Sunday 31 October 2010

Law of Unintended Consequences

If ever there was a good example of why criminal justice policy should not be the subject of party politics, the mess we're now in with IPP sentences would be it. It was all part of Tony Blair's  sound bite pitch to the electorate 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime' and in 2005 landed us with a new Indeterminate sentence for Public Protection.

As I have said before, it was intended to be used sparingly but like a life sentence, irrespective of the tariff set, release would only occur when the Parole Board were satisfied that any risk factors had reduced. This usually means that the prisoner has to undertake certain courses such as CALM or SOTP and can demonstrate successful completion. Unfortunately these courses are not run in all prisons, waiting lists can be lengthy and the courses themselves are not short in duration. All this is compounded by often very short tariff dates, typically 2 or 3 years and the sheer numbers involved, now well over 2,500 in addition to the ordinary lifer population.

There is now a wide acceptance that the whole thing has been a huge mistake and a growing chorus of academics, politicians, lawyers and criminal justice organisations are calling for an urgent review of the law itself, it's operation in terms of appropriate course provision and release arrangements including risk assessments. The Prison Governors Association and HM Inspector of Prisons and Probation have already spoken out and now the Guardian is reporting that the incoming Chairman of the Bar Council, Peter Lodder QC, has added his voice of concern. All this is no doubt helping to concentrate Ken Clarke's mind as his Justice department draws up the sentencing Green Paper due out next month. There is another very interesting article about IPP's in todays Observer.


Saturday 30 October 2010


Blogging is a strange business and one I'm only just beginning to understand. I notice that I'm not as angry as when I started, thus I suppose proving the therapeutic effect it clearly can have. I seem to have set myself the seemingly impossible task of posting daily and wonder constantly if I'm going to run out of things to say. Today was going to be about employment, or more correctly the lack of it for our clients, but I've just read this powerful piece in the Guardian about lifers and decided instead to run with something I wrote several months ago on the subject. 

I've never had to supervise a 'whole life' tariff prisoner, but this article serves to highlight all too clearly some of the issues. I cannot help noticing that probation does not get a mention and I can only speculate that possibly some or all of the men have decided that they have no need of such a facility and withdrawn their cooperation. I'm also left just as puzzled as ever as to the diagnosis and definition of psychopathic personality disorder, whether it is treatable or not and how some offenders are felt appropriate for the Special Hospital route and others prison. 

Apart from sex offenders, I think it's fair to say that 'lifers' will pose some of the greatest challenges for a probation officer during their career. It used to be that unless you were in a specialist post, you were never likely to be responsible for that many, but the numbers have been increasing dramatically in recent years and they are likely to be with you for many years if you don't move office. This was always felt to be good practice long before NOMS came up with the concept of 'end-to-end offender management'. It represented a degree of continuity when the prisoner was likely to move prison establishment reasonably frequently and as a consequence the Home Probation Officer (now designated Offender Manager) became the defacto expert on the case. I feel this is particularly important as LSP3E reports for the Parole Board can be written with unrivaled authority and knowledge and therefore assist enormously in the key task of assessing risk at all stages of the prisoners progression through their sentence.

When I joined the service, all lifer supervisors were 'paired' with another officer, not only to ensure continuity, but also to give support in what could be some quite gruesome cases. I'm pretty sure this practice has all but disappeared and continuity of supervision is being made ever more difficult by newer recruits to the service wanting to move post more frequently. It cannot be satisfactory for lifer cases to be passed around from officer to officer on a regular basis, but I know it happens, is very unsettling to the prisoner and does nothing to help the Parole Board in their difficult task of assessing risk. In an increasingly 'risk averse' environment, it is getting noticeable that the Parole Board are releasing less and less lifers and a significant problem is developing. HM Inspector of Probation recently referred to this issue in the hope of stimulating a debate. I'm not aware of one as yet.    

