised and flexible approach. Ultimately too, it is a potentially market-based one as different kinds of organisation start offering services – be it public, independent or third sector. We are excited about payment by results because we believe that it represents an excellent way of helping to drive up standards, reduce reoffending and improve value for money for the taxpayer.

Of course we are aware of the technical and organisational challenges in developing payment by results. We need to find the best way to measure reductions in reoffending levels. It is essential that providers are only paid for results directly attributable to their work. Hence in Peterborough we will rigorously analyse their performance using independently assessed control groups and reoffending of other similar offenders, being careful to ensure that we can identify the effects of the interventions on the offenders with which they work."

Mr Blunt puts his finger very neatly on what the last government did to the probation service - removed all innovation and variety and substituted uniformity and a command and control structure. So far so good as he thinks that's now a bad idea. Step forward new idea, Payment by Results. Now I am already on record as saying we have to give the idea a go for the simple reason it can be funded primarily from sources other than the public purse and the government says there is no other game in town. Whether it will work or not is another matter.

Of course probation officers are well placed to say that in all probability it won't, but it will be made to work for political and economic reasons. The figures will have to be 'fiddled' because we know there are no magic bullets or quick fixes in tackling re-offending - it might take several or many attempts before change in a persons behaviour occurs and even then it might just be because of the natural maturing process, or something outwith any agencies control like getting a girlfriend.

All this will be of more than just academic interest under a Payment by Results system because the credit for the outcome will have to be claimed by one agency or other in order to receive payment. As the minister says, 'It is essential that providers are only paid for results directly attributable to their work.' Heaven forfend if an agency gets paid wrongly. Yes of course it's barmy, but there we have just one of the irritating little problems associated with this great new idea. Maybe there will have to be an evaluation and appeal process to determine who gets the credit for Darren or Craig stopping their crime wave? 

The other problem with this idea is that the government will want to prove it works. This will be relatively easy with the Peterborough experiment because no work was being done with prisoners serving 12 months or less any way. But it will get a bit more difficult with other core probation work and the figures may will need some careful management shall we say. After the passage of a suitable period of time, no doubt some providers will be deemed to be failing and so get removed. The problem will be, were they failing or were they just not very good with figures?

Sadly I feel this idea is going to have to run its course before we can return to a more sensible approach of having a state funded public service, not paid on the basis of spurious results, but rather paid to provide a flexible, innovative and client-centred professional service. Now there's a really novel idea.   

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Total What?

Since starting this blog last August in a fit of bad tempered rage I have unwittingly created a rod for my own back by posting daily. The initial anger seems to have dissipated and sometimes I  suffer from a bit of writers block. Maybe I have run out of things to say, or worse am merely repeating what I've said before, but in a slightly different way. Just as irrational  thoughts of knocking it on the head creep up on me, something comes along like news of this recent meeting in London. I notice that probation chiefs were at a study day to hear Lord Bichard talk about 'Total Place'. I try and keep up, but this seemed to have passed me by, but handily there is an explanation on their website

"Total Place is not just another Whitehall initiative. It is about giving local providers the incentive to work together in new ways for the benefit of their clients and citizens - and the opportunity to tell Government how it could behave differently to make this kind of collaborative action more likely. As we enter a period when resources will inevitably be constrained, Total Place is also a chance for local agencies to ‘get ahead’ by examining how they can deliver better services at less cost. So the hope is that Total Place will provide good experience to share about service improvement, suggestions about cost savings and proposals for changes in Central Government. There is no time to lose!"

I know I'm cynical but that first line, 'not just another Whitehall initiative'  just makes me want to shout 'Oh Yes it is!'  Almost by way of emphasising the point he told the joint Probation Association and Probation Chiefs Association meeting that 'they have no options but to embrace the lessons of his Total Place Initiative'. He advised Trusts that they should consider the following reforms:

  • Become less centralised and devolve more responsibility to staff
  • Create management systems focused on outcomes rather than compliance
  • Collaborate to build partnerships that deliver practical results for service users
  • Become more focused on commissioning outcomes
  • Redesign services, not outcomes
  • Find new ways to incentivise prevention
  • Encourage innovation and become less risk-averse
  • Help people to help themselves - do not assume you need to provide everything
  • Embrace and utilise new information technology  
I love the bit when Lord Bichard said he understood there were difficulties (like a crap IT system imposed on us) but now was the time to roll up our shirt sleeves and re-design services "Don't be downhearted - I really think the climate is changing."  I don't know whether to laugh or cry. Having been fully nationalised, centralised and micro-managed, we are now expected to devolve. Having had the ability, experience and permission to innovate knocked out of us over the last 15 years, suddenly the opposite is expected. 

At this point I fully intended to use an apochrophal quote attributed to Petronius AD 66:

"We trained hard, but it seemed that every time we were beginning to form up into teams we would be re-organised. I was to learn later in life that we tend to meet any new situation by re-organising, and what a wonderful method it can be for creating the illusion of progress while producing confusion, inefficiency and demoralisation."

I've wanted to use this for some time and in fact for ages had it pinned up in my office, but it turns out that the sentiment is so strong that it really is too good to be true as outlined in an article by J P Sullivan and quoted on wikipedia

"Over the years I have had enquiries about this alleged fragment and, although I have repeatedly denied its authenticity, it seems clearly to have lived an underground existence nonetheless, surfacing indeed in the venerable TLS.  To lay this ghost to rest, let me give a tentative account, which I hope other readers can correct, of its provenance.  Some disgruntled soldier of a literary bent, whether commissioned or non-commissioned I do not know, pinned this "quotation" to a bulletin board in one of the camps of the armies occupying Germany sometime after 1945 (the style suggests a British occupying force).  Since the sentiment is impeccable, whether applied to military, governmental, or academic administration, it has enjoyed a cachet borrowed from Petronius ever since.  Perhaps it would prove suitable for a Latin Prose composition seminar, since the author, unlike Nodot or Marchena, did not see fit to present us with a Latin version of his forgery."

It's a shame really as the Petronius quote would have rounded this post off nicely. It just goes to show that some things in life really are too good to be true.

Wednesday, 26 January 2011

Making a Difference?

I've recently been pointed in the direction of a page on the Ministry of Justice website about a typical day in the life of a newly qualified probation officer. I guess it's aimed at people thinking of a career in the Service. The heading is:

What are the challenges of working directly with offenders? We look at a typical working day for newly-qualified probation officer Sian Sadler.

It’s 10am on a winter’s day. A young man is slumped in his seat, aware his life is spiralling out of control. His girlfriend has left him; he’s racked up a criminal conviction for smashing up her property and fears he may lose access to his child. He can’t sleep and gets through a crate of beer a day. The man is the first of three offenders being seen that morning by newly-qualified probation officer Sian Sadler.

