Thursday 30 September 2010

Probation by Stealth

Now it's just possible that there are still a few probation officers around with long memories and who will have instantly recognised the significance of the title. I've shamelessly stolen it from a piece of the same name and penned in 1977 by the legendary probation officer who for years had a column in the now defunct weekly 'New Society'.  Going under the banner of 'Tailgunner Parkinson', Geoffrey found himself famously suspended by his employers, for suggesting that 'persistent and violent criminals should occasionally be encouraged to exchange their nasty old ways for petty deviances, like moonlighting while drawing social security'

The article turned into everyones nightmare - the front page of the News of the World. He later reflected on what he had written as having been 'half-jokey, half-inept, but it revealed problems that committed front line POs were meeting every day. I felt they would surely appreciate that.' Funnily enough his career was eventually saved by Harold Evans at the Sunday Times because that very same weekend they had published a carefully considered article in the colour supplement based on his ideas.

Since beginning this blog, I've got to thinking a lot more about that column and managed to extricate my copies of 'New Society' from Uni days, safely stored in the loft. Reading through them it has only served to highlight the extraordinary journey probation officers have travelled; the many similarities that remain, but also to remind me just how much we have lost as a profession, not just in ditching social work, but also in terms of experience, knowledge, colour and passion. The Probation Service used to be filled with real characters who had the freedom to be themselves and innovate. In searching the internet I came upon the following, written by none other than John Waterhouse and in reference to the 13 radio plays written by Parkinson between 1972 and 1994. 

........Geoffrey was employed as a probation officer by the Inner London Probation Service for over 30 years. He took pride in remaining unpromoted (he was at one time the longest serving main grade officer in the probation service). He grew up in Epsom, Surrey, where he continued to live (as a sort of suburban guerrilla) and, as a young man, attended the local Methodist church. He said that some of the material for one of his plays was drawn from this experience.
Geoffrey wrote a column for the now defunct journal ‘New Society’ under the byeline ‘Tailgunner Parkinson’ From this vantage point he took potshots at all and sundry. He also contributed provocative articles to other journals and the press frequently asked for his views on dealing with offenders. He was a thorn in the flesh of his line managers, was suspended for a time, and eventually banished to the Woolwich office as far away from HQ as possible.
Geoffrey is something of a legend in the Probation Service and some will remember him more fondly than others He was a complex man, highly amusing in conversation and blessed with a vivid imagination and sometimes acid tongue. He had a genuine commitment to work with offenders who he saw as more in need of help than punishment.
(John Waterhouse)

It reads like an obituary, but a note attached in Aug 2004 records that Geoffrey was said to be in his late 70's at the time, so for all I know he is still living happily in retirement somewhere. I hope so. I wonder what he'd make of the blogosphere? As to my practice, seeing as management haven't yet taken to putting recording equipment in interview rooms, I still have the ability of using private conversations with clients to practice social work by stealth if I want to.  

Wednesday 29 September 2010

Narey Attacks Former Boss

I see it's reported in the Guardian that Martin Narey, former Director-General of the Prison Service has had a go at his former boss Jack Straw during a Labour Party fringe meeting. He castigated him for rubbishing the current Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke in the Daily Mail following his speech on the need to reduce the prison population. Apparently the meeting got a bit testy, especially when Jack was trying to explain the rise in prison population under his watch from 62,000 to 85,000.  Basically he seemed to be saying it wasn't anything to do with him but just the consequences of Labours "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" stance. Despite him saying his policy had been to try and stabilise prison numbers, I seem to remember that it was Jack who was quite keen on the idea of building three super 'Titan' prisons holding two thousand inmates each. 

Martin Narey went on to suggest that Justice Secretaries can either "talk prison numbers up or down" and that courts respond accordingly. It's an interesting concept that the 'mood music' is important and can actually reflect sentencing outcomes. I hadn't thought of it in quite that way, that sentencers are affected directly, but Narey says that when Douglas Hurd was Home Secretary he "talked down" the prison numbers by about 4,000 in the late 1980's. He says it's important to set the scene and I think I have to agree, but as to a direct connection, surely not? 

In defending his period in office, apparently Jack went on to say he was convinced that "75% of the prison population were persistent violent offenders who were a danger to the community and who deserved a measure of respite care, which was afforded by sending them to custody for a few weeks". I think many may find that a surprising analysis of the situation, certainly not one I recognise, and a rather worryingly simplistic approach from a former Justice Secretary.

But then it was Jack Straw who famously went ballistic when he found a copy of 'Radical Non-Intervention' by Edwin Schur on a probation officers bookcase. It is said it was due to that encounter that he set about changing the culture of the Service with such gusto, turning us into a 'Law Enforcement Agency'. He made a speech to a conference of newly-qualified probation officers a couple of years ago saying how proud he was of the change in culture within the Service. So, in my estimation, that admirably demonstrates how little he knows about anything and his retirement from mainstream politics was well overdue in my opinion.

Well done Martin for putting the boot in.

Tuesday 28 September 2010

A Shocking Statistic

It has been estimated that up to 90% of the prison population have a mental health problem. This is an official figure from the Office of National Statistics, but unfortunately no distinction is made between those individuals with a learning disability, as opposed to those with a mental health problem. Or indeed how many that might be personality-disordered or emotionally disturbed. Of course they are all very different conditions, possibly over-lapping, but each requiring specialist diagnosis and appropriate intervention. With something so complex, it's perhaps not surprising that there is often confusion in all parts of the Criminal Justice System. I've known professionals in court admit that they have no idea as to the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist and as a consequence request the wrong specialist report. A psychiatric nurse is trained to deal with mental illness, but a clinical psychologist will be more appropriate for someone with a learning disability and a specialist counsellor might well be required for a client suffering emotional distress.

Unfortunately this confusion was compounded by the well-intentioned Bradley Review set up by the last government to look into the whole issue. Even this august body had trouble in agreeing on terminology and failed to decide between 'learning difficulty' or 'learning disability' as a definition. I think it's most unfortunate that the experts seem unable to clarify the matter, as it would be an assistance to the Criminal Justice System in deciding how to deal with such people appropriately. We know that many learning-disabled end up incarcerated, due as much as anything to a basic lack of understanding of the condition and how it differs fundamentally from a mental health issue. I firmly believe that 'learning disability' is the appropriate term as this accurately describes a state from which an individual cannot significantly improve. It is not a 'difficulty' which implies a minor condition that could be overcome. 

As part of the last governments' response to the Bradley Review, Jack Straw set up two experimental Mental Health Courts in Stratford, East London and Brighton and their work is being evaluated. They are modelled on the Drug Review Courts that have been running successfully in many areas, the idea for which having been borrowed from North America. The aim is to ensure that an offenders state of mental health and level of intellectual functioning are accurately assessed, prior possibly to the imposition of a Community Order with appropriate conditions. Progress is reviewed at regular intervals by either a District Judge or Lay Justices. In the case of a mental health issue, a Mental Health Treatment condition might be appropriate. 

Of course this type of condition has been around for a very long time, previously as part of a Probation Order and more recently a Community Order, but in my experience they are about as rare as hens teeth. This is borne out by the statistics. Between July 2008 and June 2009 there were 754 compared to 13,000 Drug Rehabilitation Orders and 5,800 Alcohol Treatment Orders. The discrepancy being basically because probation officers know only too well that it is pointless going down this route as the appropriate medical and social service provision will not be available. It would be especially naive to believe that NHS managers, GP's, consultants, psychiatrists or psychologists are the slightest bit impressed by Court Orders and that they might feel obliged to do their bit in ensuring their success. I think some believe treatment associated with any form of requirement goes against their professional ethics. 

Apart from mental health issues, I'm not at all sure how those with learning disabilities are intended to be dealt with by these experimental courts. Such people don't require 'treatment' but they almost certainly do require sheltered housing; ongoing community support; probably a social worker and ideally special help with employment. As someone who has tried to supervise such cases, I'm very interested to know how a court disposal will ensure these services are provided by Local Authorities and the NHS, because in my experience they are not available. As an example, I've been told in one particular area, there simply is no Adult Clinical Psychology provision at all. How can that be in what is supposed to be a national service? In my view, this particular field of professional expertise is so necessary for some probation clients that I have long-argued we should employ our own. 

