Monday, 2 March 2015

Sonnex Remembered

A number of commentators have mentioned how TR, and in particular the split between the CRCs and NPS, is very likely to lead to SFO's. It seems appropriate to revisit the infamous 'Sonnex' case from 2008, not least because Paul Wilson is now interim HM Chief Inspector of Probation and all the elements for a repetition appear to be present in spades.

Previous SFO enquiries have highlighted issues with poor communication, information not being passed on to relevant staff, ridiculously high caseloads and unrealistic expectations of newly qualified staff. TR sticks two fingers up at those painstaking findings, at future potential victims, and the staff left trying to make sense of wave after wave of poor quality IT, lengthy new bureaucratic procedures, inadequate staffing all being driven, reconfigured and mobilised by the biggest load of pretend corporate bullshit bollocks ever, wasting time and delaying access to the information that matters.

Just catching up on the blog from the last few days. Important to remember with Sonnex that a lack of information sharing contributed to the SFO. Scary given the lack of information sharing now between CRCs and NPS: 

In 2008 Danno Sonnex was released on licence as part of an 8 year sentence for violence and robbery. The Youth Offending Institute did not share a report that highlighted that Dano Sonnex had the potential to kill: The medical report completed at the Youth Offending Institute did not transfer to the central file. 

A meeting between probation, police and prison to clarify confusion over risk level was arranged but did not take place: The multi-agency meeting did not go ahead because relevant documents could not be printed out. When charged and remanded for handling stolen goods it took 33 days instead of 5 to issue a recall warrant: The recall was delayed because probation required more detailed information from the police about the nature of the charges. 

When presented from remand prison to Court, Magistrates granted Sonnex technical bail. He was released from Court on 16th May 2008 and absconded: Magistrates provided technical bail because they believed that the licence had been revoked which would have meant a return to custody from court. 

Probation were not made aware that bail had been granted and Sonnex had been released: Probation took a further 4 weeks to formally revoke the licence. Police delayed execution of the warrant while they gathered information about whether a firearms team was required: Police were then delayed in executing the warrant.

On 29th June 2008 Dano Sonnex tortured and murdered two French students living in London. Each agency only had a partial view of the case and better information sharing could have given all of the agencies a whole view, providing an opportunity for better risk management.

If Mr. Wilson (and I'm not being critical of him), really believes and stands by the 'errors' he identified in the Sonnex case, then surely a quick glance around and he has to say the current situation in probation must indicate that another 'disaster' of similar magnitude is possible at any moment, and TR is proving dangerous!

"It emerged Sonnex was supervised by a probation officer in Lewisham with just nine months experience and who was responsible for 127 case files at the time. The new acting chief probation officer for London, Paul Wilson, said the case was a "wake up call" for London probation but that frontline staff should not be blamed.It also emerged the probation watchdog was aware of problems in services in London as early as March last year - three months before the murders. An inspection of London Probation Service found there were "fundamental problems with the timely completion of basic tasks to a high standard" adding that a third of risk assessments were not completed on time.

It is the second serious failure by the capital's probation service which faced a scathing attach by watchdogs and ministers following the murder of city financier John Monckton in 2004 by two offenders under its supervision.In 2008, the female probation officer who took on Sonnex had only been qualified for nine months and joined the Lewisham team at a time of staff shortages so immediately inherited the workload of a sick colleague as well as her own cases. It meant she could see Sonnex for no more than 20 minutes a week. Two senior officers in the area were also doing the work of five. Since the scandal some 60 additional staff have already been employed across London and another 80 are to be recruited. Mr Wilson accepted that "serious errors were made by London Probation", including management failings, central resource allocation and workload pressures. But he added: "It comes down every time to a young offender manager overwhelmed by an unfair workload and not experienced enough to grasp the risk posed by Sonnex."

This from the Guardian:- 

The disclosure that Dano Sonnex was out on a parole licence after serving an eight-year sentence for violence and robbery at the time he committed the murders is a devastating blow to the London Probation Service.

It comes just three years after an official inquiry report into the murder of the Chelsea financier, John Monckton, found that there had been a "collective failure" and numerous blunders by probation and parole staff.

The internal Probation Service reviews into the Sonnex case led to the resignation of David Scott, the chief probation officer for London, at the end of February, after allegedly being told by the justice secretary, Jack Straw, that he did not want a repeat of the Haringey social services fiascos.

The official inquiry reports released today [after the verdicts] provide a damning catalogue of serious errors and management failings by the London Probation Service. They confirm that Lewisham probation – the office at the centre of the case – was severely unstaffed, with the supervision of Sonnex left to an inexperienced probation officer with a caseload of 127 other offenders.