The offender is open about his situation, explaining his priority is to get off the booze and get a job. Since moving from another area, he’s stopped receiving treatment for his addiction – a factor in his last three offences. Sian listens patiently, encouraging the man to come up with solutions to his problems. She agrees to help him get support from a drug and alcohol treatment charity and advises him to contact his solicitor about access to his child. She also offers to arrange an assessment with an employment specialist when they meet next week.

The article goes on to explain that Sian has 30 clients on her books and that virtually all of them have some form of either alcohol or drug dependency.

The second offender she sees is a middle-aged man convicted of alcohol-related domestic violence. Sian talks to him about joining the Probation Service’s Integrated Domestic Abuse Programme. An hour later, a third offender turns up for his induction appointment. As part of his sentence for possession of drugs, the man has received a community order with supervision. For the first 16 weeks of his sentence, the he will have to attend weekly probation appointments with Sian.

Now I don't want to be overly critical of Sian because I think the article pretty well gives a flavour of what the new-look probation service is indeed like. But I'm appalled at the speed at which clients seem to be 'signposted' off to other agencies. You mention a problem and 'bingo' a referral is made. Now I don't think this satisfies my test of 'if this was me, how would this make me feel?' But it very neatly serves to illustrate the move from being a client-centred service to one that is increasingly process-driven. I think these clients wanted and deserved some in-depth conversations with their officer so that she could get to know them and they could get the feeling that they were being listened to by her and not just passed around like a parcel. Surely it must make you feel like you are being 'processed?'

To put it at its bluntest, anybody can do some 'signposting', but of course this is indeed the philosphy behind the whole 'offender management' ethos. But evidence shows and common sense confirms that it is the relationship between client and officer that is the key to being able to effect change. So many times I've heard the refrain, 'My officer doesn't spend any time talking to me' or 'They don't listen.'  Clearly in this sort of situation clients are merely reporting because they have to. Wouldn't it be better all round if they reported because they wanted to? All that effort wouldn't need to be put into chasing people up for missed appointments and those sullen monosylabic responses encountered when clients are not happy could be avoided. But it's the last two paragraphs that I think serve to best illustrate the gulf between old and new style officers.

Breaking the cycle of reoffending isn’t easy but Sian believes that, given the right help and motivation, even the most hardened criminals can turn their lives around.

She says: 'I believe that people can change and I want to be part of that. I think the work probation officers do is important, not just in rehabilitating offenders, but also in terms of protecting the public from becoming victims in the future. It’s nice to know your job is making a difference.'

Now although we might have shared aspirations, after 25 years service I'm not at all sure that I could say with any great degree of certainty that I had made a difference. Of course there are instances where I've been proud of certain outcomes, but how do you measure such a concept when we really only see people who might be classed as the failures because they've come back round? For the ones that don't come back, we're never likely to know.

I can see why it would suit the Ministry of Justice for PR reasons to promulgate the view of making a difference, but I think it would be far more sensible to suggest a degree of humility or realism even. I think any officer who is regularly telling themself that they are making a difference is indulging in a bit of self-deception and is heading for some serious disappointment quite soon. We try our best, but if it were that straight forward, would there really be so many of us still employed?

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

The Gloves Come Off

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. 

Monday, 24 January 2011

A Few Observations 2

I guess a lot of us read other blogs and some recent posts have particularly caught my eye. The first is courtesy of the Justice of the Peace blog and an item ostensibly about statistics and Freedom of Information obligations in particular. But what genuinely shocked me about this was the information gleaned from Lancashire Police that 74 officers had been accused of sexual offences over the last six years. Now even allowing for the fact that some of these allegations would no doubt be malicious and in 28 instances no further action was taken, 27 officers either resigned or were dismissed, 8 were given warnings or received disciplinary action, 9 were awaiting court action and one was jailed. Others cases are still pending. 

Now I have to say it isn't entirely clear to me if all these instances do in fact reflect allegations of offences as opposed to what might be termed lapses in professional standards, but even so it strikes me as pretty worrying. These are the figures for just one force and there are some 42 others. It also relates only to sexual matters, not other offence categories. I somehow can't get this into perspective when thinking about a well known police website that continually takes a pop at liberal hand-wringers. I know the timing is unfortunate, coinciding as it does with a fair degree of banter about close protection officers giving very close service to those being protected and undercover officers seemingly being given the 'nod and a wink' for sexual activity with those being spied upon. It's 'just part of the job' apparently, but I suddenly feel very uncomfortable with emerging evidence of a certain police ethos. Or have I lost the plot?

I suspect I might be on safer ground in commenting on this very worrying offence highlighted on the Law and Lawyers blogsite. A partially-sighted 92 year-old woman assaulted and robbed of £30 in her own home, having been targeted before. Who could do such a thing and why? I suspect the answer sadly is almost invariably connected to drugs, or just possibly alcohol, but this is not as likely in my view. The author speculates as to the appropriate charge if indeed the person being held on suspicion is prosecuted and I have to say without hesitation it should be robbery.

If I was writing a PSR on such a case I'm fairly sure that it would be an instance where custody would be deemed almost certainly inevitable. I think it has to be, even though the perpetrator will no doubt have had a troubled childhood, will have been damaged by it and drifted inexorably into a chaotic drug-addicted life-style that cannot be funded in any legitimate way. Such people can become so desperate and only concerned with funding their next 'fix' that normal boundaries of behaviour seem to disappear. I think this type of offence is quite unusual though and I've never come across it. What it says to me is that as a society we must do more for young people from damaged backgrounds in reaching them earlier and reform our current ridiculous and failing drug treatment policy.       

Sunday, 23 January 2011

More Questions than Answers 2

I thought it would again be fun to list another batch of google searches that resulted in people being directed to this blogsite. I've tried to avoid questions already covered.

Great excuses to give your probation officer

We've heard most of them and you could always resort to that particular old favourite 'I've got a funeral to go to'. This is designed to be both difficult to argue with and calculated to gain a degree of sympathy. Death of a grandparent is very common and of course involves a sufficiently close relative to be understandable, but not that close so that a deception would be obvious. In my experience only the really heartless officer demands to see proof, but even the more understanding get irritated by any more than two such funerals in 12 months. But ask yourself why you are avoiding someone who is trying to help you? If you wind your officer up it will only lead to grief and maybe when you really do need some help or understanding, getting it just might be that bit more difficult.

On probation but have doctors note to stay at home

I think most probation officers will allow for the fact that illness sometimes means appointments are missed, but they need to be informed asap by telephone. If missing appointments becomes regular they will require evidence of a doctor's sick note and that is fairly unusual in my experience, but it does happen. Make sure you report when the note runs out though or there is a risk of breach action.

