But I’m not “indifferent” - my interest is simply in seeing Probation work done well; I don’t like seeing it done not well. Do I like the present TR arrangements? – No. (Were previous arrangements perfect? – No.) Are the arrangements going to be changed by this Government before 2020, or even by an alternative Government before or after 2020? – I can’t see it. So what is still achievable in terms of doing Probation work well in the meantime?
As Chief Inspector I did see, and reported, some excellent work being done under the various ‘old’ arrangements, and I saw some pretty shoddy stuff too. Now, under TR, I’ve little doubt that it’s tough for many practitioners, especially with nDelius and some doubtful management practices, but recent inspection reports show that good practice is certainly still being carried out some of the time. So although I wouldn’t have chosen the current arrangements (understatement!) I have some idea about how I would make it work well/better. I have written elsewhere about how to make this happen– see my website http://ambridges.wix.com/mysite - but for this blog I’ll just focus on the practitioner perspective, and on one element in particular this time, picking up on March’s discussion on this website about acceptable v unacceptable absences.
The key thing I would ask you as a practitioner to do is to focus on achieving three things (the Three Purposes of Probation), by asking yourself regularly with each case:
- “Am I holding this individual to the terms of the Court sentence or licence?” – that’s promoting compliance, and enforcing if and when needed, to Implement the Sentence
- “Am I helping this person to become less likely to reoffend in future, and how will I evidence that?” – that’s using principally constructive interventions measurably to Reduce Likelihood of Reoffending
- “Am I taking all reasonable action to protect others from harm from this individual?” – that’s using principally restrictive interventions to minimise the individual’s Risk of Harm to others – i.e. Manage Risk of Harm to others.
The next and crucial key point is that as long as you are conscientiously working towards achieving (as far as you can) each of those three purposes, then how you go about doing that is up to you. Although almost all the sets of instructions / manuals / rules / protocols that have been devised over the last thirty years have been written with the very best of intentions, often at one time by groups of enthusiastic practitioners, they simply don’t work as a way of managing frontline practice by using detailed instructions. Instead, for the skilled practitioner, planning and carrying out how each of the purposes is going to be achieved, or at least progressed, is where the individual’s initiative comes into play – it’s the rewarding part of the job. Yes, to help you there has to be training, coaching, old-fashioned supervision, and even the occasional advisory (short) guidance document, but the decisions about how you do your work are yours provided they are clearly aimed at achieving the Three Purposes.
(Incidentally, if you simply don’t agree with the aim of achieving the Three Purposes, and are not prepared to work towards them then I don’t think you can work in this service – for me it would be the bottom line of what you are being paid a salary for, whether in the public or privatised part of the service.)
Obviously there’s lots to be said about what it means to achieve the Likelihood and Risk purposes – some is already on my website – but here I will on this occasion focus on Implementing the Sentence. It struck me when reading the discussion of Acceptable and Unacceptable absences in March that the object of the whole exercise was missing. [For new readers, an officer wrote in and said that that s/he wanted to mark a third absence in a month by a current case as Unacceptable but s/he didn’t want to breach – the manager told him/her to change the absence to Acceptable.] Yes the employer had a target to achieve – to breach on second/third unacceptable absence - but the practitioner(s) didn’t own it. There wasn’t a shared understanding between employer and employee about what this piece of practice should be aiming to achieve.
My first instinctive thought at the time was one shared by one of the other contributors: surely if an absence is ‘potentially breachable’ it’s Unacceptable, and if you don’t think you should breach then by definition it must be Acceptable? But of course, as with most things in Probation practice, on reflection it’s a bit more complicated than that. I can think of at least two theoretical scenarios in which one might quite properly mark an absence Unacceptable, and then might make a separate and yet quite reasonable decision to refrain from breach action. One is the classic case of the second Unacceptable absence being in the last week of the Order/Licence, and the other is if, after the unacceptable absence, the person concerned is rushed into hospital. There may be others, but nevertheless they should be very rare, because a system of prompt breach action when required means that the service can carry out that initial breach action before the complicating factor has arisen. (Yes I know that in practice it’s a complete pain to do, especially with the current nDelius.)
