Friday, 15 June 2012

Dinosaurs Clash!

Every blogger loves to be read and in my experience comments are avidly welcomed. Sometimes a contribution is received that is particularly challenging and hence in my view deserving of some extra careful consideration in response. A case in point concerns, as it happens, my most widely read post, somewhat provocatively entitled 'Punish Less : Understand More'. The issues raised by Brontosauras are so varied and fundamental that I'd like to address them individually and by way of a dedicated post. Those who wish to follow the argument might like to read the original post here.

I am sorry but your views epitomise almost everything that is wrong with our criminal justice system, including the Probation Service. In another post you lament the days when Probation were effectively Social Workers. 100 years of experience counts for little if you are wrong. Government changed the role of Probation officers because they didn't want them to be Social Workers.

On the contrary,100 years of experience may well indicate that we got it right. In fact I'd go so far as to say that Probation was one of the few bits of the Criminal Justice System that worked well, that is up until the government decided to change our role and before the present headlong rush into privatisation. The problem is that our work has always been difficult to explain, tailored as it should be to an individuals behaviour and needs. Each client should have a personalised approach designed to challenge particular behavioural traits and rectify impediments that might inhibit a crime-free future.

Unfortunately nowadays this type of provision is regarded as novel and expensive. Probation was encouraged down the groupwork 'treatment' route to limited effect because  of course offenders are not amenable to being 'processed' as generic entities. There is a huge range of offending and each requires an individually-tailored 'intervention' by well trained and qualified staff. Only yesterday HM Chief Inspector of Probation bemoaned the inappropriate and frequent use of standalone curfews for leading to widespread breach. As punishment goes it's supposedly cheap, but lacking any attention to underlying issues, often totally ineffective. There are no 'cheap fixes' to these issues and the magic bullet will continue to elude successive governments until such time as there is recognition that underlying issues have to be addressed, be they drug and alcohol treatment, education, housing, training, employment or counselling to name but some.
As I have explained previously, just because Probation Officers were trained as Social Workers, did not mean that they only ever concerned themselves with an offenders welfare issues. This is a gross distortion of the truth and demonstrates a profound failure to understand the role and responsibilities of a Probation Officer. Irrespective of what type of training we received, there has always been a concomitant responsibility to protect the public and reduce crime. For some it might be difficult to comprehend that both functions can be successfully undertaken at the same time, but it can and only now is it being fully appreciated that changing our role was a serious mistake on the part of ill-informed politicians wishing to curry favour with the Electorate.  

I understand all the social welfare issues that many offenders have. Co-ordinating that assistance and support is important but so are consequences. There are no consequences in our justice system. I have seen young probation officers told to fuck off by their charges. No breach. They don't know what to do about it.

Well first off I'd have to say that a client swearing at an officer says more to me about the officer than the client. It says that they have almost certainly misjudged a situation and need to take urgent action to recover it. I've been wracking my brains and that of colleagues. I'm sure I must have been sworn at over the years, but none of us could remember, it not really being worthy of note. People under a great deal of stress might well say all kinds of things, but I think it would normally be treated as being similar to what a child might say. It's laughable to suggest that it's breachable behaviour on it's own. There would have to be evidence of a continued failure to co-operate in order to trigger a return to court.

Now threats to kill is a different matter. I can recall at least two instances, neither of which resulted in prosecution because in the final analysis I did not feel they were likely to be carried out, but they did have consequences. In one case the client was 'sectioned' under the Mental Health Act and in the other the child was still removed into the Care of the Local Authority, but supervision of the client was transferred to another officer.      

On what evidence do you state that sentencing has no effect on deterrence? Utter rot.

I don't think I ever said that. Of course it has some effect, but it must be remembered that some sentencing, such as to imprisonment, has significant negative side effects and I wanted to highlight the need to address the underlying issues that led to the offending in the first place. In the end this is the only really effective way of encouraging a change in offending behaviour. Punishment alone, in my experience, is only likely to work in a minority of instances. I repeat - getting caught is much more likely to have an effect than the sentence itself.   

You then claim that the chances of getting caught has most effect on crime. How? When offenders are caught there is no effective consequences for persistent offenders including deterrent sentencing and no effective rehabilitation.

What a wonderfully sweeping statement that I fear is borne more of prejudice than insight. Getting caught is somewhat akin to gambling behaviour. In the case of the former, being arrested could be construed as just bad luck as in many instances the offender will know full well that other offences have gone undetected, and in the latter, losing is also just 'bad luck' because they had an earlier win. It's all effectively a gamble, but unfortunately partial re-enforcement can be a powerful driver for repeat behaviour. Our job is to try and counter these disjointed and misguided thought processes by various means, not least because as professionals we know only too well that further down the line consequences will follow. Driving Over the Prescribed Limit or Driving Whilst Disqualified will mean crippling insurance premiums. Indecent Exposure will mean no employment with children. Theft will mean you can't get that job in a bank. 

In truth, trying to measure 'effective rehabilitation' is difficult and probably one reason why it is so hard for us to get our message across. An absence of further convictions might not mean there has been no further offending. It might just be that they haven't been caught. If it's difficult to measure, it's also difficult to deliver. Getting a sex offender to accept their offending, possibly deal with their own abuse, change distorted thinking built up over time and effect sustainable alternative behaviour, could take years of an officer's time. Ever longer prison sentences on their own are unlikely to alter behaviour, but rather provide an environment for the consolidation of distorted criminal views. Given that we can't lock everyone up for ever, it should be obvious which approach is more likely to have a positive effect, even if it can't be measured accurately. Anecdotally, I know it works. 