What is age cut off for probation officers?

At the moment the normal retirement age for probation officers is 65, but this may change as the government has indicated more flexibility will be introduced in relation to retirement ages. There used to an '85 year rule' which allowed an officer to retire when their age and years service added up to the magic figure of 85 but I believe this is being phased out.

How probation works nowadays with an officer?

A good question. Almost certainly not like it used to. Officially the Service is no longer social work orientated although vestiges remain either in the form of old-style officers or newer colleagues who have become disillusioned with the new 'punishment' model. It is much more process-driven than client-centred and people are quite likely to be 'signposted'' off to other agencies quite quickly or encouraged or bullied to go on 'programmes' for 'treatment'. If I was on probation I don't think I'd be too impressed with that kind of processing. I think I'd want treating as an individual with a feeling my officer was actually interested in me and my problems - not shunting me off to yet another person or agency. But then I'm the past, not the future.

What does a probation officer do?

A massive question, but the short answer is assist in rehabilitation of offenders and protect the public. There have always been these two elements to our work, it's just that the methods have changed over recent years.

Future for probation hostels

A good question and the answer is we're not sure. There is a feeling that they might be 'hived off' to either a private contractor or so-called third sector operator to run. Maintenance has already been put out to a contractor and I notice at least one Service is using a a private security company for waking cover at night. The role of hostels has changed significantly in recent years with virtually no spaces available for bailees. They are almost exclusively used now for high risk clients coming out of prison on Parole.  

How many prisoners say prison works?

Probably more than you might think. Virtually all say they 'won't be back'. Experience says something quite different of course. Prisoners are quite likely to have been victims of crime themselves and they can be quite harsh when suggesting punishments for others. They are quite likely to suggest prison in a sentencing exercise. In the present argument about giving prisoners the vote it's widely accepted that most would vote Tory. In other words they are not at all likely to be liberal-minded. It is not unheard of to hear expressions like 'get your head down and do the bird' or 'don't do the crime if you can't do the time.'

Why do prolific offenders get so little time?

A good question and one open to subjective argument of course. It may sound trite, but the problem with commenting on cases without access to the full details both of the prosecution, defence and reports from either the Youth Offending Team or probation is that you never know all the factors that were taken into account when deciding the sentence. Most prolific offenders are young and custody almost invariably will be harmful in terms of making them worse. It very rarely acts as an aid to rehabilitation, so other community options really are worth trying at all costs, before custody has to be imposed in the final desperate resort. Fortunately evidence shows that many young offenders stop offending as part of the normal maturing process. 

How does probation affect peoples lives?

The short answer is potentially in a profound way, from influencing the type of sentence at court, to steering someone in a more positive direction in terms of health, education, employment or rehabilitation. But the officer also has the dual responsibility of protecting the public so this may mean breach, recall to prison or recommendations for early release or not as the case may be. Because most things a probation officer does in relation to a client has potentially a significant effect, the job is extremely responsible and requires people of the utmost integrity.   

What to expect on first PSR interview?

An in-depth interview designed to find out about your background, offending history, details of the current offence, why the offence was committed, present situation, any problems or difficulties, plans for the future and finally what might happen at court. It is sensible to be as open and honest as possible so that the report author can paint as full a picture of you as possible for the benefit of the sentencers. It may be necessary to conduct more than one interview and even a home visit. Permission may be sought to contact other people or organisations that know you such as solicitor, doctor, employer, family members etc.  

Are PSR's any use?

There was a time when my answer would have been unequivocal, but in all honesty I would now say 'in general yes, but not as much use as they used to be'. This is a sad reflection on the growth of inferior short format FDR's, coupled with reports being increasingly prepared by unqualified PSO's. Even full SDR's prepared by qualified officers are not as useful in my opinion because they are necessarily computer-generated through a dreadful process called OASys, the Offender Assessment System. 

Probation future of job?

I'm basically pessimistic about the future. I think the Service has lost it's way and because the public and politicians haven't a clue what we do, we're vulnerable to yet more wholesale change and privatisation. The Service is fast losing it's separate identity having been subsumed into NOMS under Prison Service domination. We've lost our social work roots and the punishment role does not sit happily with the last vestiges of our caring role. I'd have to say to any prospective new recruit - pick another career.  

Criteria for robust offending course set up by police

I have no idea what this is about because it sounds like it should be our job not theirs. But then strange things happen, like Integrated Offender Management run by the police when it should be our job. Maybe with spending cuts the police might decide to put stuff like this on the 'back burner' and let probation do it after all.

The good and bad of probation

The good is that there are still a few old-timers around to point out to newer colleagues how it used to be done and how we should revisit some stuff from the past before it's too late. The bad is that we've got a Justice Secretary who can barely utter the word 'probation' and a set of unions not willing to at least appear to want a meaningful dialogue about possible change, for example about Payment by Results.

Probation recommended 2 to 5 years in jail.

I think this is a belter. If I was a Crown Court Judge I'd be seriously irritated by such a 'recommendation'. It is basically insulting and not a probation officers place to be suggesting how long a period of imprisonment might be. The sad thing is that it is likely to be utterly counter-productive in conveying to the Judge important sentencing information contained in the body of the report. I also happen to think that custody should never be 'recommended' but rather acknowledged as 'inevitable' in terms of punishment and public protection. To recommend sounds like it will do someone good. In fact it will almost certainly do the opposite in most cases, but is necessary for the other reasons I've indicated.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Probation and the Car

When I joined the Probation Service in 1985 it was basically a requirement of the job to be able to drive and have a car. I think I am right in saying that without a car you would not have been appointed. I was certainly not aware of anyone who could not drive and it was generally accepted that prison visits, home visits and meeting attendances could not be undertaken without a car. This was recognised by employers in the form of the so-called Essential Car User allowance that was paid monthly and depended on engine capacity. Of course this was in addition to the amount paid per mile travelled on business. 

Probation officers who have been around awhile will remember how the car was often extremely useful in ferrying clients about in all sorts of circumstances and not infrequently with their belongings as well. This ability was invariably regarded positively by clients and in my experience often afforded the opportunity for some really in-depth conversations that would either have been more difficult or not as fruitful if attempted in the office. Over the years some of the most valuable and revelatory conversations have occurred in this way and during journeys in the car. Access to a car also meant you were able to respond to a crisis, take advantage of new information and you had a safe haven or bit of neutral space available in difficult situations.