At the time of Sonnex's release, Lewisham probation office appears to have been in meltdown. The officer who was supervising him had a caseload of 127 offenders and had only been qualified for nine months, although she was an experienced probation assistant. She was seeing 12 to 15 people a day. Her senior probation officer was "acting up". She was just one of 22 probation officers in Lewisham, only one of whom had more than two years experience. 

According to Napo, the probation union, it appears to have been management by crisis in Lewisham, with high sickness levels averaging 27 days a year and with no proper risk assessments on 650 of the 2,500 offenders they were responsible for. "This was an office under pressure with a very high caseload," says the official verdict. Because Sonnex arrived for his probation appointments on time or even early, and was polite, co-operative and smartly dressed, he may not have seemed a priority case.

Details of the key failings in the case include:

  • Prison doctor's report that Sonnex was a potential killer was not shared: In May 2004, a doctor at Portland young offenders' institution reported that Sonnex had said he "feared that his reaction to events meant he could kill". But this was not shared with prison staff.
  • Confusion over his dangerousness: Sonnex was deemed a tier three or medium-risk offender when he should have been tier four or high-risk offender. There was confusion over this, with Sonnex listed high-risk on one probation and prison database, but medium on another. The prison service saw him as a drug-free, much-improved inmate, but the probation union claims that there was pressure to "tier-down" offenders. A key multi-agency meeting with probation, prison and police staff which would have clarified his statement was scheduled but never took place because staff could not print out the documents they needed for it.
  • No recall after an attack on a five-months' pregnant woman and her boyfriend two days after his release in February: The police did not charge Sonnex because the two victims feared repercussions and despite repeated police visits were not willing to make witness statements. The probation office heard about the incident from social services and from Sonnex as an unsubstantiated allegation. Sonnex claimed he had left the flat when an argument started. He was given only a verbal warning.
  • It took 33 days, instead of five, to issue the warrant to recall Sonnex to prison: His probation officer started the process when he was charged with handling stolen goods and remanded in custody on 3 May but there was a delay in signing off the papers as managers sought more detail on the seriousness of the charges. Lewisham was already the "top recaller" in London at time at time of prison overcrowding crisis.
  • There was also confusion between Greenwich magistrates court and Lewisham probation office which resulted in Sonnex being granted bail despite the recall application. Court officials appear to have assumed he was already on remand on another charge, and granted him technical bail. The effect was that the licence was not revoked until 16 days before the murders. He disappeared as soon as he was bailed on 16 May.
  • Police failed to act on the recall warrant for 16 days until after the murders had happened: The Independent Police Complaints Commission say "grave errors" were made by the police who failed to deal with it as a matter of urgency. At one point the arrest was delayed as police debated whether a firearms team should be sent to arrest him. Emergency recalls are supposed to happen within 24 hours. One police sergeant has received a disciplinary warning as a result.
PS Comment by Frances Crook, Howard League via twitter:- 

"the ignored failure of Sonnex was he'd been held in virtual solitary for 8 years since he was 17, yet prison not blamed"


  1. Traditionally a case where a person was serving an eight year sentence would ideally have been held initially by the first person from probation who had significant contact with him or her, which would probably have been for the preparation of a pre sentence report for the case that attracted the eight year sentence, or if no PSR, by the officer appointed following conviction.

    In such a case whilst the prison sentence was being served relationships would, hopefully have been developed with the prisoner via correspondence and occasional visits, perhaps two or three a year, and also with his family back at home.

    Such a case would be continue to be held by that officer, until the officer moved on, thus it was that I held cases of up to ten years on several occasions from almost the first probation contact to the end of the parole supervision. Such an officer would ideally be paired by a colleague - so each could cover for the other in absences and ideally supported/overseen by a senior colleague who would obviously gain significant knowledge of the prisoner concerned, because of discussions in casework supervision, particularly at significant points, such as when arrangements were needed to be made for pre parole home leave. It did not always work out smoothly BUT if the aim was to achieve continuity of contact was there, it was more likely to have done and the 'warning bells' more likely to be detected when things began to go wrong. Plus underpinning all was the one to one professional relationship between prisoner and probation officer and a personal awareness on behalf of the po of what the prisoner had done before and so was known to be capable of repeating.

    1. The notion of continuity of working with any individual case has been eroded to the point of non-existence. Firstly, the Interruption to the flow of trained staff when training was stopped. Then NOMS's interference with the imposition of inappropriate/unneccesary process & monitoring, Then the shift to Trusts. Now TR. Add to this a change in the staff profile, where the increase in mobility & ambition (allied to a younger intake) has contributed to staff being able & willing to move between areas and roles as they move up the greasy pole. Then sprinkle with the growth of agency staff.