 It has always amazed me how a learning-disabled person can pass through State Education, come into contact with various parts of the NHS and reach the age of 18 with no definitive diagnosis or assessment of IQ or mental capacity. It often takes a court appearance and possibly a remand in custody and a PSR request before a probation officer suggests it might be a good idea to get some answers to some very basic questions such as 'does this person have the capacity to understand what is going on?' or 'why don't we know the level of intellectual functioning of this person?' These experimental Mental Health Courts might well be a way forward, but the questions are firstly, will there be any money to fund them with court closures looming and secondly, will the specialist service provision they will undoubtedly identify as being necessary actually be available? I doubt it.

Monday 27 September 2010

It's the Relationship Stupid!

This year the AGM of NAPO returns to the fine Victorian seaside resort of Scarborough on the North Yorkshire coast. It should prove to be a particularly important conference coming as it does on the eve of significant public spending cuts and inevitable privatisation of whole areas of probation work. In amongst the usual programmed contributions from government ministers and NOMS representatives, my eye was drawn to a scheduled fringe meeting about a new project. According to the blurb "the Offender Engagement Programme is a NOM's initiative to improve the quality and effectiveness of one to one work with offenders and reduce reoffending. The central hypothesis is that the relationship between the offender and the probation practitioner can be a powerful vehicle for changing behaviour and reducing reoffending."

My initial reaction was to sigh in disbelief that such a self-evident truth that has been a basic tenet of the Probation Service since it's inception, should be the subject of a 'new' initiative. It's clearly only worthy of derision and typical of an out-of-touch NOMS. Any fool knows the relationship between probation officer and client is the essence and secret of probation and has been confirmed by numerous research projects. But then I began to reflect on what I have witnessed over the last few years in my own office. We have had a steady flow of trainees coming through, many with psychology or sociology degrees and I've watched them struggling with mountains of paper accumulated in the name of 'evidence' as they wrestle with the NVQ agenda and distance learning degree. I admire their patience enormously because I know I couldn't do it. The TPO's represent the new culture within the Service and of course as a group they have been absorbing this new ethos through instruction and learning and I have previously discussed the cultural tensions that have resulted.

I will be honest and say this period has been very difficult for me. Traditionally I've always been actively involved with students around the office and been only too delighted to have them 'shadow' me - but I knew instinctively it wouldn't be fair to do this under the new arrangements as it would only serve to confuse them and exacerbate cultural differences. But like all PO's I was interested to watch their style with clients and compare it to my own. I have been mostly horrified at the formulaic and pejorative approach and in one instance will admit to professional voyeurism. I think the story is worth telling to illustrate my point.

I must have become aware of this client's dissatisfaction with his fairly newly-qualified PO  when I saw him as Duty Officer one day. Now obviously in this job being unhappy with what your officer is saying is an occupational fact of life - but this seemed different and I got into the habit of reading the CRAMS entries when his PO had seen him. It basically painted a picture of a failing relationship and an officer who's hectoring, lectures and threats were clearly having little positive effect on what I felt was a pretty ordinary client. 

By a strange twist, due to the officer being on leave, a few months later I found myself interviewing this young man at the local remand prison in relation to breach of his Probation Order. He had failed to report to his PO, stopped going to Community Service and committed more offences. He explained he couldn't abide his officer and had effectively just 'given up'. Now this was a difficult situation professionally. Although I was in no doubt it was the officers fault primarily - the PO is in control of the relationship - there is no way I would convey this to the client, and yet I had to try and repair this young mans trust in the Service. We talked about the options and I said it depended on him - I could either make a strong case for a fresh community order (but could not promise a different PO) or argue that the best option was a short custodial to 'clear the slate'. Guess what he opted for and what I felt was my moral duty to facilitate?

He got custody and I guess the example explains why regrettably we just might need a new initiative looking at that relationship between officer and client after all.  

Sunday 26 September 2010

Doing More with Less

The clear message from the coalition government is that deep spending cuts will mean the public sector will have to become yet more efficient. Now we have Ed Miliband, the brand new supposed left-leaning leader of the Labour Party saying "the public sector will have to do more with less". So, if the writing on the wall is that clear - I wonder what it will mean for the probation service? Now, if only I was in charge.....

I'd see if we could cope without so many managers, especially those at Head Office with strange titles like 'business development manager', and do we really need 'public relations managers' or 'research managers', or 'offender management managers'?  Could Head Office be a tad smaller? You get the gist.

We could turn the clock back and recruit volunteers again. Rather stupidly management decided a few years ago that they didn't fit into a modern professional service. So we not only lost a useful recruiting avenue for future entrants to the service, we also robbed many clients of the extra personal contact and mentoring that used to be provided by experienced and well motivated people.

Look afresh at the whole 'programme' industry that grew up during the fervour surrounding the 'What Works' debate a few years ago. I was always sceptical that a prescriptive 'one size fits all' approach was the correct avenue to go down exclusively, thus effectively stifling any innovative developments. Without doubt programmes are beneficial for many participants, but they consume a huge chunk of resources and there are not always enough appropriate participants available. I would mention in passing that one eminent academic reminded me that the whole point about the process was that it was a debate and consequently there should be a question mark after 'What Works'. It sort of puts everything into perspective for me.

Carry out an urgent review of bureaucratic processes and in particular OASys. The time has come to admit the blindingly obvious that it was a massive mistake, ill thought out, foisted upon us by our prison service partners and is now a mill stone hanging around every officer's neck. A staggering 41% of an officers time is spent in front of the computer, much of it on unproductive involvement in OASys. Management know this because the concept of 'OASys-lite' was introduced as a way of getting some improvement in productivity with low risk cases. If this issue could be addressed urgently, not only could there be a massive increase in productivity generally, but just imagine what it would do for staff morale. 

Get managers of all grades to have some regular client contact and write the odd PSR. I think that would not only help with productivity, it would boost morale but most importantly of all it would serve to reinforce in a very 'hands-on' way exactly why officers lose the will to live when completing a full OASys.   

If only I was in charge.....   

Saturday 25 September 2010

NOMS to Stay Shock

Life can be very unfair at times. When the news broke that a list of 177 QUANGO's destined to get the chop had been leaked to the Daily Telegraph, I admit I rushed out and got a copy in the desperate hope that NOMS, the National Offender Management Service, just might be on it. But then I remembered it's now an Executive Agency and safe.

I think it was as a result of some blue-sky thinking commissioned by Tony Blair from Patrick Carter, a labour businessman, that we got saddled with this dreadful, expensive and totally unnecessary bureaucratic agency in the first place. It was said the idea was one of 'seamless end-to-end management of the supervision of offenders' and to introduce an element of contestability (or 'tension' in the system, he later admitted) and the separation of commissioning from suppliers of services. Incredibly, as initially conceived, it provided a whole new layer of management and administration between that of the Probation Service, Prison Service and the Home Office. I think I heard that their costs were equivalent to the total annual probation budget. It didn't only have a swish London Headquarters, but also a regional structure with Regional Offender Managers (ROM's).

Naturally there was to be a fantastic new computer system, snappily called C-NOMIS that would link up the two Services in order to facilitate the new era of 'end-to-end offender management'. Like all government IT projects, it went massively over-budget, was going to be years late, wasn't going to be able to do what was required and so was predictably cancelled. As a result of the subsequent outrcry, NOMS got a makeover and basically the Prison Service were allowed to take control, integrate their management structure and effectively sideline the poor old Probation Service. Only one former probation person, Roger Hill, holds a senior position as one of nine new Directors of Offender Management. 