I think it is still the practice nationwide to allocate a potential lifer case right from first court appearance, ideally so that the officer can follow the trial and upon conviction and sentence be well prepared to write the Post Life Sentence report. Life sentences are of course the only time when a Pre Sentence Report is not prepared. Somewhat confusingly for the public, there are four types of life sentence :- Mandatory (for murder) Discretionary (for rape, arson etc) Automatic (replaced in 2005 - previously for repeat serious offences) Imprisonment for Public Protection (IPP). This latter category has proved somewhat controversial in that when Parliament passed the legislation, it was envisaged that it would only apply to a relatively small group of offenders, not the significant numbers that have been handed down. Again, confusingly for the public, a life sentence very seldom means life, except for the 50 or so cases where 'Whole Life' tariffs have been set.

Since the Home Secretary lost the power to set the tariff, or minimum term felt appropriate for punishment before release can be considered, it is invariably announced by the trial Judge at time of sentence. Generally speaking tariffs have tended to be set higher in recent years, for example most recently in relation to knife-related murder. Release can only be authorised by the Parole Board when they are satisfied that there is no significant risk to the public and there are many prisoners in the system who have gone 5, 10, 20 or 30 years beyond their tariff and for some of them it will indeed turn out to be a life sentence. 

As a result of there being so many lifers in the prison system that have gone way over their tariff and become institutionalised, the Prison Service have been forced to build special geriatric wings, such as that at HMP Norwich. I cannot describe how sad it is to see elderly, infirm men either shuffling around on crutches, or pushing themselves in wheelchairs on the wing with virtually no prospect of release. Sadly, because they are still felt to pose some risk, hostels or other appropriately supervised community facilities are virtually impossible to find, so they continue to languish in prison. Surely there has to be a more suitable and humane way for society to deal with this group?

It should be a sobering thought for us all that the UK has more prisoners serving life sentences than the rest of Europe combined and the release rate has slowed to a trickle due to nervousness at the Parole Board. However, a recent opinion survey on the subject gave cause to feel that the public might be ready to consider afresh the whole sentencing framework and tariff structure relating to life sentences and the government have signalled a possible change in the law relating to mandatory life sentences for murder. Lets just hope that any debate can be conducted sensibly and free of party politics.  

Friday 29 October 2010

Time to 'Get Real'

The Ministry of Justice has just published details of serious further offences committed by offenders subject to MAPPA supervision. Of a total of 48,388 persons, 196 fell into this category with 14 committing offences such as rape or murder. Any serious offence is regrettable, but what is really significant is that 160 of this total were in the lowest risk category. Now it could be said that either the risk assessment process was therefore at fault, or that absolutely no risk assessment process is ever going to accurately predict future behaviour. In the end it has to be a judgement call and that is precisely the essence of why we need the best trained and experienced probation officers to try and keep the risk of serious reoffending as low as possible. In 43,192 cases it worked.   

The real nightmare every probation officer faces on a daily basis is the phone call that tells you one of the people on your caseload has just been arrested for a rape or murder. It didn't used to be like this of course, but the fact is nowadays the supervising officer will be blamed either directly or indirectly. The implicit view of the press and public will be that the officer's supervision should have prevented it - they were being supervised after all. Unfortunately management won't leap into action to offer support, instead they'll pore over the OASys assessment and inevitably find some fault with it. 

Now seeing as we deal with some of the most dangerous people in society on a daily basis, the chances are that some will commit further offences. I think this is a piece of commonsense that we as a society have just simply lost sight of. Officers do not have the benefit of hindsight, cannot read minds and do not follow their clients 24/7. So how has this deeply unreal, dysfunctional expectation come about? The answer is that politicians have encouraged the public to think that supervision has some magical quality and that OASys has a scientific ability to predict and prevent dangerous criminal behaviour. Sadly, probation management and to a degree NAPO have also colluded in this wildly misguided belief, to the extent that it has now become a very large stick with which to beat us. 