I well remember calling on one client some years ago to conduct a PSR interview specifically for the purpose of getting a feel for his home circumstances. He had a learning disability and I knew he lived at home with his parents and brother and sister. On arriving at the house I was met by the larger-than-life mother who duly bellowed for her son, whilst serving up tea for her husband in the living room. Whilst waiting for him to appear, she proceeded to bellow at her husband who  merely responded by turning up the volume on the TV. An interview was clearly going to be impossible and I suggested we went out to the car. I remember being stunned by the sheer chaos in the young mans home and my enquiry as to if it was always like that was met with a bemused grin. It seems he coped by simply 'switching off' and absented himself for long periods. I fully understood why.

Of course management eventually got around to taking our car allowance away on economy grounds and I remember our union only managed a compensation payment of a few hundred pounds. In more recent years I've noticed that other branches have managed to increase this to several thousand pounds. In essence management increasingly seem to be of the view that a car is not now necessary, or indeed the ability to drive. I still find it astonishing to accept that, disability issues aside, a colleague using public transport can be as efficient or effective as an officer using a car, but there it is. Of course I have already outlined why I feel video links to jails are inadequate and unlikely to engender a useful working relationship and discussion of highly sensitive issues. Just ask yourself if you would discuss personal stuff in this way? 

But actually in reality it's much worse than that because current standing instructions in my Service now basically forbids the carrying of clients in a private vehicle, unless in exceptional circumstances, I assume for health and safety reasons. Another astonishing example of changes within this job over my working lifetime. From it being a routine and expected part of the role, to being forbidden. I find it so worrying that yet another tool is removed from our armoury in being able to help clients change and basically cope. 

For those possibly unimpressed I will give the following recent example from my time in court as a Court Duty Officer. It was a case of a youngish man with a significant learning disability and granted bail for a serious offence. I'd managed to get him a place at a probation hostel in the big city some 15 miles away by bus or train. But he did not have the capacity to make that journey independently and my manager confirmed that payment for a taxi was not an option. In my professional judgement the right and obvious thing to do was drive him there myself and this is what I did. As a bonus the journey time of some forty minutes gave me the opportunity to really get to know the guy and the many problems life threw at him by virtue of his disability. Isn't this exactly what the job is supposed to be all about?  



Friday, 21 January 2011

Early Start is Important

It was an interesting move when the new coalition government asked labour MP Graham Allen to look into 'dysfunction and under-achievement' in some families and to come up with possible recommendations as to how the problem could be tackled. Of course it's been well known for some time that a relatively small number of such families are responsible for a hugely disproportionate cost to the state as problems arise over the passage of time.

In a recent separate report it was also confirmed that a childs life chances are pretty much determined before they ever set foot inside a school. So it wasn't hugely surprising that  Allen concluded that early intervention from birth with children born to disadvantaged families could potentially reap significant savings to the taxpayer further down the line. 

It would make a huge amount of sense if potentially serious problems in later life such as anti-social and criminal behaviour were prevented rather allowed to develop. We know only too well of our limited success and the expense of trying to deal with problems once manifested. But of course none of this is new because it was the basic idea behind New Labour's Sure Start initiative and if we go back even further, Intermediate Treatment. The problem is as Allen quite rightly identifies, there is absolutely no government money to pay for any new early years intervention programmes. In fact publication of his report coincides with cuts in funding to already existing projects aimed at helping families, such as Home-Start. 

But Allen thinks he has the answer in getting investors to pay for any new scheme. Basically he intends to adapt a version of the Payment by Results idea that is being actively canvassed in relation to funding offender rehabilitation schemes. It looks as if he plans to work out how much it costs the state to provide services for a 'problem' child over their lifetime, as opposed to a figure for the rest of the cohort. The plan will be to reward providers and investors who work with the disadvantaged children with a proportion of the estimated savings. It sounds an extraordinary idea and we will have to await his second report due in the summer to find out exactly how it might work. But in the meantime, what happens to projects like Home-Start who it seems are having their funding cut now?  

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Why Did They Do That? 2

Having made the point that continually seeking an answer to the question 'why did they do that?' lies at the very heart of what probation officers are trying to do in effecting change in a persons behaviour, it might be useful to explore some examples of what I mean. But first I think I need to highlight a contradiction. Although I have continually stressed that each persons situation and set of behaviours is unique, I now want to make the point that there are some common themes.

In interviewing a young woman who has committed numerous shoplifting offences, it would be completely understandable to discover a link between her offending and the need to fund an addiction to either heroin or possibly alcohol. However there is another question to be answered and that is, 'why is this person addicted?'  There is a medical theory that certain people have an addictive personality or even a genetic pre-disposition towards such behaviour. The person may have had a difficult and uncaring childhood, possibly resulting in a period of care. But also the feint or not so feint lines across the wrists can indicate something more serious, a degree of low self esteem, a desire to self harm or worse an unfulfilled wish to end their life. It is sad but often true that it is a powerfull indicator of sexual abuse early in life. For such a person, escape into the short-term oblivion of either alcohol or heroin provides some much needed relief, but also such recklessness serves to highlight their utter despair with life.

Some years ago I was allocated a PSR on a young man who had committed a whole string of motoring offences including TWOC, No Insurance, Dangerous Driving etc. It wasn't his first time in court, in fact he had accumulated quite a record of similar offending in a relatively short period of time and was rapidly approaching the custody threshold in relation to his behaviour. Although many other young men were committing similar offences at that time, this young man did not display the usual cockyness and in contrast presented with a particularly flat mood. He was clearly quite depressed and in fact he admitted to regularly contemplating suicide. Subsequently we had several long chats and he eventually told me that he had been sexually abused as a child and wanted to talk about it for the first time. Eventually I was able to secure a psychology report for court that explained his offences were basically part of 'running away' from the past and the reckless speed was part of a death wish.  

It will be appreciated that these are often extremely painfull issues for clients to discuss and the whole subject has to be approached with the utmost care. Invariably if the person is willing to talk about it, possibly for the first time, specialist counselling will be required. Sadly that is often easier said than done and many times during my career I have been utterly frustrated in having achieved a diagnosis, appropriate treatment is not forthcoming for a variety of reasons. Of course this is vital, not just in being able to effect change in peoples offending behaviour, but also in respect of their well-being. In relation to sentencing, a formulaic programmes or pure punishment approach would not be effective for such people. I think examples like this graphically illustrate why 'risk' should not be the only deciding factor in the allocation of cases and why social work theory and practice remain appropriate skills for a probation officer.     

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

We've always known that there would be trouble when it became clear that the UK would have no option but to comply with the demands of the European Court on Human Rights and give all sentenced prisoners the right to vote. The last Labour government put a decision off for as long as possible and the present Tory part of the coalition government has absolutely no stomach for giving convicted prisoners the opportunity to vote, despite the wishes of their Liberal Democrat partners. But they are fast running out of options because if something isn't done by the autumn, prisoners might start winning compensation claims that it's estimated would cost the government well over £100 million. 