      How many areas can now say they have staff who have been in post, let alone in one locality, for five years? For ten years? For twenty years? For thirty years?

      In the early 1990s I joined an office in an inner city area when there were 10 POs and 3 PSAs (aka PSOs). Of those POs, 2 were recently qualified but trained locally; 1 had relocated to the area about 2 years previous; the rest had been local POs for between 5 & 25 years. The PSAs had been there for 6 & 9 years.

      Where I work now (different area & CRC team) there are 3 POs and 8 PSOs. One person has been there 17 years, not one of the remaining ten has been there longer than 5 years. Most haven't been there for more than 2 years.

    2. I first worked at the office where I did my last 6 month student placement and stayed for another five and a half years. Then I did a specialist job in Borstal liaison which ended early because Borstals were closed, I was in that post for 18 months.

      Then I moved areas and worked 6 years in one team before resigning & being a locum social worker for 6 months. Then I did a locum maternity leave cover probation job for 6 months, became permanent with that Service, worked for a few months in one team in transition, before moving districts and stayed in the next for seven years, then did a five year prison secondment and finished my career with an 18 month mistake.

      In most locations I worked at were colleagues who had been in their current job for normally more than two or three years - six or seven was not unusual. I knew a few long stayers of over 10 years including one of 25 years. For me five or six years felt about right, as by then I felt too familiar not, so much with the clients but with Magistrates and the institutions in the locality. I knew it was time to move one job, when one magistrate asked me to take lunch with the rural Bench when cases went over to an afternoon in the outlying fortnightly court and a week or so later in the town court another magistrate asked me if they got a sentence right!

    3. Can I point out that I have been informed by management at what was Hampshire Probation Trust in response to a complaint I made that my OM repeatedly failed to respond to any communication I sent her before I was released that an OM is allegedly only legally obliged to communicate with an offender once a year. Management maintained that as she had written to me a two paragraph letter at the instigation of her SPO which didn't even answer a single issue I had raised or any of the questions I had asked that she had done her duty and need not communicate with me further until the following year. If this is in fact true and not some attempt to wriggle out of a failure to respond to letters from me this makes a complete mockery of what Andrew Hatton says above. How on earth can you possibly effective manage an offender or build up a relationship with them prior to release to enable you to do an accurate risk assessment if all you are required to do is send the offender one letter in any calendar year that can say absolutely nothing at all? No wonder most risk assessments don't appear to be worth the paper they are written on and why things do go so horribly wrong.

    4. I completely agree.

      SPO 3

  2. I occasionally come here to give a little reminder that the effect over-zealous supervision can have on the Client is quite possibly a great amount of more trouble than it is worth.

    Many may look at it from a different angle in so obviously it is well worth it in every case, it is their livelihoods.

    You can do anything to anyone and if it's not considered illegal, well nothing to lose, all to gain.

    So long as enough of you turn up to do it then it'll all work out fine...

  3. I think Frances Crook is so right. When a prisoner is released and probation services take up their 'supervision' they are infact at their final stage of engagement with their journey through the CJS.
    It's often the case that the supervisionary period and those involved in it take the flack when things go wrong and SFOs occur.
    But isn't whats happened to the prisoner during their detention, their development whilst in custody, an even more important issue?
    If the issues that led to the offence originally, are not addressed whilst the person is in custody, then surely they're being released into the world of probation 'supervision' still with the original offending issues unaddressed?
    I note today, that there are a lot of newspaper reports about the prison population being so over crowded, and as such pretty ineffective with regard to any sort of rehabilitave function.

    1. This snippet from an article in the Northumberland Gazette tells a story.
      And as for TTG being up and functioning in the near future?

      Official inspections have found prisoners spending up to 23 hours a day in such conditions, as overcrowded prisons lack the resources to house people safely, give them something to do and reduce reoffending following release.The figures indicate that plans to set up a network of resettlement prisons – keeping prisoners close to their homes and probation workers in the last three months of their sentence – will founder unless the prison population is reduced.Current pressures mean that prisoners are placed where there is a bed, not where they need to be to best reduce reoffending.Frances Crook, chief executive of the Howard League for Penal Reform, said: “Caging men in squalor with nothing to do all day is never going to help them become law-abiding citizens on release.“Far too many people are being sent into already overcrowded jails and the need to stem the flow is now urgent.“Government must get a grip on a prison system in crisis that is feeding the crime problem and creating more victims.”