As I have said before, risk assessment is not a science, never can be and OASys has just created a massive forest from which we are trying to spot the odd tree. At most the process has never been much more than a highly educated, informed and reasoned guess. Bear in mind that most of this group will have been released from prison from determinate sentences. In other words release was non negotiable, so their risk had to be monitored in the community under licence no matter how high the risk category. Some will have been granted early release on Parole Licence when a careful decision has to be made about trading off concerns about risk, with the opportunity of imposing longer supervision and more restrictive conditions such as hostel residence or tagging, as more intrusive means of monitoring behaviour.

But our prison system is absolutely jammed with people on indeterminate sentences, precisely because the system has become so risk averse due to this unrealistic public and press expectation. We simply have to 'get real' - despite our best endeavours, some offenders are going to remain dangerous and commit more serious crimes. It has been, and for evermore will be, thus.     

Thursday 28 October 2010


Problem drinkers in one form or another will represent a significant number of any probation officers caseload. As with many aspects of problematic human behaviour, the form it takes varies from individual to individual and the reasons are many and varied. I make this point because in my experience there is no magic silver bullet treatment and never likely to be. It will be no great surprise to learn that trying to deal with clients who are problem drinkers can be extremely problematic, time-consuming and it has to be said, profoundly depressing.

When I started out many problem drinkers who had been through the prison system were aware of Alcoholics Anonymous and for some joining a community AA group proved helpful. But many others found the whole 10 step 'hair shirt' total abstinence and quasi-religious atmosphere too difficult to cope with. I found that some responded to counselling, especially if underlying traumas had led to heavy drinking and yet others went down the medical route of in-patient detoxification at the regional addictions unit (a facility now long gone) and treatment with antabuse.

For those unfamiliar with this treatment, it is a medication taken daily and leads to a violent and unpleasant reaction if combined with alcohol. In the early days it was available as a slow release implant in order to pre-empt the opportunity of frustrating it's effect by the simple expediency of stopping the medication. Unfortunately I've known cases of clients 'digging' out the implant so desperate they had become for a drink. Alternatively it is possible to drink through the nauseous effects of antabuse if someone is really determined. As far as I know it has not been available as an implant on the NHS for some time. 

In more recent time a whole host of specialist alcohol treatment agencies have sprung up offering counselling, support and advice and to a great extent the old AA model has lost favour. However problem drinking is still very much with us and by general consensus is an increasing problem and one that has significantly changed in nature. My period in court as a CDO brought home to me just how prevalent the phenomenon of teenage binge-drinking at weekends has become in every UK town and city. Historically heavy drinking has always gone hand in hand with Friday and Saturday nights out, often leading to male violence in garrison towns or areas associated with heavy industry. What has changed in recent years with liberalisation of the licensing laws is the massive growth in young female binge drinking, the copying of male bad behaviour and the concept of 'pre-loading' with cheap alcohol before even getting into town.

What quickly became clear to me as a CDO is that many of our towns and cities have become virtual war zones in the evenings at weekends with the police and ambulance service barely able to cope with the resulting melee. The resulting effects of violence inevitably end up before the courts and much discussion as to whether a perpetrator has a drink problem or not. I'm still not sure as this binge drinking behaviour is so widespread, limited to weekends and often the individual is otherwise leading a normal life, happily employed and often horrified when confronted with cctv evidence. I don't think they have a drink problem in the normally accepted and historical sense, but clearly something has to be done to encourage a different drinking behaviour. If behaviour is learnt, it can be unlearnt I feel. 

It looks as if London wants to blaze the trail for a new experimental way of dealing with problem drinkers. Boris Johnson and Kit Malthouse, respectively Mayor and Deputy Mayor want the government to sanction an American idea of enforced sobriety for some problem drinkers convicted of drink-related offences. The idea is to offer the option at court of compelling participants to undergo twice daily testing for alcohol at their own expense. Any positive readings would trigger a return to court and possible custodial sentence. The details haven't been finalised but could be combined with other conditions of a community order. The proponents seem keen on the idea of combining short custodial sentences, but this is not likely to meet with government approval given the current determination of reducing short sentences. Over all, I think the idea has some merit for a particular type of problem drinker, for example the motivated binge drinker, and is therefore worthy of a trial in my view.  