As a result, the government have very reluctantly attempted a 'fudge' by suggesting that prisoners serving less than four years could be allowed to vote. It was always unclear whether this would be acceptable either to the ECHR or indeed to Tory back-benchers, but it seems former Labour Justice Secretary Jack Straw has decided to enter the fray by teaming up with Conservative loose cannon David Davies to force the issue. According to the BBC they have managed to convince the appropriate Commons committee to allow a debate on the subject, possibly in early February. Both are of course completely against the idea of caving into a directive from the ECHR and will argue it is a matter for the UK's sovereign Parliament to decide. In any vote it looks like Labour would join rebel Tory back-benchers and therefore would stand a good chance of inflicting a government defeat.

Basically coming hard on the heels of notorious gang-land boss Colin Gunns unedifying victory in winning the right to be called 'Mr' by prison staff, the public and many politicians are in no mood to see prisoners gaining yet more rights and I have to say I agree. I know there is an argument that enfranchising prisoners could be seen as part of helping them take responsibility, but there is also an argument that says deprivation of liberty for punishment should involve loss of certain rights such as casting a vote. The issue should at least be decided by a nations sovereign legislative body in my opinion. In passing, I notice that the BBC has taken the opportunity to show a clip of former prisoner John Hirst getting severely mauled by Andrew Neil last year on the Daily Politics Show. The performance was not edifying for either party and I suspect will do nothing to support the cause of prisoner voting rights.  

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Why Did They Do That?

Since starting this blog I've been reminded of the gulf between the right-wing tabloid press and probation and saddened although not hugely surprised by the apparent gulf between probation and the police. There appears to be a chasm of misunderstanding and an entrenched stereotypical view that basically says 'the police catch 'em and probation and the courts get 'em off'. In terms of offenders the thesis seems to go like this 'they know right from wrong; they've had their chance; they need locking up for longer; they need a harsh punishment'. This is coupled with the other part of the thesis that says the soft liberal hand-wringers 'excuse their behaviour; are easily fooled; are soft on crime; live in nice areas and don't get robbed'. 

I want to try and tackle these myths. Although I might be clear about what probation does, why it does it and why it's worthwhile, clearly others disagree or are sceptical. I appreciate it is going to take some explaining because it isn't always straight forward, but I think it's worth giving it a try. If the job of a probation officer is about anything, it's about trying to understand why people do things. Why they acted in a particular way. To be honest I don't think there is anything very unusual about this as it's part and parcel of normal human nature. The difference is that as a probation officer the quest for understanding anti-social or criminal behaviour is at the heart of the job and a major component of our ethos.

It is only when you understand the reasons for certain behaviour that the first step can be made in trying to effect change. However understanding is not to be confused with excusing. I have heard it said that probation officers do not accept that offenders need take full responsibility for their actions. This is complete nonsense and the only limited exceptions that I can think of are those involving either a mental illness, learning disability or personality disorder. Normally our work very much involves getting an offender to accept responsibility for their actions and the underlying reasons that contributed towards them.  

People always do things for a reason, but they may not always be conscious of why. Whether it's buying product A as opposed to product B. Choosing a career, life partner, how much to drink, what to eat, how to vote, whether to steal, to take drugs, to hit somebody are all examples of decisions. As often or not the explanation will be grounded in reasoning of some sort. It might be as a result of a careful weighing-up of the pro's and cons and it will be fairly self-evident. But on many occasions people do not make seemingly rational decisions. It could be that they acted on a whim, or prejudice, or ignorance, or impulse. Their reasoning might be affected by drugs, alcohol or emotional state. Every ones intellectual capacities are different, as are their life experiences. We've all been exposed to positive and negative role models, had good and bad experiences and all this affects the way decisions are made.

This may well all sound like teaching Granny how to suck eggs, but it lies at the very heart of what we are trying to do and why probation officers are expected to have some knowledge of sociology and psychology, amongst other things. In trying to arrive at an answer to the question 'why did they do that?'  I've never found it particularly helpful to think in terms of 'good or bad' but rather try and stay focused on just trying to understand. Of course there are as many unique explanations as there are individual people and acts. This is why I have difficulty with much of the recent reliance on treatment programmes for offenders, as opposed to individual casework. It's one reason why I feel the programme approach is not being as successful as envisaged. 

Probation becomes involved with somebody as a result of an action or set of behaviours. They might on the one hand be relatively minor such as theft from a shop or at the other extreme a single life changing event that involves serious injury or death. In each case there will be reasons or an explanation for the behaviorbut this is not the same as a motive which is a much more narrow definition. The police are normally concerned to discover the latter, but not so involved with the former which has become one of our areas of expertise. After some years experience I can say that the process is not always either obvious or straight forward, but a good starting point is to ask of course.

In my small town there is a notorious nightclub that over the years has generated quite a bit of work for the police, NHS, local solicitors and probation. Each time I have been involved in writing a PSR for a common assault, ABH, or GBH I have asked 'why did you hit him/her? and the answer has invariably been 'because he/she looked at me/my partner funny'. It doesn't get you very far, but it does demonstrate the disinhibiting effect alcohol has when someone is already a little paranoid through long-term cannabis use or just feeling insecure or jealous in a relationship. None of this is an excuse though for denying responsibility for the behaviour, but it can help everyone, including the court and offender, to try and understand why it happened as a prelude to change. 

Monday, 17 January 2011

Another Cautionary Tale

At some point in a probation officers career you will inherit a seriously old case, probably a lifer who's gone way over their tariff. The file will be enormous, tatty, very badly organised and will bear the evidence of numerous colleagues involvement over many years. I inherited such a case from a colleague some years ago upon their retirement. They had in turn picked it up several years before and in total I think I counted seven previous officers handiwork. A Parole Board Review was approaching and to be honest my intention was to do what everyone else that had gone before had done and just rehash the information with some updating following an interview.

It was a very sad case. The guy had received a life sentence many years previous for an arson committed on a government building. The fire was started with paper with his name and address on and therefore detection was relatively straightforward. Indeed the suspicion was that he wanted to be caught. Nowadays I would expect a psychiatric report to have been prepared before sentencing, but the file showed this had not been requested. He had previous convictions for arson and although only given a relatively short tariff, was now some 30 years beyond that and with little or no prospect of release. 

In trying to find a way forward I soon discovered that he had enjoyed several periods of residence in a secure hostel on ROTL or Release on Temporary Licence. It had been relatively successful, but he had incontinence issues and the hostel were concerned about him being a smoker and his casual use of matches. Indeed the prison informed me that small fires were prone to break out for no apparent reason wherever he was. Not surprisingly the hostel seemed loathe to have him back again, the risk was simply too great.

