Friday, 27 April 2018

Too Many Suspended Sentences 2

I notice Rob Allen feels the tide might be turning as regards short prison sentences in England and Wales:-
More Council of Despair?

All’s not well at the Sentencing Council. Chairman Lord Justice Treacy has had to remind judges and magistrates to use suspended prison sentences only in the most serious cases which would otherwise result in custody – and not simply as a way of giving lower level community penalties more teeth.

Treacy - and no doubt the Ministry of Justice - fear that if courts continue to ignore last year’s guideline on the imposition of custody but do pay heed to a forthcoming one on breach, the result will be “a high volume of activated suspended sentences”. That means more pressure on the beleaguered prison system which has reported record levels of violence and self-harm in 2017.

More than one in ten suspended sentences are terminated early for a failure to comply with requirements and 18% for a further offence. While it’s not known how many of these cases currently go to jail, the new guideline is expected to urge activation of the custodial sentence unless it would be unjust in all the circumstances. The draft of the breach guideline tells courts to remember “that the court imposing the original sentence determined that a custodial sentence was appropriate in the original case”. The problem is that in many cases they haven’t and it wasn’t.

The Council and Probation service have cooked up a plan to stop suspended sentences being recommended in Pre-Sentence Reports (PSRs).  They’re proposed in about a third of PSRs and courts accept two thirds of the proposals. What will happen now? While the hope is that most suspended sentences will be replaced by community orders, there’s a risk that some additional custody may be imposed or even proposed.

Such unintended consequences would be nothing new for the Council. An independent review of its work by eminent criminologist Sir Anthony Bottoms has confirmed that two major guidelines - on assaults and burglary - have led to unexpected increases in the severity of sentencing, "which is bound to create anxiety among civil liberties groups”. The review is also critical of the Council’s failure, when drafting guidelines, to consider the relative cost and effectiveness of prison and other sentences in reducing re-offending.

The review makes largely technical recommendations about how the Council should both undertake and communicate its work in the future. There are good ideas here - a greater emphasis on personal mitigation in the guidelines, and a requirement that courts ask themselves "is custody unavoidable?" because sentencers may forget to do so.

Not surprisingly the Council has rejected the idea of opening itself up to a television documentary but it has promised to foster better links with academics, review research on the effectiveness of sentencing and engage more with stakeholders other than sentencers. An external agency will be appointed to examine issues of public confidence in sentencing.

Bottoms echoes several of the findings in the report I wrote for Transform Justice in 2016 -The Sentencing Council for England and Wales - Brake or Accelerator on the Use of Prison. He argues that a preoccupation with the prison population has blunted the impact of the Transform Justice report because “the current reality is that it would be politically very difficult for the Council, even if it wished to do so, to argue for a step change in the use of prison.” That may be true but does not excuse the fact that a body which could have curbed the unnecessary use of prison has largely failed to do so.

Actually, noises coming from the Ministry of Justice are more promising than for some time. Prisons minister Rory Stewart told Parliament this week that he will be looking at what more the Government can do to emphasise ​that a custodial sentence in the short term should be a final resort. He accepted there is a lot to learn from Scotland which has introduced a presumption against short prison sentences. Maybe the tide is finally turning?

Rob Allen


  1. Interesting that as a probation officer i now find out changes in probation policy and practice on the internet.

    ... good organisations consult their staff in advance and then keep them updated !!

  2. “Actually, noises coming from the Ministry of Justice are more promising than for some time. Prisons minister Rory Stewart told Parliament this week that he will be looking at what more the Government can do to emphasise ​that a custodial sentence in the short term should be a final resort. ”

    Tide may be turning, but probably towards the Antarctic. Pointless when probation has been hacked, slashed and doesn’t have the resources or staff to deliver community sentences.

    PSO’s are the new probation officer officers and do not require any formal qualifications!!

  3. Like Buses two important interviews (you may think) arrive together.

    John McDonnell with Napo Mag's Taytula Burke

    AND Nick Hardwick with Online Journalism's BYLINE's Hardeep Matharu

    1. My response to the interview with McDonnell

      "Your comment is awaiting moderation.

      27/04/2018 at 3:59 pm

      There is still no detailed policy from Labour and an apparent lack of understanding about the probation split and other steps along the way that got us to this sorry state from Napo’s interviewer and editor of the magazine that allowed the article to appear. Some of those “steps” include removal of social work from probation officer training and the change of status of the probation order on route to it not even being a called probation order.