Wednesday 27 October 2010

A Clear Signal

I think the Justice Secretary Ken Clarke sent out a clear signal to the Probation Service during the course of his talk to lawyers at Grays Inn on Monday evening. During questioning from Joshua Rozenberg and carried in the latest edition of Radio 4's Law in Action programme, Ken Clarke confirmed much of what had already been trailed, but also gave some more insight into his thinking and general direction of travel. He agreed that his department's settlement with the Chancellor was only based on estimates of re-offending and that a reduction in prison numbers of 3,000 was extremely modest and only brought us to the position of two years ago. He reminded the audience that prison numbers had increased by 20,000 since Michael Howard was in charge.

Significantly Mr Clarke said clearly that a renewed emphasis on community penalties was not about saving money. He appreciated that schemes had to be paid for and he hoped that Probation Trusts would get involved as providers of Payment by Results projects. In answer to a direct question, he confirmed this would be an additional role for probation. He wanted the money to go towards the best schemes and confirmed there was no shortage of good ideas 'out there', but that so far HM Peterborough was the only pilot.

So there we have it. A clear signal and in my view it's now up to all those highly paid Probation Trust Head Office managers with fancy titles including words like 'business development' or 'partnership' to earn their keep, read up damned quick on Social Impact Bonds and seize the moment before the 'third sector' or private companies get too involved. Here is an opportunity to bid for extra work, with external funding and prove to any remaining doubters what works in terms of reducing re-offending. 

This is not rocket science, but is something the probation service has expertise in. We know that people commit offences for a reason, not because they've got a genetic predisposition or are bad people.  It's because they've missed out on a good childhood, been abandoned by state education and do not have the skills, confidence or resources to gain employment or decent housing and get help with alcohol or drug addiction. What ever else Ken Clarke might be doing, he is offering us the opportunity to design a support package specifically for the short-term prisoner, based on our knowledge and experience and paid for through Social Impact Bonds and Payment by Results. I simply do not understand NAPO's philosophical opposition to such an idea, particularly if the funding comes from respected charitable bodies and represents additionality

I can see no point at all in making an enemy of Ken Clarke. He agreed that his plans are hardly 'populist' and are not going to win him many friends. By instinct and nature he is generally a liberal Justice Minister, having absolutely no political ambitions and in all these ways admirably demonstrates to me a refreshing desire to move away from the old Blairite tendency of trying to appease the right wing press. I might add that in that regard he's put plenty of 'blue water' between himself and  Michael Howard, a former Conservative Home Secretary for whom I have nothing but contempt. This could be the beginning of an attempt to return to the days when criminal justice policy was not a political football. It was felt to be far too important for that and proceeded gently by means of research, Royal Commissions or cross-party consensus. I would remind people that Payment by Results has cross-party support.

Make no mistake, if we fail as a Service to grasp this opportunity and allow the third sector and private companies free reign, we will not be understood by the public or possibly even our many friends in high places, and we will be set firmly on the slippery slope of decline and marginalisation. Now is the time to try and seize the agenda that will inevitably be put in train by the Green Paper and demonstrate that it's us that know about rehabilitation and we can be just as adaptable and imaginative as in days gone by.  


Tuesday 26 October 2010

Professional Dilemma 2

There comes a time one day when during an interview with a client they are going to tell you with some conviction that they 'didn't do it 'and were 'fitted up by the police'. Like any other member of the public, I've heard of this sort of thing on the news, I've watched a few cop shows and am aware of the 'few rotten apples' theory about the police and the temptation to help convict an obviously guilty party with a little bit more evidence. As a probation officer who interviews people all the time, you also get an instinctive feel when what you're being told is almost certainly true. When this conflicts either with the evidential statements or with a finding of guilt, the probation officer finds themself in a potentially difficult situation.