I discovered there were some relatives who might be prepared to take him, but to be honest my instinct told me they would not be able to cope. In reading the file it seemed that this chaps fascination with fire had been as the tragic result of witnessing his brother die in a house fire when he was quite young and very impressionable. I went to see him, but was not really prepared for what I found. A sad old man missing most of his teeth, no doubt due in part to the poor prison diet and looking at least ten years older than his stated age of 64. Despite this he had a wicked glint and seemed happy enough, even though he was suffering from several medical conditions that impaired his mobility and could only push himself about on the wing in a wheelchair. 

I later took the opportunity of reading the prison file which amazingly still contained a black and white photo of a very handsome seventeen year old taken when in Borstal. I found the contrast so utterly sad and depressing and wondered at just what point he had given up and accepted that home was prison. If ever a definition of institutionalisation was required, here it was. All a very sobering experience I can tell you for someone approaching a not hugely dissimilar age myself.

I mulled things over with the seconded prison probation officer before heading back home. We both felt pretty negative about the whole situation. I later heard that the Parole Hearing had been postponed at the prisoners request and the file duly went back into the bottom drawer. Months and months went by when out of the blue the prison probation officer telephoned with what he called 'surprising news'. It seems that this officer had decided to review the file completely and check a few facts. He wanted to try and find the newspaper cuttings about the house fire all those years earlier, but they seemed to be missing. He then got permission to do a trawl for the brothers death certificate, but again drew a blank. Finally he was authorised to ask the police to check out the details surrounding the death of the brother, only for them to later report that the brother was alive and well and living in a major city.

After some further forensic investigation it transpired that the whole story about the house fire must have come about as a result of some sloppy interviewing and suggestive theorising by a probation officer who was looking for evidence to support a pre-conceived hunch. Some vulnerable or emotionally damaged clients can be susceptible to suggestion and prone to conflation and this seems to have been the case here. Every subsequent officer had merely built upon this story and it had become established as truth to be repeated ad nauseam.

So, the inevitable question on my lips was what was the guys reaction when the truth was put to him? He had initially denied it and refused to discuss it, but after careful perseverance he had eventually accepted that it was not true. I still find this a chilling example of how our work with clients should never be regarded as routine or our response and intervention constrained by theory or pre-conceived notions. In this line of work a relatively open mind is necessary as messing with peoples lives is a serious business that has consequences and we are therefore duty bound to try and do the very best we can, albeit often in difficult situations. 

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Common Sense on Drugs 2

I notice from the Australian Heroin Diaries blog that the Victoria Branch of the Australian Democratic party has published a bold plan to 'halve crime'. They propose that this could be achieved by a radical overhaul of the law relating to illegal drugs in that country. In essence they are basically suggesting that prohibition should be ended as it has done nothing to reduce useage and associated criminal activity. Instead they would allow registered known users to obtain regulated supplies through official clinics.

Now this sounds eminently sensible to me and similar to the practice in Switzerland. Unfortunately a bit of research shows that the electoral fortunes of the Democrats in Australia have been on the wane for some time and they are not going to be influencing government policy any time soon. Although I think they are talking sense on drugs, will it perversely further harm their electoral aspirations?

The sad reality is that no mainstream political party or politician in the developed world seems willing to take the risk and talk sense about failing drugs policies. Back home you will recall that the exception was the former Labour defence minister Bob Ainsworth who spoke out quite unexpectedly just before Christmas. Although he might have expressed a view that I would have sympathy with, his grasp of the subject and lack of detail about the consequences of any change means that his contribution to the discussion and debate are going to be somewhat limited I suspect. Sadly the coalition government seem set on shifting from a policy of harm reduction to straight forward enforcement of prohibition. So absolutely no outward sign of any common sense there.

But suddenly, out of the blue came endorsement for a radical change in direction and from a most surprising source, a former police officer. All the recent media excitement about an undercover police officer having been found to have infiltrated the climate change protesters, flushed out a former undercover cop for his views on the whole thing. In a radio interview he was basically scathing about the waste and expense of valuable undercover officers being used on such low level criminal activity. In contrast he had infiltrated big criminal gangs and drug cartels resulting in the imprisonment of 'hundreds of serious criminals for thousands of years'.

Mind you the stress nearly broke him and he ended up hitting the bottle and requiring counselling. As a way of winding up his contribution, the interviewer said 'well at least you've got the satisfaction of knowing you did a useful and valuable job.'  Imagine his surprise when the guy replied, 'on the contrary, it's all been a waste of time.' He said 'the supply of drugs hasn't altered one jot and there's just as many criminal gangs as when I started.'  It's true of course. No matter how much effort is put into the 'war on drugs' it has absolutely no effect beyond slight variations in the price of street drugs. Just what does it take for society to wake up to the fact that another approach to the problem might be a good idea?  


Saturday, 15 January 2011

3 Prisons to Close

So Ken Clarke has finally decided to pick a fight with his back bench colleagues and go ahead with his much-trailed decision to actually begin a reduction in the size of the prison estate for the first time in living memory. In reality though I feel it's more of a symbolic gesture than anything with a modest 849 reduction in capacity. Of course he has already announced the decision not go ahead with a planned new prison near Ashworth Special Hospital on Merseyside and I notice that HMP Dartmoor is not in the closure list. The Duchy of Cornwall must indeed be making sure the MoJ stick to the letter of their full repairing lease. 

I don't think anyone will be surprised to hear that HMP Lancaster a Cat 'C' training prison will be one of the three prisons that will be closing and we can only assume that the landlords, Lancaster City Council, have come to a satisfactory agreement with the Ministry of Justice over accepting the other half of the ancient grade 1 'listed' castle back. This is probably the oldest prison still functioning as such and has been used as a prison since at least the 18th century and probably well before. I believe it still contains an execution chamber, but was last used for the purpose in 1910. Currently holding only some 238 prisoners, closing this establishment was a bit of a 'no brainer' really, but will give the council a headache as to how to fund a suitable future public use for this important 'listed' building during a time of austerity.

Interestingly the other half of the castle is still rented by the MoJ and continues to serve as the Crown Court. When functioning as the Assizes, this is where the Pendle Witches stood trial in 1612. According to wikipedia, it has the reputation as being the court where more people were sentenced to death than any other in England. Development as a tourist attraction is one obvious possibility. This is the only one of the three establishments due to close that I've had the pleasure of visiting. I remember it as a very relaxed prison oozing history at every corner and the seconded PO assured me it was an absolutely brilliant posting.  