As part of the new offender supervision landscape, the last government made all former nationalised Probation Service's become independent Trusts. The plan is that NOMS, on behalf of the Ministry of Justice and via the DOM's, will act as the Commissioning Agency for all offender services, both in custody and in the community. So this has very neatly put in place the infrastructure that will enable the new coalition government to put out to tender both prison and probation contracts in order to save money. They have just announced that ten further prisons are to be the subject of 'market testing' and the new Probation Trusts will shortly have to compete with the private and voluntary sector for some or all of their current work. It seems as if Roger Hill intends to lead the way in the South East - and he's the former probation man. 

This is a very depressing time for the Probation Service. Basically it's been the subject of a forced marriage with a macho partner that doesn't understand it's culture or methodology. In this unequal partnership the Probation Service has been effectively robbed of it's national voice. Having ceased to be classed as Civil Servants with the change to Trust status, probation chiefs can once more speak out publicly, but each will now be reduced to fighting a rear-guard action in defence of their own individual Service's. In short, a very sad and depressing political environment for practitioners to operate in.  

Friday 24 September 2010

What is the Judge Saying?

When listening to His Honour Judge Heath on the BBC's 'Today' programme this morning talking about how he approaches sentencing, I was surprised that he failed to mention Pre Sentence Reports at all. Now experience has taught me that Learned Judges take great care over their pronouncements, are routinely meticulous and do not forget things. So, what are we to make of this omission; is Judge Heath saying something about PSR's? If he is, it serves to confirm my grave concern for their quality over recent years, and especially since we were saddled with OASys.

In my experience, you always have to put a bit more effort into a Crown Court report. This is partly because you suspect it will come under greater scrutiny, not just from the Judge, but from Counsel as well, and of course the offences are likely to be far more serious with a consequently serious outcome. I also like to attend in person in difficult cases if time allows, because I feel this sends a powerful message to the Judge and defence barrister that you are serious about your possibly brave recommendation. Again in my experience, if the Judge knows you are present, they will invariably take the opportunity of asking for clarification or even invite you into the box if they have particular concerns. Now clearly in such a situation, you do not want the embarrassment of having to answer to anything less than a very professional piece of work.

Sadly, my gut feeling is that routinely up and down the country, Crown Court PSR's are being submitted that are full of formulaic language, strung together with cranky computer-generated paragraphs that in essence lack any soul - any feeling of passion or hint of colour. They are just,  well - bland and routine. Ask yourself this - what would you make of such a document when trying to weigh matters up and pass sentence? Possibly ignore it?     

Thursday 23 September 2010

Back to the Future

Sir Denis O'Connor, HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary is likely to have ignited a heated debate with his confirmation of what the public have known for some time, namely that the police have retreated from the streets. When he was interviewed by John Humphries on the BBC Today programme I was particularly struck by his use of military-style language such as 'the need to reclaim the streets' and to having to take up 'defensive positions'. I notice that PCSO's didn't warrant a mention at all, probably confirming that in reality they have been of limited use. They still have to patrol in pairs for their safety it seems and are not allowed out at night. Of course Sir Denis's timing couldn't really be better, coming as it does only days before the announcement of widespread spending cuts with police budgets not being protected. I guess it's wise to get your special pleading in early and Sir Denis is making it plain that the situation can only get worse if the police get less cash.

I think we all now appreciate that ASBO's haven't been the answer as promised by Tony Blair and as a probation officer I was relieved to hear the announcement of their demise shortly after the election of the new coalition government. They have been a disaster and led to many young people being incarcerated needlessly through widespread breach. But I don't think the answer lies with a 'crackdown' by the police. The responsibility is much broader and I'm reminded of this:- ".....a form of childcare for young people in trouble that involves neither custody nor punishment and provides opportunities to learn constructive patterns of behaviour to replace potential criminal ones" 

Not a quote from some trendy new piece of research,  but those with long memories will recognise it as a definition of something that went by the name of 'Intermediate Treatment' and dates from the 1960's and guess what - a social work philosophy that at the time underpinned the probation service. IT was running in the office as I joined and was a collaborative venture with our social work colleagues. Sadly we allowed the right-wing press to help sabotage an effective programme by labelling it as 'treats for naughty kids'. Of course in those days there was a dynamic Youth and Community Service and facilities called Youth Clubs. What happened there was we allowed councillors to label them as 'old fashioned' and unpopular and they were demolished instead of being adapted as youth culture changed. All to save money as unfortunately the Youth Service has never been a statutory service, but rather a 'permissive' function of Local Government and therefore one that can easily be cut back. An attempt to get the status of the Youth Service changed during the last government failed and we continue to pay the price with a widespread disaffected youth problem.

So, what is my prescription? A statutory Youth Service, properly funded, with qualified Youth Workers and that forms part of each districts Youth Offending Team. I have never understood the logic of a YOT that doesn't include the Youth Service for goodness sake. Oh, and how about having another look at good old IT - carrots instead of sticks - what an interesting concept.

Wednesday 22 September 2010


A week ago this very new blogger had no readers, well if you don't count a few friends and family who felt obliged to have a look just to be polite. But then something amazing happened. Bystander of Magistrates Blog fame very kindly gave me a plug and suddenly I have readers all over the place - 2,000 page hits in a week and some very welcome comments. 

I'm particularly pleased that so many magistrates have found my observations to be of interest because of course the two fields of endeavour, that of probation and the magistracy, have enjoyed a long and close association. Our profession grew out of the Police Court Missionaries and until as recently as the 1980's magistrates sat on interview panels when appointing new probation officers. I was selected in this way by five members of my local Bench and thereafter have enjoyed a very positive working relationship, both with them and their colleagues.  

To a certain extent the probation service and how it operates still remains a mystery to many and as we head into a very uncertain era of public spending cuts, it remains my aim to shed further light on what I feel is an absolutely vital public service. Your interest has confirmed that a blog on the subject is worthwhile - so lets see how long I can keep it up.

 Again, thankyou for reading.     

To Breach or not to Breach?

As always I like to try and put things into an historical context. In the days when a Probation Order was not a punishment but an alternative to a sentence and the defendant had to give consent, breaching was not that common at all. But then you have to appreciate that at that time each probation officer pretty well had complete discretion in deciding the frequency of reporting and home visits were much more common than nowadays. A Probation Order was viewed as an opportunity for an individual to prove that they could sort their life out with the assistance, support and guidance of a probation officer and in the process avoid offending. In practice what this meant was that clients who had a settled home, found employment and were emotionally stable did not need to report often and in fact quite a few were returned to court for early discharge. We had to prosecute our own breaches and it was rare for the client not to plead guilty and typically were not legally represented. Possibly surprising to many nowadays, breach was seen by all as a positive process. A gentle reminder that invariably resulted in either NFA (no further action) or a £10 fine.  

Looking back now, whilst the flexibility in reporting requirements in the 70's and 80's allowed time for the chronic cases, (many of whom would visit the office almost daily) and the high risk cases, it helped sow the seeds of our downfall when politicians started getting involved and criminal justice policy became just another political football. I think up to that time there was cross-party agreement that criminal justice policy was best left to the professionals. It seems incredible now, but the Home Office in those days was quite liberal and funded some excellent research and experimental practice. But things began to change and the punitive and prescriptive treatment of probation began. For some reason the policy makers chose to ignore the ethos and philosophy that hitherto had underpinned our work and thus we were set on the path of probation as punishment and National Standards replaced 'guidance' and best practice manuals. 

Of course within this context the whole issue of breaching became much more common and the natural outcome of reducing the probation officers degree of discretion. On top of this there was the cultural shift within the service away from the old philosophy of 'advise, assist and befriend' to one of punish, monitor and enforce. The service began to positively discourage taking on 'welfare' cases at all and unqualified Probation Services Officers took over supervision of all but the most high risk cases. Of course we still had many chaotic clients on the books, typically addicted to one or other mind-altering substances, but under a punitive punishment regime, failing to report inevitably led to widespread breaching. But here the probation service found itself in a double bind - although breaching demonstrated to our political masters that Court Orders were being rigorously enforced, it also demonstrated that we were somehow failing, not a satisfactory position to be in politically or publicly . 