      My complaining will make no difference – my approach seems unlikely to be policy again and certainly not in the near future.

      Andrew S Hatton
      Associate Member
      Greater London Branch"

  4. It's always the potential unintended consequences that need to be considered before any change to penal policy is implemented.
    I think of governors being instructed to dumb down criteria for tagging. It may free up prison space, but it leaves a greater number of problematic prisoners, those that have no address to be tagged too, which in turn leads to a greater proportion of prisoners being released homeless when they reach their release date.


  5. Probation Officer27 April 2018 at 18:33

    The bottom line is that judges and magistrates should not be telling Probation what sentences to recommended. It is only because probation management is so weak that “the Council and Probation service have cooked up a plan to stop suspended sentences being recommended in Pre-Sentence Reports (PSRs)”. This meddling in sentencing recommendations should be avoided and the Sentencing Council should instead be feeding back to probation in cases where Suspended Sentences are being incorrectly / illegally recommended. Unless the law is changed Probation Officers in Court should continue to recommend Suspended Sentences in appropriate cases.

    Also, the only “noises coming from the Ministry of Justice” are about increasing electronic tagging and far “promising”. There is no plan to improve probation support, or access to housing, employment, etc. The prisons may well reduce inmate numbers, but what will be the impact on the community services Ill-resourced to adapt. Methinks, Rob Allen is talking out of his rear end.

    1. Another time, another place - the role of probation in the courts was regarded as pivotal. It was an informed & challenging role which maintained a necessary 'tension' that helped to keep sentencing decisions 'honest', i.e. no collusion over target-driven or politically directed outcomes. Sentencers had an experienced, qualified probation presence to refer to in open court, in chambers or at liaison meetings. Reports were skilfully written professional documents. The independent voice of the probation perspective was regarded with respect by sentencers & solicitors/barristers; it provided an important foil to the combative arguments of defence & prosecution.

      Lazy, ignorant & politically compliant probation management collaborated with NOMS to delete this role, thereby removing the proactive gatekeeper role which held sharp-end influence (& thus some control) over the core work of the Probation Service.

      Probation is now just another puppet organisation which jerks around at the behest of a politically expedient outstretched executive arm.

    2. Correct. PSR’s are now mostly FDR’s. FDR’s are completed by PSO’s. PSO’s do not require GCSE’s.

    3. 0911 - Do not take this out on PSO's in court (or any others for that matter ) who have been forced to complete reports against their better judgement because like 0705 said management have been far to " lazy ignorant and politically compliant "and collaberted with NOMs
      Just on another note a great many experienced PSO's / case managers have a lot more than JUST GCSE's in fact we've got a lot more about us than a lot of the PO's that have qualified in recent years and as things are going in future years !!! TR is a sad sorry state of affairs

    4. There has always been a hardcore of “great experienced PSO’s” but I think it’s fair to say the majority do not have the qualification and experience of qualified PO’s. It is a fact that PSR’s are now mostly FDR’s. FDR’s are completed by PSO’s. PSO’s do not require GCSE’s. It is indeed a mess.

    5. 1112 how long have you been a qualified PO ?

    6. Long enough to know what I’m taking about!

    7. 1004 likewise and my point in question is that many many moons ago the PO training was of a much better quality , it had now been watered down , I work with a great many PO's who have GCSE' coupled with a degree and are still completely useless as they have no life skills or experience and cannot function in their role without following a " rule book " to the very let as they are incapable of using their own professional judgement - it's not about the need of GCSE's it's a need to get the correct staff into the correct roles back to the good old days when there was a complete difference between PO's and PSO's

    8. The training has gradually depreciated and the quality of training is currently at its lowest and is shortest in length. It is still heads and shoulders above PSO training. Your initial and recent comments suggests you’re a PSO and you believe you’re heads and shoulders above “completely useless” PO’s. This may be the case in your office but I doubt anyone would agree generally. In my experience most PSO’s with these views are not very competent overall and fail to realise length of service does not put them above newly qualified PO’s, who usually come with degrees and enthusiasm, and upon qualification have relevant experience. In contrast, PSO have historically been poorly trained and are currently being recruited without qualifications or experience. Id suggest thinking about this when not bitching, gossiping and harping on about the “good old days” and brexit!

    9. 10:23 and 12:31 you sound just like a group of Court PSO’s in my office. Very good at taking Court results and telling everyone how long they’ve worked there, but not much else. Being in the same job for 20 years is not something I’d be boasting about. With managers constantly on our backs it’s a shame we have so much division amongst staff.