HMP Ashwell in Rutland is an interesting choice because it was substantially damaged during a riot in 2009 when 75% of the accommodation was made uninhabitable. A Cat 'C' closed training prison it currently only holds about 212 prisoners and it was being considered for conversion into an Immigration Removal Centre, but ran into significant local opposition. It seems that it's a popular jail with the surrounding community and the latest Independent Monitoring Board report paints a glowing picture, despite the trouble in 2009. Ironically it has excellent workshop facilities making signs, plastic cutlery and clothing, all for prison service use.

I have to say I don't understand the reasons for closing this prison. Although opened in 1955, there have been some major improvements in recent time, including a new kitchen in 2008 and a new prefabricated accommodation block. The argument about closing outdated old prisons doesn't hold water and neither does the argument about replacing the arson damaged wings as prefabricated blocks are pretty cost effective. So with good workshops and other infrastructure like perimeter fences intact, it doesn't make sense to me. What the future holds for this former Second World War US Army base I'm not sure as it lies some distance from the village of Oakham. Possibly there is a yet to be publicly revealed use by some other government department, or is the site actually going to be quietly 'mothballed?'

The planned closure of HMP Morton Hall, a former RAF base and currently a womens closed establishment holding 392 solves the problem of where to locate another Immigration Removal Centre. It will convert fairly easily and currently I don't think there is as much pressure on places in the female prison estate. Even so ironically it had been developing a specialist role for imprisoned foreign nationals leaving the country and returning prisoners due for release from overseas. They could cater for 50 languages apparently and inevitably this facility and expertise will now have to be dispersed.  

Friday, 14 January 2011

What's It All About?

"An understanding of the ethos and underlying procedures and culture of the Probation Service is to me and many colleagues almost beyond understanding."  So writes the Justice of the Peace on his blog recently and I thank him warmly for giving this blog a welcome plug.

I am not at all surprised by the sentiment expressed because I think it is one widely held by the public generally. It was one of the reasons that made me decide to start a blog and try and shed some light on this most mysterious of occupations. But I still find it immensely sad to hear such comments from the Magistracy because historically there used to be such very close ties between the Probation Service and local Bench. As such it would be unthinkable only a few years ago that any magistrate felt that they did not fully understand what probation was all about. But then probation has undergone a not entirely painless revolution in recent years with some of us believing it has has lost its way and more recent recruits left disillusioned and confused.

Just by way of recap, some readers will probably recall that Probation Officers used to be appointed as Officers of the Court and indeed my interview panel was made up entirely of local magistrates. They knew what the Service was all about. They asked the awkward questions and they appointed a person whom they felt could do the job and could command the respect of the whole Bench. Of course these were the days of independent Court Administrations and all officers were appointed to a particular Petty Sessional Division. I remember that on appointment the first person I was officially introduced to was the Clerk to the Justices. As probation officers we 'belonged' to our local Bench and we used to meet with them at least four times a year to discuss developments, concerns and to conduct sentencing exercises. These were the days when magistrates would sometimes be more likely to follow a report recommendation when they knew who the author was.

Just by way of illustrating further how far things have changed, when I joined in 1985 it was only a few years after it was the custom and practice for a magistrate to be delegated to attend the probation office for the specific purpose of looking at the files and checking up on clients progress. Each officer in turn went in with a stack of files to explain what had been happening. This may seem extraordinary now, but remember that before each individual Probation Service was nationalised, a majority of members who made up the governing Probation Committee were magistrates. Currently we have a situation whereby magistrates are actually prohibited from sitting on Probation Trust Boards. Even so, it is still not uncommon for an experienced magistrate to approach me in the street for a quiet word because they are interested in someones welfare.

Given what has happened, it should not really be that surprising that a significant knowledge gap now exists between probation and magistrates. But of course it has been exacerbated by the enforced cultural change within the Service from social work agency to law enforcement agency. Not only do many old-timers like myself refuse to accept this change, but significant numbers of the new breed of officer are becoming hungry to learn about the ways of the past. They are becoming increasingly disillusioned by the formulaic approach to 'treating' offenders as opposed to trying to understand people as individuals and provide each with a tailored response through supervision. But of course this requires people with experience, training, support and permission so that judgement, discretion and innovation can be deployed - precisely the opposite direction to the command and control path the Service is currently going in.

I will end this piece by commenting on the example of new Probation management-speak quoted on the Magistrates Blog:

Specified Activity Requirements…….we are encouraging sentencers to consider SARs particularly as a more challenging alternative to stand alone supervision. This can have its place……but the standards to which we work specify that after 16 weeks all except high risk offenders are expected to report on a monthly basis only. This means that many stand alone orders tend to lack focus once the initial sixteen weeks have passed. By contrast the expectation with SARs is that we work with offenders more intensively, a structured hourly session every week, but for a shorter period of time, namely the duration of the activity. Once the specified hours are completed the work is completed; contact then ends at least for those cases that do not also have supervision attached to them. SARs have been traditionally confined to offenders with employment and training needs. We are now offering three other sentencing options that fall within the SAR orbit. First is the Structured Supervision Programme and is for male offenders assessed as having a medium to high risk of re-offending. It is aimed at those who meet the criteria for the Thinking Skills Programme but are unsuited to it…….perhaps because of their working hours or because they are unsuited to a groupwork setting……those sentenced to SSP are expected to attend twelve structured hour long sessions………Second is the Engage and Change Activity Requirement and has been in place for two months and is a shorter version of SSP; ten sessions not twelve. It is for males whose offending risk is low to medium – not high enough to warrant SSP or Thinking Skills. ECAR and SSP……..are designed to focus on the way offenders think and behave, on their lifestyles, attitudes and relationships. Third is Structured Supervision for Women – sixteen sessions in all for women who meet the criteria for the Women`s Programme but who for practical reasons are unsuitable.

This is the sort of stuff that makes most old-style Probation Officers cringe. The all-so-confident-sounding alphabet soup treatment model. It's simple, you do x,y and z to somebody and the implication is that change will be effected, almost by magic. Readers will not be surprised to learn that invariably it doesn't work and the reason is quite straight forward. It fails to address an individual and their unique needs. The dead giveaway as to how the Service approaches things now is the bit at the beginning that says the problem with standalone supervision is that after 16 weeks, unless the client is judged as high risk, they are only seen monthly.

Well I can say categorically that whatever the standards say, if a person has needs I carry on seeing them weekly or as required. Can you imagine how a client feels if they are still homeless, or unemployed, or have continuing drug and alcohol issues and are told 'come back in four weeks.'  The Service has become process-driven rather than client-centred. This does not aid rehabilitation and it's issues like this that both make me angry and spur me on. We need a grown up discussion and debate about probation urgently or as I've said, sadly we're finished.  

Thursday, 13 January 2011

What Does a Probation Officer Do?