This realisation, together with an exponential rise in the prison population and a strong 'nudge' from government in the form of a financial inducement, led to the focus shifting a few years ago to that of compliance - the flip side of breaching of course. If a huge amount of effort was put into getting clients to turn up on time, it would be viewed positively all round. So, as a result, we have gone down some very imaginative and creative routes in order to increase compliance rates, (such as text reminders) or at least the appearance of an improvement. I guess readers will know what that's code for. A bit of 'creative' accounting; some adjustment of recording; possibly a bit of flexibility or understanding of a clients current difficult situation; some sympathy even, anything other than just banging-in another breach and hoping to get rid of a difficult case. As a CDO I was particularly encouraged to see some officers, rather than breaching, were daring to take some orders back to court with a suggestion for revocation and re-sentencing when it was becoming clear that the original order was probably too onerous or was proving impractical for one reason or another.  

I think the tide has turned to some degree and the alacrity with which we embraced breaching  in recent years is now subsiding a little. In my view this can only be to the good, firstly because we should be trying to make difficult situations better for clients, not worse and secondly in my experience we are not that good at breaching. I remember how depressed I got when as a CDO I was presented with some very 'iffy' breaches to prosecute. Clients would routinely plead not guilty and although I'm no lawyer, even I could see a trial would be very unwise. I had no compunction in either unilaterally withdrawing breaches or excising whole chunks from prosecution statements in order to encourage a guilty plea and before defence solicitors were given the opportunity of making the Service look very foolish. I don't recall any comeback from management.  As for my breaching policy, I bend over backwards not to - the paperwork is something I can do without - but inevitably with high risk cases some have to go back to court if my usual powers of persuasion fall on deaf ears.  

Tuesday 21 September 2010

How about Driving with Insurance?

Most young people want to be able to drive as soon as possible and probation clients are no exception. The only snag is that many start driving a bit earlier than is allowed, without the legal niceties of a licence or insurance and often in a vehicle not belonging to them and having been TWOC'd. As a result, many will have accrued quite a string of motoring offences by the time they are able to drive legally, only to find that obtaining insurance is nigh-on impossible due to the premiums quoted. Typically I've heard of figures in excess of £1300 for a bog-standard fiesta. Now it will not come as a great surprise to many when I reveal that this serves as a considerable disincentive to bother with insurance at all, but not necessarily a deterrent to driving. Just out of idle curiosity, or when preparing the inevitable PSR, I routinely ask young people if any of their mates have car insurance. The answer is invariably a bemused 'no'. 

Now what this clearly indicates to me is that many thousands of young people are prepared to regularly drive without insurance and take the risk of being pulled over by the police. Now they, and we, all know that the chances of being stopped have increased dramatically with the advent of Automatic Number Plate Recognition equipment both in police vehicles and via roadside cameras, all linked to a central computer data base. I guess this is one reason they often don't bother to register change of ownership, or provide fictitious details and take a gamble on being 'pinged'.

This is not a good situation for anybody, least of all other road users. I think the time has come for a more intelligent and enlightened approach to the problem, involving a carrot in addition to the stick. If the aim is to get everyone to drive legally, I think we must set up a special scheme that delivers affordable car insurance to this target group. Whilst on such a scheme, young drivers would get used to the notion of paying for insurance and have the incentive to drive responsibly and accrue some no claim discount, ready for eventual transfer to the open insurance market. 

I believe an appropriate historical precedent to consider is the way illegal motorbiking has been dealt with in many parts of the country over the years. As an alternative to a punitive approach, probation officers, police officers and others were typically involved in setting up schemes where young people could ride legally; be properly supervised and in the process learn to be responsible bike users and eventually gain a licence. I think anything is worth trying, rather than allow the present situation to continue with some people having very little hope of ever getting insurance at a reasonable price. I concede that this may not be a good time to be suggesting something else to fund, but it just might prove to be cheaper in the long run for all of us.

Monday 20 September 2010

Sex Offenders

To my surprise, some of my most rewarding work has been with sex offenders. They often pose the greatest challenges because as a group they are more likely to be in denial and prone to minimisation in terms of their behaviour. This in turn means they remain a high risk of re-offending and pose a serious threat due to the nature of their offences, which are invariably disturbing and serious. Being responsible for a generic caseload both in and out of prison, I have had my fair share of cases in this category, but for many years felt that the prognosis would always be bleak in terms of trying to make any progress in reducing the risks they posed. I always felt it most unlikely that clients displaying seriously deviant sexual behaviour were going to be amenable to change.

But then some years ago I was offered the chance of joining two other colleagues in running a self-styled Sex Offender Project based on group and individual work. Although we were only allowed about a day a week each, we still managed to set up a 'core' group, a 'maintenance' group and 'adapted' group for the learning disabled, in addition to individual work with very high risk clients. The latter had typically been released from long prison sentences on Parole Licence, specifically in order to take part in the project and resided at probation hostels. Due to the level of risk they posed they had to be escorted for individual sessions. The maintenance group was designed both for those who completed the core group programme and for voluntary attenders when their order had finished. (Yes, just imagine that concept nowadays!) We accepted referrals at all stages, right from PSR and even undertook to write the report for the referring PO. Management just allowed us to get on with it, but paid for a consultant to give advice and support every few months.

The whole project had been running successfully for a number of years, designed in-house by my experienced colleagues, with each aspect tailored to an individuals needs, as was felt appropriate. Imagine that, no manual, no bureaucracy, no monitoring. They were halcyon days indeed and we did amazing work with some of the most scary and damaged people I've ever met. I will always feel priviledged to have had the opportunity of proving beyond doubt that even the most dangerous of offenders can and did respond to some skilfull, patient, understanding counselling. In some cases it took a great deal of time, but there were no time limits, no prescriptive programme and no video or tape recording.

I mention all this because what I am describing is now history and has been replaced with something very different, the authorised and highly prescriptive Sex Offender Treatment Programme (SOTP). This now operates in all probation areas and is available in certain prisons. Run strictly according to a manual, sessions are video-recorded to ensure compliance with the programme and tutors performance is monitored afterwards by so called 'Treatment Managers'. All dreadful nomenclature in my view. Admission to the programme is by no means automatic and for example excludes those in denial or those with learning disabilities.

Now, as I declined to put myself forward for this new initiative, it would not be fair to say too much, beyond perhaps the not-surprising observation that I remain sceptical that the 'one size fits all' approach is right. Clearly it would not have benefited the vast majority of our clientele. So, in a sense, I've come full circle in feeling that once more there is a group of sex offenders for whom the prognosis remains very poor indeed. Progress?  

Sunday 19 September 2010

Send for the Army

Well it didn't take long for the new government to consider how the soft old probation service might benefit from a bit of military discipline did it? The funny thing is we've been here before. Remember 'boot camps'? (the 'short, sharp shock') - I think that was Willie Whitelaw - the whole thing was a huge success with the young inmates in Young Offender Institutions where it was trialled and I can confirm that they absolutely lapped up the military-style discipline. Boy did they turn out a hell of a lot fitter on release, the trouble being not much work had been undertaken on the attitude side of things. The whole idea withered away quite quickly on two grounds, firstly they were not supposed to enjoy it and secondly, turning out super fit, testosterone-fuelled thugs wasn't felt to be such a good idea after all.

You see it was yet another example of the politicians and Home Office people thinking they knew better than the professionals involved. They probably didn't realise that many of our young clients would love to join the army, if only their offending career hadn't already precluded it in most cases. I'm probably that much of an old-fashioned probation officer to admit that, in the absence of a fully effective Youth Service, National Service would indeed be hugely beneficial for some of our clientele today. I know I was absolutely fascinated by the tv series 'Bad Lads Army' some years ago and the life-changing effect it had on many of the participants, some of whom did indeed join up as a direct result. I am aware that in fairly recent times the military have been so desperate for recruits that they used to do a 'sweep' of YOI's now and then to see if there were any suitable candidates. I suspect they don't anymore. Nothing has given me greater pleasure on occasion than to speak directly with recruiting officers and to be able to give support to young offenders applications for the armed services.