I can think of two cases in recent years that will serve to illustrate the point and from extreme ends of a broad spectrum. In the first instance I remember a young man, very well known to me, protesting his innocence vociferously and at some length about a dwelling house burglary. He was giving me chapter and verse about how he had been 'fitted up' and that the police statements were obviously works of fiction. He had already been on remand for some weeks  and clearly wanted to recruit me to the cause of campaigning for his innocence. In response I reminded him of the blindingly obvious that he could plead not guilty, but also highlighted that conviction was almost a foregone conclusion given the statements.

The interview could have gone in circles for quite a bit longer until on impulse I changed tack and asked him if he'd ever committed offences of burglary before and got away with them? He stopped for a moment and agreed that indeed that was true. I suggested that one way of resolving his anger and sense of moral indignation was to view the current situation differently. This could be an opportunity for him to view any punishment he had coming for a burglary he says he didn't commit, as a way of making amends for all the others. He thought for one moment and said 'ok'. I have no way of knowing whether he'd been 'fitted up' or not and it could be said that my intervention just helped reinforce this young mans negative views of the criminal justice system. On the other hand it gave him a moral to ponder on. That in the end it could be said we reap what we sow. 

The other case that springs to mind is rather more serious and involves a man serving life for an appalling murder. From day one he protested his innocence and was adamant that evidence had been fabricated. For obvious reasons I shall not go into any details, but the nature of the crime dictated that in my view the perpetrator was likely to be suffering from a psychopathic personality disorder. The nature of the injuries, which have never been made fully public, surely could not have been committed by someone of completely sound mind? As his Home Probation Officer involved from the start, I had to ask myself repeatedly 'is the person in front of me really a dangerous psychopathic killer?' Privately I kept coming to the conclusion that he was not and therefore the second question kept on nagging away, 'has he been wrongly convicted as a result of fabricated evidence?'        

For years, as he proceeded through the appeal process, I had to keep those thoughts to myself as in my view it would have been highly unprofessional to do otherwise. Unfortunately he chose to take my neutral stance very negatively and eventually refused to see me, or answer letters. In such a situation there comes a time to admit defeat and in his best interests to transfer the case to another officer. I still have a nagging doubt that he didn't do it, but as each year goes by and no similar murder has been committed, maybe my gut feeling and instinct failed me on this occasion.      

Monday 25 October 2010

Clever Ken

I note that, according to yesterday's Sunday Times, Ken Clarke has obtained a secret deal from Chancellor George Osborne that effectively means his spending plans are conditional upon him gaining the expected reductions in re-offending rates. Of course it's partly this hoped-for reduction in offending that will be able to deliver the Chancellors demanded cost savings through prison closures. Such a 'get out' clause if true, makes perfect sense because reducing prison numbers I suspect is going to be something much easier said than done, especially in a period of almost certainly rising unemployment. 

In order to deliver the expected reduction in total prison numbers of 3,000 over a four year period, it has been estimated that it will have to equate to a 10,000 reduction in short term sentences. This is an incredibly ambitious target and the Justice Minister knows this, hence talk of a 'fall back' position just in case it doesn't happen. But even if it does, by the nature of the prison population's varied make-up, I think it's going to be quite a difficult task to identify prisons suitable for closure. This is because of their geographic spread, design purpose and the constantly fluid prison population. It's a bit like the electricity grid, a system in a state of constant flux but one that has to be balanced perfectly by the end of every day. Each differing type of prisoner by security category, age, gender, remand or sentenced etc, etc has to be appropriately accommodated. Basically, any spare bedspaces created may not necessarily be capable of a consolidation plan that equates to a viable prison closure. My feeling is that a planned contraction of the estate is going to be every bit as difficult as past plans for a rising population.

In any event, as the article highlights, there is concern amongst Conservative back-benchers that the Ministry of Justice just might be about to go soft on crime. Apparently they are particularly concerned about the forthcoming sentencing review being led by Crispin Blunt the probation minister, but knowledge of this 'deal' just might serve to reassure them.

Sunday 24 October 2010

What's in a Name?