An obvious question and one I should have tackled earlier I suppose. For the purpose of trying to outline an answer I will assume that the PO in question is working in a field team and has a generic caseload. This is still the core role within the Probation Service and generally speaking all new officers start here before possibly moving on to a whole host of specialist posts in prisons, hostels, programmes, court etc. 

A field PO or Offender Manager as most are styled nowadays will typically have a caseload that consists of about a third in custody and two thirds in the community. Of the clients in the community, some will be on Community Orders, or 'probation' and some on licence having been released from prison. Every adult sentenced to more than 12 months imprisonment will be allocated an officer based in their locality. The only major change in recent years is that the supervising officer may be a Probation Services Officer, rather than a qualified probation officer. In theory the distinction is based on risk and seriousness, but increasingly the boundaries are being blurred. For example it used to be clearcut that all domestic violence cases went only to a probation officer, but little by little management are finding ways of fudging this and PSO's are being asked to take on more risky cases. 

Prisoners will keep either the same officer, or another officer but from the same team, wherever they end up in the prison system. This means that typically the officer will be responsible for prisoners scattered all over the country, which can make visiting extremely difficult. The only time another Service or office will accept transfer of a case is when a definite settled release address is confirmed elsewhere and even then experience says transfer is not straightforward. There are sound reasons for this, not least being the opportunity to get to know the prisoner and idealy the officer will have prepared the original PSR. I think it is understandable that prisoners find changes of officer unsettling and although not good practice in my view it happens more frequently nowadays.

The supervising officer is expected to maintain contact throughout the sentence and idealy attend Sentence Planning Meetings in person and work with the prisoner and prison staff in terms of sentence progression and in preparing a sustainable Release Plan. I say idealy because increasingly there is pressure to either use audio or video links which are no substitute in my view. All this is the theory and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. The harsh reality is that prisoners are not a high priority most of the time and 'out of sight' can mean 'out of mind.' 

Prisoners serving four years or more are entitled to apply for early release on Parole Licence, in addition to getting the automatic right to release at the half way point. A Parole Report will be prepared and if the officer is supporting the application, the release plan will have to be detailed and may include a condition to reside at an Approved Hostel, take part in a certain programme or a prohibition on entering certain geographic areas, meeting certain people or undertaking certain activities. All this will be in addition to regular reporting to the supervising officer. In serious cases such as with lifers, the probation officer will be required to attend in person at a Parole Board Oral Hearing held at the inmates prison. The officer will have to give evidence in support of their report, answer questions from the Panel and be cross-examined by the solicitor or barrister acting for the prisoner. Clearly in such instances full knowledge of the prisoner will assist the process and be accepted as possibly more authoritative.  

In addition to making sure all those clients subject to Community Orders actually report when they are supposed to and are making some progress with the targets identified in the Supervision Plan, the other big requirement is the preparation of Pre Sentence Reports for court. Typically this might be two a week which may not sound a great deal, but as I have indicated repeatedly, the mind-numbing requirements of OASys has turned a previously interesting and professionally challenging piece of work into a dreadfully protracted and frustrating chore. Officers always used to take enormous pride in a skillfully crafted document that typically outlined in succinct form a highly complicated story that contained well argued analysis, assessments and recommendations in an easy-to-read format. I defy anyone who has been around a few years to say that current computer-generated reports are an improvement on what went before.

To a certain extent readers will have to accept my word that the job outined above has become nigh-on impossible in recent years. It is hard to adequately convey the twin pressures that come from clients who typically have chaotic lifestyles and consequently throw up a whole host of issues on a daily basis together with the inexorable demands of the computer. I have been known to joke that you can either do the work or the recording, but not both. The problem is that you are most unlikely to get into serious trouble for being either lazy or not very good, but quite likely to get the sack for failing to record everything. Quite ironic really.  

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

A Worrying Case

I find the case of PC Stephen Mitchell who was convicted last year of two rapes, three indecent assaults and six counts of misconduct in public office worrying for a whole host of reasons. It's not just that a serving police officer felt able to use his priviledged and trusted position to abuse vulnerable women, it's how did he get into the police force in the first place?

It transpires that before applying to Northumbria Police, he had served in the army where he had been accused of sexually assaulting young male soldiers. The matter was due to go to trial at Edinburgh High Court in 1997 but never progressed because the victims declined to give evidence. Of course this in itself was sufficient to preclude any employment as a police officer and even though Mitchell did not make any disclosure, it seems incredible that either army references were not taken up, or if they were that the MOD failed to inform Northumbria.

I should mention that because Mitchell appears to have been a non-discriminatory sex offender, in that he has abused young boys as well as women, this puts him in one of the most serious categories of sex offender. No doubt this was one reason that the Judge requested psychiatric reports in addition to a PSR before passing sentence. 

As if this wasn't enough though we also learn that in 2006 Mitchell was discovered by colleagues to have had sex with a woman who had turned up at the police station drunk saying she had lost her keys. Mitchell gave her a lift home, but was seen to return later alone after his shift ended. A disciplinary hearing required him to resign, but due to a failure in process this could not be enforced and in 2008 he was re-instated. Incredibly a senior police officer is reported as telling the BBC "When he got his job back, we effectively put him in a cupboard. We knew we had to keep him away from the public."

Speaking after the trial, Northumbria Police temporary deputy Chief Constable Jim Campbell said:

"We acknowledge that this investigation has highlighted some failings within Northumbria Police at both the recruitment stage and when subsequent allegations were made during Mitchell's service with the force. Mitchell failed to disclose information which would have prevented him from being appointed as a Northumbria Police Officer, but this was not identified when he applied to join the force."

He also said Mitchell had been subject to investigations after complaints by three women.
Mr Campbell said the inquiries were carried out independently but there was not enough evidence to prosecute. But he said if the complaints had been investigated together, action against Mitchell would have been likely to have been carried out sooner.

It seems clear to me that something very serious happened at Northumbria Police and some very hefty compensation claims are quite likely from a whole string of victims. He had met all the women through his work as a police officer. All were vulnerable being mostly drug users and he plied them with heroin. One was disabled. In total sixteen women were put through the ordeal of having to give evidence against Mitchell, some so scared that they were hidden behind a screen. Even so in total he was aquitted of three counts of rape, three indecent assaults and nine counts of misconduct in public office. In relation to the guilty verdicts, after a week of deliberations the Judge allowed 10 to 2 majority verdicts, so a re-trial was a real possibility.

In the end the Judge decided that two life sentences were appropriate, rather than an Indeterminate Public Protection sentence. In setting the tariff at a slightly baffling seven and a half years before consideration of release he stated 'if at all'. Without doubt this will prove a most challenging case for the allocated probation officer over the coming years.