Saturday, 7 February 2015

Guest Blog 24

What works? Why the mystery?

Grayling’s much acclaimed (or defamed) ‘Rehabilitation Revolution’ has, once again, forced the world of Probation to revisit the concepts around ‘what works’ in ‘addressing offending behaviour’. The introduction of the private and, marginally at most, the voluntary sector into the delivery of Probation services has been justified by the argument that these new players will bring with them ‘innovation’ and ‘creativity’, offering new ways of working with offenders in ‘addressing offending behaviour’, utilising their ‘expertise’ and ‘experience’ in working with this client group. 

In preparing for the new universe, most of the bidders have acknowledged that there is no ‘magic bullet’ whilst simultaneously seeking to convince the commissioners at the MoJ that they have found it. The commissioners will have interviewed the new players, nodding sagely throughout their presentations, and poured over the bids looking for evidence of the promised ‘innovation’ and ‘creativity’ whilst simultaneously seeking to determine which of the bids offers the greatest amount of ‘more’ for the greatest amount of ‘less’. The ‘desistance model’ seems to have been the one that caught their ear. Desistance; yes. We can sell that. Desistance: abstain, cease, stop. The latest ‘magic bullet’ in a market where ‘magic bullets’ are ostentatiously ignored and, simultaneously, embraced.

Tragically, Probation practitioners have known for decades ‘what works’ and have sought to alert their Ministry to the facts but to no avail. The need to airbrush ‘Probation’ in all it’s glory from the history books has been the overriding ambition of a overwhelmingly ambitious Secretary Of State and his Prison Service lackeys, whose distaste for ‘lefties’, prison reformists and social workers in general is a matter of record. It’s all about employment and accommodation now, folks, even if they already had both when they offended. Probation practitioners (I am trying not to use the term Probation Officer as I know that this can be divisive) know what is needed. The list, whilst not exhaustive, begins as follows:

  • Immediate access to decent mental health services; and/or 
  • Immediate access to properly funded and sustainable detoxification and rehabilitation services, both abstinent and non-abstinent in nature; with effective throughcare; and/or
  • Long-term counselling for adult survivors of child sexual abuse; and/or
  • Bereavement counselling; and/or 
  • Family Therapy: and/or
  • Effective social work services: and/or
  • Affordable and secure accommodation (AND floating support, not JUST floating support): and/or
  • Secure, long-term employment opportunities: and/or
  • Swift and adequate benefit payments, sensitive to interruption: and, most importantly
  • The right to fail and to be allowed to try again and again and again.
I am told, although I do not have an academic reference for this ‘fact’, that the average addict, be that drugs, alcohol or even cigarettes, takes an average of 11 attempts to come of their substance of choice before they are able to address the issue once and for all. For me, what the statistic shows is not that the recovering substance misuser is ‘unmotivated’, ‘too damaged’, ‘too weak’ or ‘playing the system’ but that it takes 11 attempts at recovery before they succeed. My thirty years of practice within and outside of the Criminal Justice System has taught me that the 11 failures are as important in the road to recovery as the 12th ‘successful’ attempt. 

The requirement to enforce any form of community sentence or period of licence supervision is entirely defensible, given the responsibilities to the victims of further offending, but every Probation practitioner understands the potentially negative effect this can have on the process of rehabilitation. Programmes of intervention are often interrupted and re-engagement can present difficulties for all parties. Services or funding accessed pre-breach may no longer be available and, even if the potential is there, the offender has often had to go to the back of the queue whilst someone else has a ‘chance’.

The use of ‘signposting’ has appeared in the bids. Current wisdom is that we, the Probation Service, ‘do not have the expertise’ to do everything. We are not drug counsellors or family therapist or employment specialists so why not ‘signpost’ our offenders to those agencies who do have that expertise and who are, fortuitously, funded to deal with these issues. It may come as a surprise, to the creative innovators who are now in charge, that we, the public sector Probation practitioners, have been doing this for decades. The problem is, has and always will be that the services listed above, the ones that ‘work’, are massively underfunded and increasingly rationed to a critical few. 

The services that work are often simply not there or all but inaccessible, particularly in rural areas. Chronic underfunding often means that the interventions on offer are inadequate (one month’s drug rehab where the assessed need is for nine?) or there are delays in accessing services that mean that periods of supervision lapse or people re-offend whilst on a waiting list. In addition, as a consequence of commissioning models and the ‘race to the bottom’, providers are often staffed with poorly paid workers who are continually leaving to get better jobs and whose replacements, after a gap of a few weeks or months, are just arriving and are not yet properly trained. 