There was a time when life was simple. Electricity came from the electric board, gas from the gas board and probation was run by a Chief Probation Officer, ably assisted by Assistant Chief Probation Officers. It irritated me when they became Chief Officers and Assistant Chief Officers, but of course they're now all called Chief Executives and Assistant Chief Executives. I thought this was just about status or ego's but to my amazement there is much more to it because I see a police officer is now running probation in South Devon. Yes really, a former Superintendent and most recently Business Improvement Commander for Devon and Cornwall Police is now line managing probation professionals. Maybe he's on a fast track to Chief Exec?

I find this utterly bizarre and wonder what the hell he knows about probation? Why on earth would a Probation Service do such a thing? Is it designed to wind people up or just look really trendy and 'business-like'? But then I seem to recall reading something about Fire Services not having to be run by Chief Fire Officers anymore, rather Chief Executives instead. Look what the Chief Fire Officers Association said in 2005:-

"Increasingly senior positions in fire and rescue service are being taken up by competent managers who have not come through the fire and rescue service ranks. Their backgrounds and experience expand our outlook and add to even greater professionalism in the service at all levels. This ultimately improves our service to the communities we serve."
When I first read this I honestly thought it was a joke. It must surely have been said through gritted teeth or with a heavy hint of irony? To me it represents not just another example of the inexorable rise of managerialism over professionalism, but also some sort of perverse mixture of political correctness and tokenism. Call me old fashioned, but I'd feel rather more comfortable knowing that fire, police and probation services were all run by time-served practitioners than bureaucrats.  

Saturday 23 October 2010

Another Fine Mess

The coalition government only has until December to comply with a Council of Europe directive that outlaws a blanket ban on UK prisoners being able to vote. Now it goes without saying that governments of all hues would rather just let the subject lie. There are almost certainly no votes in it for them and the issue is unlikely to play well in the letter columns of the Daily Mail or Telegraph. In fact I'd say the 'shire' counties are going to erupt when the news breaks that we have absolutely no choice in the matter and some hapless minister will have to explain that it's being done in the name of fairness. As it happens Ken Clarke can breathe a sigh of relief as responsibility moved to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in July. 

The last Labour government proposed several alternatives involving partial enfranchisement either by type of offence or length of sentence, but all this is academic as it now appears that nothing less than almost total enfranchisement is acceptable under Human Rights legislation. 

The issue then becomes, when enfranchised, exactly which constituency do prisoners cast their vote in? One obvious answer is the constituency where the prison is located, but I can see a number of MP's being more than a little uneasy about suddenly having upwards of 1,500 new captive electors to canvass. Perhaps it could be the constituency where the prisoners last home address was registered? This could prove quite an administrative headache, especially for long term prisoners and then there's the homeless to consider. Sentenced prisoners move around the system a lot too, so there will have to be a method of making sure their postal vote catches up with them. HM Prison Service is not renowned for such administrative things. 

I'll put my cards on the table and say I think such decisions should be taken by the UK Parliament, not the Council of Europe and I have sympathy with the 140 year-old historical argument that says if a citizen is sentenced to imprisonment, they have lost the right to cast a vote during their incarceration. The argument begins to get a bit more tenuous though if, as Ken Clarke envisages, prisoners will soon be be working a 40 hour week and start paying tax and National insurance. Remember the old rebel refrain, "no taxation without representation".  

Friday 22 October 2010

Fairness and Priorities

One of the over-riding aims of the Comprehensive Spending Review is that it is perceived as being fair, with the pain spread over all sectors of society in order to gain acceptance and the avoidance of civil unrest, as in France currently. This has been one lesson learnt the hard way from the experience of trying to introduce the Community Charge or Poll Tax by Mrs Thatchers government. It was because that measure was felt to be grossly unfair by large sections of society that civil unrest resulted and the coalition government has no desire to repeat that mistake.