Do we remember how, with the ending of the Cold War, Michael Howard I think it was suggested that as part of the 'peace dividend' demobbed soldiers might make good probation officers? Like a lot of politicians, he probably came up with the idea to win a good headline in the Daily Mail. The plan went nowhere, apart that is in his decision to remove the CQSW requirement that had been mandatory for all new probation officers. Again, the funny thing about this episode was that up to that point virtually all probation officers, including myself, turned to the vocation later in life and from a huge variety of backgrounds, including the military. That wealth of life experience, together with excellent social work training, ensured that for many years the service was a confident, innovating, flexible and immensely rewarding place to be.

So that brings us to the here and now and once more there is a call for military action - but this time not just to 'beef up' community service, but as a cost-saving measure as the government feel ex-squaddies will be happy to work for less pay than current CS supervisors. As widely expected, the government intend to privatise this aspect of the probation service and have already lined up three companies to bid for the work. Louise Casey must be very pleased with herself indeed.     

Saturday 18 September 2010

Probation Recommends Custody!

Yes really - I wouldn't have thought it possible, but I saw it in a PSR recently. It said "he would benefit from a structured environment". Happily the Magistrates thought differently and gave him Unpaid Work instead. It absolutely made my heart sink when I read such a pejorative report - I remember thinking 'surely there must be something positive to say about this person - there must be some cause for hope rather than a complete counsel of despair and a literal institutional washing our hands of him?' As far as I'm concerned that's not what probation is about - surely reports should normally err on the side of recommending alternatives to custody, not the other way round FFS! Probation is about trying to make matters better, not worse. How on earth have things got to this point?

The issue of custody and the attitude of probation officers to incarceration is long and somewhat convoluted. No doubt it began with the legacy of our religious roots, developing later into the radicalism of the 70's. Before I was appointed I was told that radical elements within NAPO, the probation officers union, were seriously thinking about making it impossible for members to suggest custody at all and they wanted members withdrawn from prisons. As a result, before my interview, I was given some heavy advice that if I wanted the job I had to say I was prepared to acknowledge that custody was inevitable in certain circumstances. This has always seemed understandable to me and I have been happy to proceed on that basis ever since. Certain serious offences require deprivation of liberty both for public protection and punishment purposes. But recommending custody is a completely different scenario in my book, and normally completely alien to my social work background*. It is almost always hugely damaging to the individual concerned; is by no means helpful to rehabilitation and will do nothing to reduce the likelihood of re-offending. I believe the evidence is conclusive in this regard, whatever politicians may say.

I think there is growing evidence that current probation practice is now suggesting custody by default. We are producing officers that seem to view offending and offenders in only two dimensional terms, that of risk of harm and public protection, rather than looking at the full person, in the round as it were. They seem much more willing to 'up tariff' people and to 'second guess' court decisions, rather than make strongly-argued cases for realistic alternatives to custody. Concordance rates have always been a factor, but in the past the aim was to try and get courts to come down tariff. However, in the current punitive environment, I suspect there is now a trend for officers to go up tariff, especially as it is now possible to load Community Orders with a plethora of conditions. This in turn is leading to higher breach rates and therefore ultimately short terms of imprisonment.

My sojourn in court as a CDO confirmed this suspicion, especially as it fell to me to have to prosecute the breaches. Time after time in reviewing the file it was obvious that the original order had been far too onerous and successful completion was most unlikely. In the breach reports, supervising officers appeared to lose heart quickly, often arguing for revocation and sometimes whole-heartedly suggesting custody, no doubt as a way of getting some respite from a difficult case. Of course the Criminal Justice Act 2003 tied courts hands in largely removing discretion in dealing with breaches by making it mandatory to make the order even more onerous if it was allowed to continue. No wonder prison numbers are steadily climbing if this scenario is widespread. Sad to say, but it must be a reflection of recent training and what new officers feel their managers and society generally expect from its new 'law enforcement' probation service. 

* I have broken this self-imposed rule once, in very specific circumstances. (to be described at a later date).

Friday 17 September 2010

A Risky Business

The news that two female prison officers at HMP Bullingdon needed urgent hospital treatment after having a 'brew' on the enhanced prisoners wing not only made me think about my own strategy regarding accepting tea on home visits, but also the whole issue of risk. There is a strong suspicion that the officers were poisoned. Bullingdon is a Cat 'C' training prison which means there should only be low to medium risk prisoners there. For as long as there's been prisons, there's been 'trustee's' or 'red band' prisoners who have been allowed to make prison officers their tea and undertake many other tasks from the admin block, right through to the visits area. Establishments couldn't run without their input and there's an old saying that prisons only run because the prisoners co-operate.

Now I am assuming that the OASys assessments on all the 'trustees' concerned will have recorded them as being low risk and they must have been of good behaviour to have earned 'enhanced' status anyway. So this incident serves to confirm firstly, my long held conviction that risk assessment can never be a science and secondly, the folly of relying on any bueaucratic process such as OASys. It's only a form - an extremely long one it has to be admitted (it can easily take up to three hours to complete) but can only be as good as the person filling it in. In prison, OASys assessments are undertaken by prison officers, typically following only a basic training course.

In my view, assessing risk should be a dynamic process, ideally undertaken only by those who have developed appropriate skills in understanding people and their motivations. This doesn't necessarily come from training alone, but rather an old-fashioned concept called experience. At various times in my career I have been on the receiving end of threats to kill me. Never a pleasant experience, but invariably one not be shared with management, but rather trusted colleagues instead. In the end judgements have to be made about any such threat and the degree of risk it might pose. I don't think any form could ever help me in such situations, but discussion, support and differing viewpoints from other experienced officers certainly does. Working with offenders is a risky business and always will be - OASys won't help one little bit, but will waste millions of man hours and lull everyone into a false sense of security.  

Thursday 16 September 2010

The Future Belongs to PSO's

I bet most people 'on probation' assume that the person they see on a regular basis is a probation officer. This would be a reasonable assumption for sentencers to make as well, be they Magistrates, District Judges or Crown Court Judges. But they would almost certainly be wrong as in reality supervision of all but the most risky cases is now undertaken by people with the confusingly similar title of Probation Services Officer. What many might also find surprising is that most have no relevant qualifications and only a minimum of training. Indeed in my own Service there have been recent examples of clerical staff being appointed as temporary Probation Services Officers. As a cost saving measure it is now most unlikely to find a qualified probation officer serving as court duty officer in any Magistrates Court, all having been replaced with PSO's. In a few years it will be the same even at Crown Court and already PSO's are replacing qualified staff in prison, including the Maximum Security Estate. Whatever management might say, it's self evident that the quality of service is not going to be the same.

It was finally decided in April this year what the new training regime will be for probation officers. For the last nine years or so each probation area had selected Trainee Probation Officers as part of a centrally organised national recruitment programme and each was paid a salary as they undertook the two year distance learning degree and level four NVQ. From now on the only route to probation officer qualification will be via progression from Probation Services Officer and a similar distance learning course. However, the suspicion has to be that in order to save money, the number of PSO grades will continue to rise at the expense of qualified probation officers.

As far as I am aware it is still a legal requirement that Pre Sentence Reports for court can only be prepared by a qualified probation officer. However, the situation was confused some time ago when Fast Delivery Reports were conceived, partly as a replacement for the previous ad hoc 'Stand Down' verbal reports at court. Basically FDR's were introduced so that unqualified PSO's could prepare them and as a cheaper alternative to full PSR's. But things have moved on further now and some Service's are getting PSO's to write full PSR's with a nominal counter signing by qualified staff. Surely sentencers must have noticed these changes and a corresponding reduction in quality of reports? For goodness sake speak up or before we know it the system will be completely discredited and there will be suggestions that reports are becoming superfluous as an aid to sentencing. That will not only be bad news for the probation service, but for justice itself in my view.

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 relevant 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 I 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.