The ‘expertise’ of the organisations is as often as not rhetorical rather than real and it is not uncommon to find that an experienced Probation practitioner HAS got more knowledge and experience than the provider on their area of ‘expertise’ (this is not always the case and there are many well established partners that have provided sterling service to Probation for decades. Sadly, they have all been sidelined as well and, despite their genuine knowledge and experience, are facing replacement by new faces). 

The question for Probation practitioners is not ‘shall we refer’ but has always been ‘what do we do while we wait’, wait for referrals to generate a response, wait for the service to get up and running or to recruit the lone worker to fill that vacancy in the Probation office. What can we do while we wait and how can the needs of the offender be addressed when the ‘expertise’ allegedly on offer remains inaccessible? This is one of the reasons why Probation Officers were historically trained as Social Workers and why proper professional training is crucial for the management of this client group to be effective. The offenders need support whilst they are waiting their turn.

For some years now, the privatisation of various arms of ‘social/welfare services’, in their broadest sense, has involved a model whereby private providers come in, reduce the staffing levels, reduce the terms and conditions of staff and increase caseloads. They close down small units and create bigger ones, centralise services, ‘cream and park’ service users and place additional pressure on staff and service users alike in order to redirect money from services to shareholders. There is no innovation here. It is an established process which is simply modelled to the specific circumstances at hand. In Probation, this will result in higher caseloads and more superficial contact (if any – watch out for a reporting kiosk opening near you). 

The simple truth is, beyond a tiny number of commissioned partners intermittently on site, the referrals will go all but unanswered. The drug user abused as a teenager will continue to self-medicate. The DV victim will continue to drink to get herself through the day whilst the street drinker will do so to get himself through the night. The heroin addict will use whilst waiting for a methadone prescription whilst the mentally disordered offender will self-medicate whilst awaiting an appointment with the CMHT. The support offered by a kiosk or a mentor will just not cut it in this environment. Managing these vulnerable individuals using group-work may work sometimes but, more often than not, the vulnerabilities in question will militate against engagement in this kind of operating model.

The expertise and corporate memory of the Probation Service has been marginalised by the arrogance and ignorance of politicians and civil servants. The offer to use the only evidenced experience of community supervision to manage the under 12-months custody cohort was ignored because the desire to privatise was overwhelming and sufficient to blind the players to the risks. The warnings were unheeded and the ensuing chaos will be ignored for as long as possible. ‘What works’ is a known quantity and will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever achieved anything within the context of community supervision. What doesn’t work, in any industry, is letting inexperienced and untried providers using untested delivery models ‘have a crack at it’.



  1. Sodexo justice services in our area has now started to roll out the great vision however it seems to be increasingly blinkered and in some places blurred as to how to proceed other than the ' restructuring' mantra which seems a given....yet when questioned as to how or why to restructure without getting a grasp of the complexities of the job there was no response, giving the impression that the take over is a cut n run job.....acquire as much cash as possible then hope we dont get found out......

  2. I have long suspected that the politicians set up such situations in the hope that the "undesirables" who need these services will drink themselves to death, commit suicide or otherwise disappear from view so they can then live in the sanitised utopia that is left whilst congratulating themselves for dealing with the problems.

  3. off topic but interesting about mobile phone use in prisons in america and the profit to be made.

  4. Brilliant & perceptive Guest Blog - thank you Ishmael.

  5. Yes Anon 9.11, that is the mantra. 'We don't know what our operating model will look like but we know we will need X less staff to do it'. It is an approach that leads inevitably to unmet needs. I guess the received wisdom is 'we will never meet all of their needs so lets stop trying and meet as few as we can get away with.

    Re: kiosks. If someone's needs and risks are minimal enough to require an intervention that superficial, they should not be under supervision. THAT is inefficient.

    1. I absolutely agree. According to the offender management model they should have been given Unpaid Work or a curfew.

  6. with regard to comments on (and from) clients who are seen to be defensive and arrogant and indeed promote themselves as uncooperative, not cool to reveal the inner you- I have just read wise words from Freddie Flintoff -

    ''Vulnerability(in sport) is always seen as a weakness but I think it is a strength. You put up a guard all the time, you become hardened to everything, you don't want to give anything away, and it becomes exhausting. When you live like that, there's got to be a reaction to it, when you just can't do it any longer and I experienced that,...... professional sport, everyone is vulnerable...boxers talk themselves up. When you go back to your room at night and turn the lights off and you're left with yourself, that's what your left with. Everyone questions themselves and everyone likes a bit of love now and then'.

    Anyone recognise themselves - the REAL you?

    This could have been written by a psychologist, or counsellor, very thought provoking and empathetic - has Freddie got a new career ahead?

    1. A client once told me, whilst in a very deep self analysis, the trouble is, "wherever I go, I have to take myself". Ain't that the truth?

