Finally, I continually hear depressing news regarding increasing numbers of judges who are willing to sentence for quite serious matters without the need for full probation reports. The Recorder of a major northern city apparently feels there's no problem and it's much quicker and cheaper to weigh off a manslaughter charge on an FDR. It's so short-sighted and unprofessional. I cannot help but wonder if we've been wasting our time over the years and if they ever really understood the purpose of a full PSR.......I share your concerns vis a viz full PSR and wonder where we are going with this trend? I was passing through a Court last week and was told that the Judge is now sentencing without ANY report!
It's quite clear where it is going...removal of reports altogether. It was proposed a long time ago and is not far off being implemented. The removal of legal representation and then the pre sentence report...all part of a plan..the rise of the rich and the punishment of the poor.
I'm not so worried about FDRs as long as they are done on an adjournment, in fact I have seen some better, more detailed FDRs than full reports. It's the oral reports based on short interview with defendant in court with limited CPS papers & no Children's Services or police checks. Someone the other day said that DV was the fault line running through TR & I couldn't agree more yet some courts are requesting & getting oral reports in DV cases. This is so, so wrong & colleagues in NPS should be refusing to do them in any case where there is a victim at risk of harm.
Under TR unless checks are done or diversity factors such as mental health or learning disabilities are picked up at PSR stage the chances are they never will by CRC. And the reality is that in an interview in court, generally under 30 mins, checks won't be made & diversity won't be explored.
A little bit harsh on those of us in CRCs!! We're still perfectly competent members of staff, you know. I would agree that failure to pick things up at PSR stage makes life for supervising officers significantly more difficult, however. We are getting an increasing number of cases through with reports that have significant gaps in them, many of which are resulting in wholly unsuitable orders being made.
Male with mental age of 8 sentenced to Supervision and ASAR requirement (alcohol module) - sentenced via FDR - should be interesting!!!!
Sorry I didn't mean to infer that CRC colleagues weren't up to the job far from it! My concern is in the point you make about inappropriate orders being made such as someone with a learning disability being placed on a group or domestic abuser simply being given stand alone UPW with no opportunity to address offending behaviour. Also I am well aware that some of the new CRC will push to have service users pushed off to voluntary sector or for reductions in reporting requirements to reduce costs & Max profits. If diversity issues aren't flagged up at PSR it makes it more likely the incorrect order will be made or leave the CRC, at best, playing catch up.
For cases where custody's inevitable I've always scratched my head at wondering what the point of a 3 week adjournment was apart from giving Judge background information on the defendant and background on the circumstances surrounding the offence. I always thought that we were duplicating the defence barristers work. So, I can see the point of these types of cases not having a report. With regards to FDRs on all other cases I'd say is hit and miss. I'm coming across a lot of 'skeleton tickbox' type ones and to me they're a bit pointless.
Surely the essential point of the full PSR is to bring a probation officer's expertise and analysis to the party, and which gives perspectives which invariably the defence solicitor and barrister will not have picked up on. I've lost count of the times I've had to lead them by the hand and point out factors they've missed that could be used as mitigation for example. Learning Disability is something that often gets missed in my experience, and mental health issues.
Then there's the role the report plays in informing the prison and subsequent probation staff about the person in order to assist sentence planning. Finally, as you say, information regarding the offence and helping to put that into the context of the person and the reasons for the offence commission.
The trouble is a lot of this was clearly far too nuanced for judges who seem have got it into their head that the PSR was a defence document designed to try and argue against custody and therefore wasn't necessary if custody was going to be inevitable. And before anyone says what about OASys - you know my views on that pile of useless crap! (JB)
All I can think of is that defence reps don't pick up on things, then that is not Probation's problem and like you said we're not here to mitigate for them. Why are we doing their job? The judges have sentencing guidelines so again, no reason for Probation to get involved in that and I had a short intake of breath when you suggested that the PSR could be of benefit to prison staff for sentence planning - there are OMs inside who should be doing that - why should a field team OM or court PO write a report to help inform sentence planning when the person is going to be sitting in prison for +12mths, prison should be doing it surely? The courts is one area I do think Probation could be a bit leaner staff wise and I appreciate I'm probably in the minority with this.