Tuesday 14 September 2010

Praise Indeed

Everyone enjoys a positive stroke now and then, and probation officers are no exception. A few weeks ago I was breezing through reception and out of the corner of my eye I spotted a young woman who had been on an order to me some years ago. I can't remember what the offences were, but I recall she'd suffered some sexual abuse, had been thrown out by parents, spent some time sleeping rough and had teamed up with various male friends that were not, shall we say, ideal. Not an untypical scenario - but this very bright, 'savy' young woman didn't need any offence-focussed work done with her, or lectures, advice or rebukes - she just needed a break and space to sort her life out. I remember she kept all her appointments with out fail and we just used the time to chat about nothing in particular sometimes - 'probation' is often like that - building a relationship. The order ended successfully.

As I swept into the office that morning, we just exchanged a quick smile as the woman was in deep and animated conversation with a young man sat next to her. As I passed into the general office I heard her explaining to her friend ......"well of course most of 'em are wankers, but he's ok."  Clients are often like that - they say what they think and can see straight through bullshit.  It absolutely made my day. 

(p.s. She was only visiting with a friend - I checked lol) 

Monday 13 September 2010

Cultural Tensions 2

When Michael Howard scrapped the requirement for probation officers to have a social work qualification, it was inevitable that cultural tensions would result. Jack Straw helped the process along by emphasising that the service was to become a 'law enforcement agency' concerned primarily with punishment and public protection. The new job based distance learning arrangements only served to highlight the differences between old and new style officers, along with the recruitment of significant numbers of untrained Probation Services Officers. The process from a social work agency within the criminal justice system to a law enforcement agency has been painful and one that old style officers have had to cope with on their own and with absolutely no help. I know it made me take sick leave for stress for the first time in 18 years. I've often wondered how other officers felt about this and in the process came across these comments on the Guardian website from October 2009 in response to a couple of articles. This from a new officer:-

"...but it is a bit worrying that at 3 and 4 years post-qualifying Rabbi and myself are now seen as the experienced officers. Before I was a PO I worked with people who had 10, 20, 30 years under their belts, they inspired me so much and had such a wealth of knowledge and experience. Now they've all been driven off, or pissed off too much, and the equivalent is me after 4 years? I'm good, but hell, things ain't how they used ter be!

...... "as a general rule the British public know bugger all about the probation service and their officers. A documentary which highlighted how the system works would certainly be of benefit."

..." but I have to say that 'in-depth looks at probation' on tv or in print, eg the panorama hostels programme or the article on Bristol Probation in G2 the other day, have felt either sensationalised or sanitised to me. In the former, an ill-informed media seems to be seeking to scare an ill-informed public (perhaps a particular section of it?), and in the latter the access journalists will have had may well be carefully managed and restricted. Not saying that's happened in the Bristol article but it can seem like that. I suppose it's a question of what you're trying to achieve: the Bristol article did shed some light on the kind of work we do and the people we work with, but seemed simply descriptive rather than aiming to really inform. There was no indication of the still-raging debate about the fundamental ethos underlying our work, the tension between new managerialist approaches and the more traditional, people-focussed approaches, and the massive cuts facing the service and their potential impact on the protection of the public and the work we're able to do with people, and the madness of NOMS and the problems caused by the current obsession with trust status. I realise one has to know a little about probation to really grasp some of the finer points of these debates, but the thing is that at the moment there is a fight on about what probation is, what are its principles and what is it really for, and why shouldn't the wider public get in on that?"

From an old style officer:-

"The Probation Service I joined in 1975 was heaven after 3 years of unmanageable caseloads as an Unqualified Social Worker. Now I had my own office and one secretary between 2 officers. Having an office meant I could see the late arriving clients whose lives were so chaotic. Home Office standards applied and most Probation Officers were male."

"By the time I retired in 2007, we were working in open plan offices, insufficient interview rooms and typing, if that is the word, our own reports, which our much abused "support staff" were required to tidy up. I had become an in-putter of data into a system which failed to work. Sonnex wouldn't have happened in 1975, my case load was protected, built up slowly and I was supervised weekly. Probation staff had become overwhelmingly young and female, giving hardened offenders the excuse that they were too inexperienced in life to understand. Attitudes had changed and we were supposed to become Offender Managers. The distinctions between qualified and unqualified staff became increasingly blurred, little case work was done with individual clients. The Probation Service now farmed out much of the work to other agencies."

"I would admit that in the 1970s we were too vague about how we succeeded with clients and some of us were scared to call ourselves professional. We have been our own worst enemies. I have had colleagues who admit they are afraid to tell people outside work what they do for a living. I was always proud to call myself a Probation Officer."

"That the destruction of this Service was begun at the hands of Michael Howard should have come as no surprise. That it should have then beeen continued by the likes of that once so radical student leader, Jack Straw is a tragedy."

"I was surprised that your otherwise very balanced article made no mention of NOMS, the money which has been wasted upon it, its failure to deliver joined up sentencing and its impact upon the tiny Probation Service. Fewer and fewer people seem to be aware of the history of the Service, stemming from the 19th century work of the Police Court Missionaries, from which, like Topsy, it grew."

"If I sound disillusioned, it is because I am. Would I have missed it? Not for the world. I just wish that standards had not been eroded so carelessly. But for that there may have been several people still alive and contributing to this world."

Another old style officer:-

"I left the Probation Service in 2003 along with a large number of other disillusioned 'traditionally' trained officers. By that I mean most of us had social work qualifications which meant we were very able to effect change in our clients through making relationships with them and building trust. The typical Probation Officer was an avuncular type who knew when to turn a blind eye but was adept at applying necessary restrictions without all the top down directives on targets or worse the pre-prepared OASys tickbox which was so insulting to our professionalism and took such a huge proportion of our working week to complete. The erosion of professionalism was exacerbated by the hiring-to save money naturally-of totally untrained good hearted citizens who took over the bulk of the supervision. They were supposed to see only the 'low risk' cases but that begs a lot of questions. The whole issue of risk assessment is very flawed-for one thing the Home Office never made clear if you were assessing likelihood of reoffending or danger to the public. Any risk assessment carries with it the danger of infringing human rights-how can anyone reliably predict the first crime or the next crime or the magnitude of that crime? It is easy to label people wrongly and often indelibly. How often is the risk revised downwards?"

"Mental health issues are endemic among offenders and trained officers are much better equipped to spot this and deal with it. Since 'Care in the Community' Probation officers have become de facto mental health professionals and prisons, containers. It is truly terrifying for a nice lady from the health food shop who is now labelled a 'Probation Service Officer' when a big burly man intimidates her. Someone who has learned how to manage anger or at least to assess how dangerous an offender might be-an imprecise science of course-is less likely to hand out breaches. I believe the breach rate has gone up to the detriment of those who have to write pre sentence reports (PSRs), to the courts and to the poor offender whose pre-con list lengthens often for some minor misdemeanour like saying 'fuck' or arriving 5 minutes late. For the untrained officer his only tool is breach and he uses it too often."

"Another bleat is about Cognitive Behaviour Treatment (CBT) groups in and out of prison. We were all compelled to train and after 3 days were titled therapists. I refused to run groups as I did not feel adequately prepared and indeed those who were strongarmed into it had a rough ride from offenders who were quick to cotton on to asking a question off the page of the manual you were supposed to be sticking to. One of my tasks was to visit offenders after they had been through such a course so they could demonstrate what they'd learned. It was unfailingly unimpressive-most had got a few mnemonics but could not relate them to themselves or to connect them to offending. Yet every prisoner has a 'sentence plan' which in my experience is usually scribbled out by some bored prison officer who knows/cares little about the individual offender and it becomes gospel. A prisoner cannot be releasd till he's completed these groups but sometimes they are not even available to him. I had a lifer client who was three years over tariff. He was an elective mute so unable to take part in groups-even had there been a suitable group for him and since he was violent he was not deemed worthy of being moved to another prison, or of getting one to one help. He is probably still languishing at my expense in a £40k p.a. prison bed, poor devil. I am extremely sceptical of the value of groups because they depend on thinking skills whereas we all know that crime is driven by emotions and so are not addressed by CBT, which deals in symptoms, not underlying causes."