    2. Prison isn't about rehabilitating the offender much as the political rhetoric would have us believe it is. Prison is merely about warehousing the offender until they are released into the community with as little effort as possible. Offender behaviour programmes are under resourced and often not available. The fact that they have been proven not to work should also be a factor to consider. The only way someone will stop offending/reoffending is when they want to so you have to get them to a place where they want to. But prison is simply not the right environment for such interventions. If all you want to do is get criminals off the street then prison works just fine but when these people are released as they will be sooner or later then you are likely to get worse human beings more likely to commit crime than when they went in due to the inhumane conditions they have been locked up in. Treat people like animals you get animals. Reading stories of habitual offenders who have turned their lives around it is clear that OB courses and prison usually wasn't the lightbulb moment that caused them to change.

    3. However, the opportunity to work with prisoners via a OB programme provides a great insight into the individual, something you would not have, without courses, education, vocational courses etc...model prisoners are those who never come to the notice of anybody, unfortunately, rarely model citizens!

    4. Shocking new figures show some jails are now operating at nearly double their intended capacity, as the prison crisis continues to worsen.

      Ministry of Justice data analysed by the Howard League found three out of four men's prisons are holding more people than they are designed for.

      "Caging men in squalor with nothing to do all day is never going to help them become law-abiding citizens on release," Howard League chief executive Frances Crook said.

      "Far too many people are being sent into already overcrowded jails and the need to stem the flow is now urgent."

      The new data comes amid concerns that the tough-on-crime approach favoured by justice secretary Chris Grayling is clashing with severe spending cuts to the prison estate.

      The most overcrowded prison was Leeds, which was designed to accommodate 669 prisoners but was holding 1,218 at the end of January.

      Swansea was holding 422 prisoners in a jail meant for 242, while Wandsworth was holding 1,606 in a space meant for 943.

      Faced with an ever-growing prison population and cuts to finding, prison governors are being forced to stuff jail cells intended for one person with two or even three prisoners.

      Freedom of information requests from Howard League showed that on an average day almost 19,000 prisoners are 'doubled up' and 800 'trebled up' in a single cell.

      The policy is now the norm in many privately-run prisons, such as Birmingham and Altcourse, which are G4S-run, or Doncaster, which is Serco-run

      At its worst, overcrowding forces multiple prisoners to share a six-by-ten foot cell designed for one, with little ventilation and an unscreened toilet. They are very often kept in the cells for 23-hours a day, with nothing to do.

  4. Sorry to stray off topic but Channel 4 news tonight at 7pm may well be worth a watch, as the reality of outsourcing services that should always remain in the public sector come under scrutiny at Yarls Wood.
    It' also interesting to see that whilst Serco are the prime contract holder, they actually outsource some services to G4S.
    Could that be something likely to come about in the new world of probation ?

  5. Also at odds with the initial subject of the day, but (I think) worthy of comment, here's a snippet (as best I can remember it) of a conversation overheard between two ladies in a (very lengthy) post office queue today. It struck a chord...

    X: (exasperated) Its ridiculous, only two of them when there's at least twenty waiting, and six kiosks closed.

    Y: I know, but I also feel sorry for them. This place is closing next week. They won't have jobs after that.

    X: So there'll be no main post office in town?

    Y: Oh there will, but its going to be at Smiths on the Main Street. Apparently they've offered them all jobs on zero hours contracts at minimum wage, but they've all told them to stuff it.

    X: Smiths?

    Y: Yeah, I was told they're just finishing the extension with all the security stuff in it; they got the franchise to run the post office. That's why the main street was closed for three weeks, causing all that chaos.

    X: Smiths? That's terrible. All those politicians decorating their offices and paying their mortgages with our money, and they make the post mistress redundant and give the job to someone in a bookshop. I'm glad I'm retired.

    Y: Wish I could. I'm 49 and work up at [the] Hospital for the NHS - its ridiculous. They won't take staff on, but they'll get agency staff in on a week by week basis - and they get paid twice what I get. Most of them don't know what they're doing, they don't know the area, they upset the patients, they don't do any paperwork, we have to pick all that up - and then we don't get time to see the patients, so they get more bloody agency staff in!! Its all wrong!! Its crap!!

    X: I used to be a nurse up there until I retired. This lot think they're schmoozing me with their pensioner promises, but you know what, they can all piss off. Our MP's no use to man nor beast. He's in the pockets of [single major local employer] and would sell his granny to them if he thought it would help him get some more votes. They're just ruining this country, turning it into a wasteland while they get rich and fat.

    Y: I'd shoot the bloody lot of them.