  7. Dear Purple Futures,
    I've been allocated a short custody case and I have to advise what the rehab elements will be for the post sentence supervision - the problem is that you haven't let us operational staff know who, what or how these will be delivered. Any information will be gratefully received.

    1. Dear OM,

      Having asked around our office the general response was that we, quite literally, do not have a fucking clue.

      I also asked them your question and it would appear that you can use the above response as an aswer.

      In fact it would be fair to say that, as a company, we are as much use as mudguards on a tortoise. However, and get this, we don't fucking care.

      Purple Futures

      (Well, not really PF, but you get my drift)

    2. Dear OM, if I can signpost you to this previous posting by Mr Brown
      it would be fair for me to posit that you are fucked.

  8. MOJ's own reoffending stats show probation has a much higher success rate than comparable cases in short term custody - they've got 'em 24/7 in jail but they can't help them desist. What works is the skilful engagement with an offender at the heart of the probation relationship - trust, empathy, motivation. Simple to say, very difficult to do well.

  9. Thank you just a brilliant blog!

  10. Thanks Ishmael. Great start to today

  11. Ishmael, I agree with every word and can I say you have a most engaging style.


  12. All of this rang so true for me. As we were going through the split so our local drug and alcohol services were being privatised. There's a shiny new service in place of at least two others but the workers who migrated across didn't know which bits of the work they would get. I have a man with an ATR who had worked a long time with his alcohol worker. We were then told a new worker had been appointed but after weeks of trying to contact them I received an apologetic phone call-the person had been told they weren't taking ATRs after all! Its taken a few more weeks for his old worker to come back. Effectively the ATR part of the court order hasn't been operating for this man for a couple of months!

  13. Counselling and Family Therapy formed part of my CQSW training, we also had to complete modules in Sociology, Psychology and Social Policy. ( I don't believe Sociology is even a relevant degree now for the PQF Award...Police Studies is though) There was always a strong emphasis on critical analysis and looking at innovative ways of working. Once in post there was frequent opportunities to train and explore new approaches. Government policy changes were debated regularly in conferences workshops etc.

    Been there, done that..a lot of us have well worn T shirts!

    The 'Desistance' model just like 'What Works' (or worked) turns on the quality of the relationship the person being supervised has with the supervisor. Without this everything else is just padding.



  16. cant wait for Bleak Futures blog tomorrow - I just cant help feeling many people are now just putting their heads down and 'getting on with it' whilst this is admirable and a case of 'needs must' we all need to remember to keep using this blog to highlight examples of daily office practices that are making a hard job even harder.

  17. re 20:15 what a lot of 'motivational speak' hot air ! Where's the direction about what to do with all the people coming 'through the gate' on Monday- and those who have already been sentenced under ORA?

    Targets anyone? might as well paint a few on those nice shiny tablets held by the peripatetic (I hope there not lone) workers in the community....

  18. Here's an interesting article for a number of reasons.

    1. The Justice Minister has banged on for the last 18months about the lack of support for under 12months offenders. Anyone appearing in court can now legitimately use this 'fact' as a form of mitigation. I'm sure solicitors will advise their clients as such.

    2. If the courts accept this, and why wouldn't they if the Justice Minister has said it's so, then whatever sentence handed down will be done with trying to incoperate the 'missing support', that the offender hasn't been getting and is in need of.

    3. When the offender appears in court again, the level of assistance extended by whatever CRC they're involved with will be open to scrutiny in court and by the public in general.
    I think the private profiteers will soon realise that they're walking a tightrope, and will be held to account frequently if not providing what their being 'brought in' to provide.

  19. Ishmael- genius, thank you! To a certain extent there have always been delays and problems getting people into services and intervention, but the client had their probation bod to help them through those tough times, and sometimes people just need to know they are not alone. Remove the supervision safety net, increase the complexity of accessing services and create longer delays, and what works mean diddlysquate!

    I work in an areas where there is a bond bank service and fairly good local council, but I supervise a man who wishes to move to another county, to be close to his family, his adult son and brother! The other area, has no bondbank service, and council have outsources all their social housing to a private company- so the option of a council exchange not available and the private company, like lots of employerr, insurance companies etc have caveats in the small print that they do not have to do business with people who have criminal convictions!

    Our court team is in dissarry, frequently getting the individual in the office for psr, without any information or documentation and rarely found on Delius! The system is a Crock of shite!

  20. What a shame that so many, when they are willing to accept the help they need to break the cycle of addiction, are forced to wait. Just as there is help for those addicted to opiates through buprenorphine treatment, there are services for all who are trying to get their lives on track, if only it were accessible.

  21. A drug addict and the taxpayers who pay for their incarceration would be greatly served by a probationary program that allowed for full rehabilitation even if the addict relapses.