However, in this particular case on this blog, it wasn’t one of those types of instances. The practitioner had phoned the person, and on that basis decided that the individual was still ‘in contact’, and that s/he therefore didn’t want to take action on the third unacceptable absence in a month. There was some online discussion about whether s/he should have chased up the person under supervision in this way, and in this and in other respects this seemed to me a not unusual case that was causing so much heat.
So let’s step back from the sets of instructions and targets and review this in the context of a Purpose to Implement the Sentence – a purpose in its own right. If the person was serving custody, the prison would be required to keep him/her locked up; if on community service, work a set number of hours (quite complicated itself at times, so we won’t go there this time); and if under supervision they should keep appointments as required. In bare terms the task for the practitioner is to set appointments for the person under supervision, behave in a way to promote compliance by the person with the appointments, and to take enforcement action if compliance is not achieved.
Most people who have never been a probation practitioner, or forgotten the experience, don’t realise just how messy this simple-sounding process can get. Unlike prison, where the constraint is directly physical (until you get to open conditions), although probation is now a sentence it is a conditional sentence: the offender is ‘subject to rules’ and a return to Court or custody is the sanction for breaking the rules. This still sounds fairly simple, but with many cases messy reality can make it really difficult for the practitioner to manage, and sets of instructions and ‘process targets’ have ultimately not helped. For me the key question, for this Purpose, is “Is this person serving their sentence?” It’s a qualitative question, requiring a series of qualitative judgements, and in each instance my main stipulation would be not to issue a whole set of instructions but to advise, “Please don’t be silly about it, as you ask yourself: Would a reasonably sane member of the public find my actions credible?” when answering each of the following questions:
1) “Have you set enough appointments?” – (This is in order to achieve the Compliance purpose; you might set additional appointments for other purposes such as to manage Risk of Harm to others.) Personally, I can’t see how any case where the Order or Licence is active could credibly be ‘serving their sentence’ if they don’t have at least one appointment every month as an absolute minimum.
2) “Has the person under supervision complied with each appointment?” - I can think of hundreds of scenarios which can complicate this: arriving late (how late?), coming early and then not waiting, coming on the wrong day, ringing up saying “I forgot, shall I come in now?” etc. As now, you are making judgements about whether a failed or mucked-about appointment is Acceptable or Unacceptable.
3) “If the person is starting to ‘slip’, what action can you take to promote compliance?” It has to be appropriate to the case – your judgement. With some, going to their home might be experienced as helpful and caring; with others, that you are a complete ‘soft touch’. Even if an absence is acceptable (and especially if unacceptable), why not set an additional appointment to make up for the one they missed? Some will become more responsive when this is done; others will for whatever reason push you further.
4) “Has the person now slipped into ‘not serving their sentence’?” Look at the pattern by this individual: Think of 100 Daily Mirror readers – members of the public who are not inherently hostile to public services - and in your head ask them the question (for example): Is a person who has without reasonable excuse failed three appointments in a month serving their sentence of the Court? Answer: Probably Not.
5) “If they’re not ‘serving their sentence’, why wouldn’t you take breach action?” The instances of this would be very rare indeed. The sanction (for Orders) is the taking them back to Court – in principle at least the Court’s action is a separate matter, so an electronic tag with Order to continue might be suitable in some cases.I’ve documented my general approach to managing Probation practice in more detail elsewhere, and it stems from my practice as Chief of Berkshire 1998-2001. It wouldn’t be everyone’s cup of tea I know, and when something similar was introduced in New Zealand at my behest in 2010 one of the ‘costs’ for practitioners was that they found they needed to make fuller entries on the case records in order to ‘account for their decisions and actions’. I should have foreseen that more quickly, but I don’t retreat now from the position of wanting to offer practitioners much more discretion about how they achieve the Three Purposes – and be accountable for that – while offering no discretion about what I believe they should be trying to achieve.