    P.S: When I got to the counter (Cashier Number Five Please) I said I was sorry to hear the post office was closing. The woman kindly dealt with my parcel, apologised for any delay, burst into tears, closed her position and ran into a back room.

    This is real life in the UK Today. March 2nd 2015. Its heartbreaking.

    1. Yeah, but don't worry at least that horrible, two-faced shit of a man Jack Straw can get between £5,000 and £8,000 per day for using any contacts he has to enable the multi-nationals to achieve their aim of destroying the working and middle classes of this country by using zero hours contracts ad deprofessionalising honest hard-workin people.

  6. Be interesting to see the MoJs response to this, and where the parcel gets pushed to!

    1. The Ministry of Justice has come under fire for placing a violent robber in an open prison - just two years into his nine year sentence.

      Police have also been criticised for not announcing for SEVEN days that Connor Smith-MacPhee had escaped from Kirkham prison, Lancashire.

      Today Worsley MP, Barbara Keeley, described both actions as ‘astonishing’.

      While on the run, Smith-MacPhee gave police the slip after they raided a house on the East Lancs Road in Boothstown, running across the rooftops of several houses in his underpants before hiding in a man’s chicken shed on nearby Birchfield Drive.

      When the homeowner found him in the shed he forced his way into his house and held the man hostage for 40 minutes before making him drive them both to Walkden. Smith-MacPhee then ordered the owner out of the black Subaru and sped off. He is still on the run.

      Barbara Keeley MP said: “I find it astonishing that both the Ministry of Justice and Greater Manchester Police regard this prisoner as someone who does not represent a risk to the public.

      "I will be asking the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, to explain exactly why this prisoner was re-categorised as a Category D prisoner when he was sentenced to nine years as recently as December 2013 for crimes involving firearms and violence.

      “I have also asked Greater Manchester Police exactly why they also regard this escaped prisoner as posing no risk to the general public when he has held one of my constituents hostage and stolen his car. There clearly is a public risk and I want to see Greater Manchester Police doing much more to protect my constituents.

      “I congratulate the Manchester Evening News for their work on their coverage of this and for taking the threat to the public seriously. We need to see this prisoner re-captured as soon as possible.”

      The 21-year-old fugitive was jailed in December 2013 for his involvement in a gang who posed as police officers to gain access to people’s homes, before attacking and robbing them.

      In one case they kidnapped and sexually humiliated a man with the barrel of a shotgun to force him to ring friends to ask for more money.

      One of the raids happened in front of two young children and a baby.

      Smith-MacPhee was jailed for conspiracy to rob, conspiracy to kidnap, and two firearms offences.

      He was moved to Kirkham prison after being re-categorised as a Category D prisoner, those who can be reasonably trusted not to try to escape.

      He walked out of Kirkham on Monday, February 23. On Friday police tracked him to the house in Boothstown, but he escaped.

      His details and picture were only released on Monday this week.

      GMP said there were ‘sound operational reasons’ for not releasing his name earlier. They have said despite being convicted of very serious offences they ‘do not believe that he currently poses a risk to the general public’.

      A spokesman added: "GMP employ varied tactics to track and apprehend wanted individuals and absconded prisoners.

      "In this case, officers had strong operational reasons for not immediately disclosing the identity and photograph of the prisoner, and still believe this was the right decision."

      The Ministry of Justice twice failed to respond to our request for a comment.

  7. Wales CRC asking staff to go into prisons to run TTG for 6 months. Wonderful secondment opportunity! I guess Working Links can put in whoever they want to. Norway seems to have the best prison/offender regime. They treat offenders like humans.

    1. You may say that but the way our prison population manipulate the system by dirty protests and self harming and, inevitably, getting their own way, do you honestly - be honest - really think that the culture would change overnight?. The Scandinavian countries, it has to be said, are more civilised and the population more intelligent than the UK. I don't need to qualify that (do I?!). Just tonight, channel 4 news were trying to paint failed asylum seekers as victims, when they were trying to exploit the decency of 'the system', like dirty protesters and self harmers by stripping off to avoid court appearances. It was all loaded against the staff and portrayed their shock and decency as racism. There was some shocking language but I ask the question 'what would you think and do, in their place?'. Belly aching bleeding hearts like the channels presenters, should put in a years service themselves THEN report back. Tony

    2. Err, really? You think the abusive words & actions of staff at Yarlswood were okay?

  8. Sonnex would have made a snappy name for a TR bidder

  9. This is a very detailed write-up. Perhaps there will be people who, after reading this, can provide more information that could assist you in the matter. I wish you all the best with the case in the future and hope things get resolved accordingly. My wife and I will cross fingers and pray things turn out for the better. Thanks.