It has become fashionable to say that high reconviction rates prove that Probation hasn't been working and therefore requires comprehensive 'reform'. This is to completely miss the point by punishing the doctor without dealing with the disease. Over the last 30 years it has been our absurd drug policy that has fostered and failed to deal with the explosion in drug-related crime. Of course the Probation Service has had to try and cope, but it is a losing uphill battle when we don't have access to treatment models that are effective and have to rely instead on discredited methadone prescribing. Reconviction rates would plummet if we returned to other options such as controlled heroin prescribing as in other countries.        

It is impossible to do anything but gloss over the arguments here. I strongly recommend you read a book by David Fraser, a former senior probation officer. It is called A Land Fit For Criminals. He has woken up and understands the justice system for the complete sham it is. 

I agree that the arguments are complex and the solutions considerably nuanced and is one reason for this blog. I was not aware of the book by David Fraser, but have been doing some research and unearthed some reviews. I have to say that Mr Fraser does not come over as someone who was ever really a conducive candidate for his chosen profession and of course his elevation to SPO would have meant that he was well removed from client contact, possibly for much of his career. He took part in the BBC Radio 4 programme 'The Moral Maze' following the riots last year, but did not acquit himself well in my view. I could shell out 20 quid and buy a copy of the book, but I don't feel inclined to make the investment in something I know I will find highly irritating. Yes of course it leaves me wide open to criticism as someone not willing to open their mind to conflicting evidence, but as it says on the tin, it's my blog and my experience tells me something very different.       


  1. Jim,

    Once again a tour de force on holding fast to the exemplary tradition of best practice from the front line today & critically batting off some of the more facile revisionist offerings on how the 'Justice System' has ' broken down' & Probation somehow gone astray with its attachment to a Rehabilitative ethos. Whenever there is a political shakedown/reorganisation & penal rebranding is in the offing.. ( Advise, Assist & Befriend-to Punish, Enforce & Protect).. the first basic principle of European Probation rules that forming professional r/ships are central to engagement needs to be restated... It never deserted me in my 20 yrs as a PO...

    The bk cited was reviewed in the PJ ( I take responsibility for that!)...its remit was wider than Probation, but its thunderous polemic ( at least the author had been a field PO-although I doubt if he was a card carrying Napo member?) meant that as a serious criminological critique if fell far short of being an inspired & insightful text... Cui Bono!

    Perhaps a cursory literature search on recent probation scholarship.. from amongst others Rob Canton, George Mair, P Whithead & W Fitzgibbon may offer skeptical readers something a little more substantial ( if not always comfortable reading).. on the PS today... lets hope Crispin blunt reads the copy of W Fitzgibbon's bk presented to him at last yrs AGM?... OR maybe as the two most prominent tropes in the MoJ Consultation on the PS are competition & punishment he has Mr Fraser's opus on his wish list!


    1. Thanks Mike - your continued support is much appreciated!



    2. Jim,

      I'm not sure how much that comment helps your point as these debates are often polarising and any extreme view, pro or con, just further polarises. So whilst helpful in provoking debate they can be easily dismissed. For example, Bronto could be read as a "right wing loony" and our friend Mike above could easily be read as a "typical lefty" and pretty pompous.

      Of course I don't know much about the subject so no particularly helpful comment. However, I suspect that the real truth, in the main, is somewhere between the Daily Mail and the Guardian with a few cases at either end.


    3. Marc,

      Yes you make a very valid point - of course the truth is indeed somewhere between the Daily Mail and The Guardian. The trouble is that it's so difficult to explain what probation is all about to outsiders - I sometimes wish people could just sit in and observe it all at first hand.



  2. I have invested nearly 30 years in this work and am sick of being told, by people who have spend about 15 minutes 'thinking' about it, that the things I believe in and observe every day of my working life, that are borne out by experience and consideration and numerous publications and research documents are ineffective and naive.

    It's like me feeling that I have a right to go into a hospital and tell a doctor how to treat patients because I watched an episode of Casualty, read an article in GQ and knew somone who was ill once.

    1. Rob,

      Sorry for not publishing your comment earlier, but it's been sitting in the spam filter. I share your irritation entirely by the way!



  3. Mike,

    what you are really saying is keep reading the crap that massages your liberal ethos and ignore anything that challenges those views.


    Ditto above. You can get David Fraers book from the library. It provides a different and challenging view to the ineffective mess you are part of.
    My views are probably quite right wing and a blot on the landscape of everything you have been taught. I work with offenders every day and in my view the probation service is almost completely ineffective in rehabilitating anyone. An organisation with no teeth staffed by ineffective cronies in need of dentures. The only reason parts of the justice system get away with their ineffectiveness is that the police are always blamed for crime. When this Government have carved up and privatised the police service you will find them looking at those other parts far more closely.
    The whole problem with the justice system is the lack of consequences for poor behavour. Very simplistic, but if you watch the program Supernanny, you will see that poor behaviour always has consequences no matter what the issues and problems are. They have to be resolved later. From the outset, always, always, consequences. Most of our offenders are just children in adults bodies. They would understand this but their poor behaviour is constantly rewarded rather than punished.
    Read the blog by Winston Smith for a taste of many of the problems caused by ineffectual liberal policies.
    I understand very well the work of the probation service. My wife is a probation officer. Her frustrations regarding the ineffective mess the service is in are transposed here.
    My views can be summed up in another blog.