"Why are we doing other peoples jobs?" It's a good question, but I've been doing just that ever since I started out as a green probation student on a practice placement! I've always seen my job as a PO as applying sticking plaster to try and repair damage and failings everywhere, for the benefit of clients and on behalf of the state. A sort of catchall service of last resort. (JB)
The point about a PSR is that if done well it captures the situation before the defendant's uncertainty is removed by the sentencing decision and especially the details - length - financial orders - conditions of supervision. And not just the defendant's attitude but that of those closest to him and sometimes the wider supports, such as an employer.
In some cases it will make not a jot of difference to a sentence - but it might identify some feature that is immediately relevant post sentence, such as the practical - elderly parent needing to have care provision, dog, children and more. Then there are psychiatric situations, it maybe that there are grounds for a forensic psychiatric report that are not obvious but make all the difference in the long run. Then there are the things like vulnerability to suicide so that immediate steps can be taken to alert those who can minimise the risk.
Then, of just as a great a value is the immediate post sentence interview - the attitude on first discovering the actual sentence and the difference between the attitude when the situation was uncertain, of defendant and those closest.
It maybe rare to get good opportunity to do it all but when it happens it can be vital to the relationship between the client and the whole probation service and especially the one to one relationship. That stuff is MOST relevant in custody cases when parole is under consideration.
That some have posted here that it is unnecessary is sadly revealing about the style of probation now practiced and accepted as good enough in some places. I suspect the deterioration in this aspect of the work is partly responsible for the increased suicide numbers in prison I stress partly - other things are always more relevant, because if a probation worker did not detect a high risk, somewhere else in the chain of reception someone should have had the opportunity to tease out a higher suicide risk - if they interview properly - hopefully the old - 'you're not thinking of doing anything silly' type questions - that I heard when working in a prison are no longer asked?
I was nodding all the way through reading through this. You are right. I trained in 2005 through DipPS route which is much later than a lot of my colleagues. But reading through some of the other comments today about not needing PSRs it leaves me wondering have things really changed so much in the last 10 years? I'm feeling very old. And sad.
PSRs - the most important document in the world of probation. That was how I was introduced to report writing in 1992. My apprenticeship In the profession began as a Probation Officer's assistant. One of my earliest tasks was to read every report prepared for the court on my MPSO (money payment supervision order) duty days. Later I was asked to help with the gatekeeping of Crown Court reports (as proofreader). Those experiences ensured my depth of knowledge. When I trained, sponsored by the Home Office, report writing skills were revered and central to the role, i.e psr, parole, deferred sentence, etc. Judges AND magistrates (lay & stipendiary) read and acknowledged the contents of reports. Often I was asked to attend to speak to a report in both court settings, being quizzed in open court by judges about my proposals on numerous occasions as they worked towards their decisions. Equally I could find myself in chambers with a judge & both barristers, being offered a cup of tea & being asked to explain my thinking for a particularly radical or uncommon proposal.
Those were the days when probation officers were respected professionals. Sadly those days are long gone. I agree with much of what you say on the PSR issue. Standard PSRs are incredibly important for more serious offences, and certainly for complex offenders, and over the years I have spent much time liaising with relevant partners in order to produce a thorough and comprehensive report. I always explained to offenders that the report aimed to be objective, and was intended to assist the Court in the sentencing exercise. Unfortunately, many report writers have tended to argue unrealistically against custody in the proposal, hence the perception amongst many players in the court process that the PSR is a second tier defence.
The assumption made is that all reports were arguments against custody. Some of the best & more complex reports I ever read were acknowledgements that jail was all but inevitable, nevertheless offered several pages of insight, observation & suggestion as to how that jail term might usefully be spent - I think its now labelled 'sentence planning' - with ideas as to what might happen post-jail. Nothing new under the sun, its now been fragmented into a series of computer based codes and tickboxes designed by logarithms & formulae & 1s & 0s.
The guidance was to offer the Courts alternatives to custody, not to argue against custody, particularly if custody was inevitable. The report content was to provide objective analysis and offer suggestions towards the possibility and viability of reducing the risk of continued offending. The report was read by the person it concerned, consequently the content could and did have considerable impact on their response and subsequent ' engagement 'with the sentence. Now many reports are subjective, ridden with all the negatives the interviewer could 'identify' from the interview. Every possible 'risk' extrapolated, every 'deficit' highlighted. Proportionate sentencing proposals an apparent mystery.