"There are so many sad changes to this once magnificent profession. Like others I was proud to call myself a Probation Officer but please don't associate me with the current officers who have arrived through a process of one year's distance learning with barely a mention of psychology. It is this country's loss and don't let any politician think he will reduce crime using the present probation service which is intent on punishment and control not genuine rehabilitation."

Of course newly qualified officers will refute much of this, citing how wonderful their training has been, how good the comprehensive OASys assessment tool is and that we are just a load of old farts stuck in the past. Whatever, it is the subject for academic study at last. I note that Rob Mawby and Prof Anne Worrall of Keele University have won an ESRC grant to research "occupational cultures of probation officers". I await the results with interest.

Sunday 12 September 2010

Cultural Tensions

A recent article in the Guardian (21st August) about the working life of a probation officer serves once more to remind me just how out of touch I am with the modern service. For a start I'm male. One of the most extraordinary features of the last 10 years is the almost complete absence of men from the probation landscape. Quite rightly there has been attention to improving the cultural diversity within the service, which has improved significantly, but where have all the men gone? For many years virtually all new recruits have been mostly young and female with the result that the service is now massively gender imbalanced. To put it simply, most officers are female and most offenders are male. I raised this with a trainer a few years ago and she said that for some reason less men are now applying and the few that do are failing the interview process.  Even management are now conscious that this is not a good situation and quite likely to be storing up serious trouble for the future.

Being a somewhat cynical person, I have to ask myself how an officer is chosen to be interviewed by the Guardian in the first place. Some of her statements answer this question I guess, like:- 

"Our job is strange in that when it goes right, nothing happens," Grice agrees, as we face each other in a meeting room at Cannock magistrates court, north of Birmingham, which she is visiting today. "But when it goes wrong," she adds. "Then it's a big media situation." On such rare occasions, with all the oversight and teamwork that surrounds the job, it would be almost impossible for one person to be held solely responsible".

Well that certainly isn't my perception! Since the service has spent the last 10 years convincing the public of our tough and rigorous supervision regime, by extension if anything goes wrong it must be a failure of that officers oversight. Sadly, the inevitable enquiry will focus on any administrative failures by that officer, and especially in connection with their completion and updating of OASys. In days gone by, any reoffending would clearly be the responsibility of the offender, nowadays it will be viewed as a failure by the officer involved, not in any work that has been undertaken, but in how timely the assessment has been recorded in OASys. This is the real priority in todays service - not doing the work necessarily, but recording it. As I once heard the chief say prior to an inspection 'If it isn't recorded, it didn't happen.'

The interview continues:-

"When they don't want to engage at all, they will generally walk through the door and say, 'You can't make me do anything'. I hear that a lot," Grice says, without altering her even tone. "And I always reply to them, 'No, you're right. I can't make you talk to me about anything.' What I suggest to them is that if they don't want to engage in that order, then the court can sentence them to something that might be more appropriate. But what I ask of them is that if they make the choice to come to the office, they make the choice to talk and do some work." Co-operate or go to prison, then, is still the message. You just have to deliver it correctly.

Strangely, over my career, I've never heard anyone say that to me! Clearly our approaches are very different and no doubt stem from my social work based probation training. In my experience, it's far better to get people to talk because they want to and that's a key skill of the job in my view.  

Finally, I couldn't help but laugh out loud at her answer to the question 'what is the worst part of the job?' answer, "Having to read victim statements". She is clearly destined for promotion very soon - I think most officers with a bit more service under their belts would say 'the bloody computer and especially OASys'.  

Saturday 11 September 2010

CCTV Tapes Found

All week two of my favourite blogs have been vexed over the Sgt Mark Andrews case. For those unaware, this is the police custody sergeant caught on cctv hurling a woman onto a cell floor, thus sustaining a head injury. His actions were reported to senior management by a junior female officer and she in turn has won a commendation. Sgt Andrews pleaded not guilty to sect 47 AOABH and was tried by a Deputy District Judge in the Magistrates Court. He was duly found guilty and sentenced to six months custody. There are many issues raised by this case, so it is not surprising that there have been well over 400 responses to Inspector Gadjets blog, and about 200 to the Magistrates blog. 

It does not come as a surprise to me that some police officers feel strongly that 'you don't dob a fellow officer in'. Some feel angry that he was convicted and others that he got custody when 'scrotes' typically get a 'slap on the wrist' at court. In my experience it is very difficult to get a police conviction at all and it is only with the advent of cctv that things have changed somewhat. It's interesting to note that the DDJ is reported as saying he was very upset by two police officers who gave evidence for the defence, didn't accept it and has passed his views on to their Chief Constable. The inference couldn't be clearer - he felt they had perjured themselves. 

There is no doubt that police officers often have a very difficult job to do in extremely testing situations. Over the years I have had to write court reports on two officers who also found themselves in court as a result of cctv evidence. Of course a major role of a probation Pre Sentence Report is to put the offence and individual into context, and in cases like this I felt it especially important due to the possible consequences for each officer in terms of loss of employment and pension, not to mention liberty. Sadly in one case this did not prove possible due to that officers' unmitigatingly arrogant manner throughout, and in the other he subsequently won on appeal.

I understand Sgt Andrews intends to appeal, so the matter is not yet concluded. As to my thoughts on this case, I'm left reflecting as to what might have happened had the officer not been reported to senior management by a junior officer? Like a lot of police officers, I'm pretty sure the custody cctv tapes would be - well - 'missing'. 

Friday 10 September 2010

Peterborough Leads the Way

It might seem reasonable to assume that todays announcement that the Ministry of Justice has agreed a six year contract with private contractors to supply rehabilitation services at HMP Peterborough is the result of fresh thinking from a new government. In fact it is implementing a scheme devised by the previous government with cross party support and focussed on short term prisoners, those serving 12 months or less. Of course this is the group that the probation service has not had responsibility for and effectively have been left to their own devices. There were plans to fund the probation service to take this group on, but clearly all political parties have now decided not to go down that route.

This scheme will no doubt be the model for testing the coalition governments ideas for a larger involvement by the 'third sector', but more significantly in a system of payment by results. HMP Peterborough is interesting because it is a privately contracted Cat 'B' prison built for both male and female inmates. The contractor is called Kalyx (I've never heard of them either) a wholly owned subsidiary of Sodexo (?) basically a food supply company based in France. No matter, we live in a strange world. The deal is that private investment of £5million is supplied by Social Finance (a new body set up to fund third sector groups) in order to engage charities like the St Giles Trust. They have a track record of working with offenders and will use staff and former prisoner mentors to support 3,000 short term prisoners and help them find accommodation, employment etc. Most importantly however, they will aim to prevent this group from re-offending after release. If the rate of re-offending falls by 7.5% it will trigger dividend payments in each year of the contract, thus giving a possible return of £3million on the initial investment. If the re-offending rate does not fall, investors get no return.

Like everything, the devil is in the detail. There will be suspicions that the most prolific offenders somehow might get excluded from the project. No doubt there will be scope for 'fiddling' the figures generally, but basically it strikes me as a worthwhile initiative aimed at helping a group that up to now has been largely ignored. Of course if it is successful, it will be yet further ammunition to support the case for privatising the core work of the probation service and that impetus will be even more difficult to resist.

Thursday 9 September 2010

Community Service Losing its Way

Last weeks ITV 'Tonight' programme on Community Service - sorry Community Payback - was a huge embarrassment for the unfortunate services involved, showing as it did examples of offenders basically 'tossing it off'. Sadly though this would not come as a great surprise to most probation officers. I think CS lost its way ages ago due to cutbacks and sheer numbers. My own Service used to have workshops including printing and enough supervisors for decorating and gardening for the elderly. Part of the ethos of CS, as originally conceived, was that of 'meaningful work', and much effort used to go into developing worthwhile projects with clear community benefit. Unfortunately this aspect, along with tailored placements for individuals to use and develop skills, was another cost saving measure. I thought it a bit rich of Louise Casey to be complaining when it was because of her that CS was forced to become more about punishment than rehabilitation in the first place. Of course this has made supervision much more difficult with attenders understandably being disgruntled with what they see as pointless tasks. Indeed in order to keep costs down, placements have to be sourced where a lot of the supervision can be provided by third parties - the massive numbers on CS dictate that teams have to be large and there is not enough work that does not break the rule that it must not replace paid workers, such as litter picking. In many ways it would possibly be fairer and more acceptable if we reverted to offenders breaking rocks and have done with any notion of rehabilitation.

In reality though I saw this programme as a 'put up job' by the dreadful Louise Casey helping to discredit the probation service and assist the case for privatisation. Of course she was a political appointment of the Labour government that forced all probation service's to become Trusts as a prelude to removing whole chunks of work and giving it to private companies and charitable bodies. My guess is that CS will be in the front line for this treatment as part of the new coalition governments wide ranging spending review due out next month.

Wednesday 8 September 2010

Is this Justice?

I see that HM Coroner is unhappy that the defence team acting for the PC who was recorded pushing over news vendor Ian Tomlinson during the G20 demonstrations have refused to hand over the results of their post mortem examination. They claim legal priviledge and say it is a defence document and therefore may withold it from CPS and the IPCC. Now not surprisingly CPS, being lawyers and part of the legal 'game', say they have no quarrel with this, but it serves to highlight a major flaw in our adversarial legal system. The suspicion of course is that any decision not to disclose must mean it does not help the defence case. For me it brings into sharp focus the fact that under our system the search for justice is not paramount - it's the game that is.

Quite a few years ago a notorious murder was committed on my patch and as is customary I was allocated the case to follow right through trial, conviction and ultimate sentence. The case was complex and hinged on the defence submission of not guilty to murder, but guilty to manslaughter on the grounds of diminished responsibility. As a result, expert psychiatric and psychology reports were commissioned by both the prosecution and defence - a total of nine if memory serves me correctly. It has always struck me as deeply worrying that, as if by magic, all the defence reports supported their proposition and the prosecution reports, vice versa. It became quite a battle of professional reputations and egos and not surprisingly the jury had the greatest difficulty trying to make sense of these eminent doctors in effect slagging each other off. They couldn't decide and a fresh trial was ordered and in the end only after some heavy handed summing up by the trial Judge, a fresh jury eventually delivered a 10 to 2 majority verdict of guilty to murder. Not at all satisfactory in my view, not least as a process for getting justice, but of course a very profitable game for all the professionals involved. I feel the answer is quite straight forward - all expert reports should be commissioned by the court, with disclosure to both prosecution and defence.

Tuesday 7 September 2010

Time to Rethink Drug Treatment

It seems incredible, but there was a time when heroin did not have such a strangle hold on certain parts of society. When I started out in 1985 there was some glue sniffing, abuse of cough mixture (still containing opiates) and some cannabis use, but the main drug problem was alcohol. In those days drug addiction of any serious nature was referred to a Regional NHS unit, complete with admission and treatment beds - oh how things changed over the following years when widespread heroin use and associated offending began to be the predominant feature of the majority of probation work. I remember a senior police officer telling me it arrived in my small town in the boot of a black BMW in 1991. Sadly, as the problem grew exponentially, the resources to deal with it have proved woefully inadequate. Residential treatment beds became as scarce as hens teeth, and if located, funding proved a bureaucratic nightmare. For whatever reason the answer was felt to be methadone treatment in the community - cost must have been a factor, but it soon became clear to me that this 'one size fits all' approach was clearly not working. Client after client would describe to me how much more difficult it was to come off methodone than heroin. They said things like 'it gets into your bones' and many chose the nightmare of 'cold turkey' from heroin rather than go back onto a methodone script. As the years have rolled on, I've become aware of increasing numbers of clients on maintenance doses of methodone, rather than the reduction programmes that have clearly failed - and yet as a society we remain wedded to this failed model.

I once had the chance to speak to Hilary Benn when he was probation minister - he was lamenting the state of many neighbourhoods littered with sharps when I said 'well why don't we prescribe heroin?'. He said 'you know, you're the third person to have said that to me today'. Sadly he was soon promoted to Overseas Development and you have to start again with another minister. The reason we don't of course is because all ministers are scared witless of public opinion and especially by the right-wing press such as the Daily Mail. Nevertheless, there have been quiet prescribing experiments taking place in a couple of cities and the results are confirming what has been found to be the case in Switzerland - it works in weaning off those that are well motivated, is safer for those maintained and offending dramatically reduces. So, the question is, does the new coalition government have the bottle to finally signal a rethink on drug treatment - and sod the Daily Mail?  


Monday 6 September 2010

Not So Local Justice

One of the early announcements of the coalition government was from the Ministry of Justice relating to a proposal to close approximately 150 Magistrates and County Courts. Although not completely unsurprising, the sheer number and scope of intended closures has shocked many communities with the realisation of long journey's to amalgamated courts. Apart from appearing to fly in the face of encouragement for sustainable communities, it also seems to strike a blow to the very heart of the British legal system - that of justice being dispensed locally by local Lay Justices. I haven't been at all persuaded by the argument that many court buildings are under used or are not fit for purpose, and in the grand scheme of things any likely savings are going to be relatively paltry. It also annoys me that this sort of proposal always seems to come along when vast sums have recently been spent upgrading buildings with the likes of new IT, video conferencing, lifts, furniture, lighting etc etc. I bet we could all name examples of this, together with replacement facilities that are likely to deliver a considerably worse service. Of course some see this as the thin end of the wedge in a scheme to either downgrade the role of Lay Justices, or remove them completely - it seems a strange time to be appointing 30 new District Judges (Magistrates Courts) when the government says it wants to save money. Finally, it strikes me that it signals almost the last nail in the coffin for that historically important link between probation officers and their local courts. A completely retrograde step in my view, but sadly the opposition to the closures seems too little and too late.

Sunday 5 September 2010

What Does Work?

This is taken from the Criminal Law and Justice Weekly dated 10th July 2010:-

"The following case is true. I think the vast majority of magistrates’ court users would have recognized this without needing to be told. There may not be one such defendant in every sentencing list, but they are pretty common. Joe (name changed) is an alcoholic who, when not in prison, lives on the street.

He is now in his late 50s. He has almost 70 previous convictions, nearly all for drink-related criminal damage or other disorderly conduct. He has served a number of prison terms, mainly in the range of 14 days to six months. This time he is up for destroying two windows belonging to an estate agency. He kept throwing bricks at them until they finally smashed. The damage is valued at about £2,000. The only mitigation is the plea of guilty and the fact that Joe recently spent four months on remand for an alleged breach of an ASBO before the case was dropped (because the original ASBO could not be found). Financial penalties are obviously out. There is no prospect of Joe being suitable for any form of community order owing to his chaotic lifestyle and alcoholism. So what should the sentencer do? What is the right, or more accurately least wrong, disposal?"

For me what is of particular interest is the assertion that "There is no prospect of Joe being suitable for any form of community order owing to his chaotic lifestyle and alcoholism." This perfectly illustrates the utter mess the Probation Service finds itself in due to constant interference by successive governments. The answer in my view is quite straight forward and if I was the Court Duty Officer I would recommend a Probation Order for 12 months. I think we all know this makes common sense and in great measure is what probation was all about when I started out, but in those days of course I had almost complete discretion in the way I carried out my work; was subject only to 'guidance' not National Standards; probation was an alternative not a sentence and the management mantra 'resources follow risk' had not been invented - oh and we didn't have bloody OASys.

Those with long memories will recall that when initially instituted, a period of probation was not a punishment or sentence of the court at all - the defendant had to admit guilt and then agree to be placed on probation and promise to be of good behaviour for the given period. They were being given a chance to reform with the help of an allocated  Probation Officer and they promised to see that officer when requested either at the office or at home. Failure to comply might mean a return to court and the possibility of being re-sentenced. The Probation Officers role was to 'advise, assist and befriend' the probationer, thus encouraging the good behaviour expected during the probationary period.  A very simple concept that worked well for years, was widely understood by most, but one that has been comprehensively screwed up so that society sadly now has no way of dealing with Joe, other than sending him to prison. Progress?