I had the impression from an anon comment in a recent post that to current court staff their role was about second guessing what Mags might be thinking and making proposals accordingly. Is there no challenging of Mags thinking nowadays and getting sentences down tariff? As an old dinosaur PSR writing was the best part of the job for me. Of course you have to acknowledge cases where custody is likely, but a good report can often affect length of sentence, or on occasion lead to a judge taking a chance on a non custodial disposal. Good, persuasive report writing seems to be an increasingly lost art.
Information that I heard about from someone is that one and a half hours is the allocated time allowed for fast delivery reports. A ridiculously small amount of time as in many areas OASys generated reports are the exception rather than the rule. Most report writers would spend at least five hours on an FDR from reading CPS, researching past response to supervision, reading previous reports, liaising with other agencies etc. The real issue is that if, as a report writer, you spend longer than an hour and a half in total you don't get and credit on the current work load management tool. 1.5hrs is totally unrealistic.
Oral reports are being done in one hour fifteen minutes, including interview and delivery, it can be done as the court team manager attests...it is however a tick box report with no annotation.
All that's happened is that the full assessment process has moved from pre to post-sentence. The majority of this work will have to be undertaken by CRC colleagues given the way probation has been split. Frustrating for clients who previously would have spilt all about their lives to the PSR author. So they do a bit at court, a bit at induction and then more at the first interview with their supervising officer. Life used to be so simple when you carried on working with those clients that you'd interviewed for a PSR. How would we feel if we kept being pushed from pillar to post before being settled in a relationship with a line manager for example? The system developed in probation which I joined thirty plus years ago is so client unfriendly.
I wrote extensively on the subject of PSR's in the early days and plucked the following from the archives:-
Wednesday, 15 September 2010
The end of the PSR is Nigh
One of the most enjoyable and satisfying parts of the job used to be writing court reports. When I started they were called Social Enquiry Reports, but they were renamed Pre Sentence Reports some time ago. The astute will not have failed to notice the use of the past tense. The concept is quite straight forward - following a guilty plea or finding of guilt, the sentencers request a probation officer to interview the defendant, assimilate all rel event information and provide in written form background information about the defendant, their current situation, the circumstances of the offence and most importantly a suggestion as to possible sentence and with reasons. The probation officer has a privileged opportunity of speaking directly to the sentencers from an independent viewpoint and as such can be extremely persuasive in being able to influence the eventual outcome. Not surprisingly therefore this has always been seen as a key skill and most officers take enormous pride in producing high quality reports that result in courts following their recommendations. In the past it was felt to be good practice to attend court in person with either a controversial, unusual or brave recommendation in order to be able to re-inforce it on oath if necessary. Sadly, hardly any of this is true nowadays.
Several years ago I was offered the opportunity of moving out of a field office and into a Court Officers post. Many, including myself, felt that this meant being put out to grass, but I needed a break from the front line and I was flattered when management said they wanted 'a safe pair of hands; someone who looked smart and could talk whilst stood on their feet'. It didn't take long to discover just how far the art of PSR writing had deteriorated. On a daily basis I found myself having to try and explain, correct and apologise for colleagues poor quality work. How could this have possibly happened? To a large degree, but not completely, the answer is OASys - the all-singing, all-dancing universal offender assessment tool. Unbelievably nowadays this mammoth, brain-numbing, 90 page computer form is required to be completed before the magic button 'prepare report' is pressed. Yes, modern-day PSR's are computer-generated, so it really shouldn't be that surprising if many of them are unintelligible, riddled with repetition and impossibly 'cranky' sentences. Old timers like myself gave up long ago trying to edit the result into something readable and just throw the whole lot away and start again. More recent officers say they haven't got the time, and to be honest why should they if the system is that crap? What beats me is how did any intelligent human being think that this was a good way to write a report for court? As an aid to sentencing, I think the days of the PSR are numbered. Not surprisingly, the 'authors' never seem to show up at court either. Me? - I do on occasion, just out of sheer devilment.