Of course the pressure is now on as each Probation Service has to examine it's own organisation in order to make the significant savings now being demanded by government. It is a foregone conclusion that jobs will have to go, so the question will become who and where? As this process gets under way, I find myself again getting increasingly angry about closures of community-based probation offices at the expense of Head Office. This is happening all over the country and apart from anything else, goes against the obvious wishes of government who want to see cuts in 'back office' functions rather than 'front line' services. 

Sadly, as with other public services such as the police, I've had to watch the inexorable growth in Head Office from a small single storey office to a sprawling mansion with massive extensions. Over the years, as the Service enthusiastically embraced 'managerialism' every square inch of space has been filled with numerous managers for diversity, research, business development, public relations, offender management etc etc. The list goes ever on and each of course justifies their own position as being vital to the successful operation of the Service. The fact is that the only vital part of the service are the front line staff who deal with clients on a day-to-day basis and they are precisely the group that will suffer the redundancies and office closures.

Of course any bureaucracy needs some back room services, such as payroll or HR and Chiefs will say they are making efficiencies by sharing functions across county boundaries, but this is just tinkering at the edges and an attempt to justify too many unnecessary management posts. We need a fundamental re-balancing of priorities on the front line and a cull of Head Office management. This sounds very harsh and uncaring, but it should never have got to this point in the first place and there is evidence that they've simply 'lost the plot'. Just look at this example of what I mean:-

"Our Glossop office will close after business on Thursday 30 September, 2010 as part of our ongoing focus on maintaining an efficient, effective yet viable organisational structure to support our front line service provision."

I know of an impending office closure in another area in order to save about £90,000 per annum in rent. That's about the cost of two managers at Head Office. What is the Probation Service in existence for? To provide a service to the community, or have a Head Office full of policy makers and bureaucrats? Unfortunately NAPO will not be able to say any of this because the managers concerned at Head Office may well be represented by them, or another Trade Union. Instead they will be constrained to engage the wider membership in an ultimately futile battle against government cuts that as a Nation we all know have to be made.    

Thursday 21 October 2010

Was There any Good News?

The Chancellor has spoken and we know the Ministry of Justice is going to lose 14,000 jobs over the next four years. But I feel there was some good news.

  • Although NOMS stays, 760 jobs are to go from their Regional Offices.
  • An increase in the use of restorative justice.
  • Investment in mental health liaison and diversion services at police stations and courts, to divert mentally ill offenders and drug addicts into treatment.
  • A speeding up of the risk assessment and parole of 1,300 inmates serving indefinite sentences for the public's protection who were recommended to serve a tariff of two years but have been in prison for longer. (This will be interesting given problems with OASys)
  • A planned reduction of the prison population by 3,000 over the next four years (in reality this will mean 10,000 less short term prisoners)
  • Recalling released prisoners only for serious breaches of their licences rather than technical lapses.(I must admit I thought this happened anyway)
  • Reducing the use of remand for defendants charged with crimes that would not normally attract a prison sentence. (Not sure how they intend to do this)
  • £1.2 Billion for prison improvements and essential extra places
  • Abandonment of the prison expansion programme to 96,000 places
  • A 'rehabilitation revolution' probably by introducing 'Payment by Results'
Clearly the last item is contentious, but it must be worth trying, particularly in relation to the many short-term prisoners serving 12 months or less for whom sadly the Probation Service is not currently funded to help. In terms of how Ken Clarke intends to get the prison population down, he hopes to remove foreign national prisoners more quickly and will increase the discount offered for an early guilty plea to 50%. As to how he intends to reduce the numbers of short sentences, we'll have to wait for the Green Paper due out before Christmas.

Wednesday 20 October 2010

Prisons Closing?!

It's becoming clearer that the Ministry of Justice is going to be one of the government departments that will suffer most proportionally from the spending review. As I write there is talk of 14,000 job reductions right across prisons, probation and courts and most significantly the likelihood of prison closures. It's ony a few years since all the talk was of big new Titan prisons holding 2,000 inmates each and every Justice Minister I've ever known has only ever talked about the need for more prison places to ease overcrowding. There's always been a building programme - never a closure programme as far as I recall. 

So if some prisons really are going to close, it got me thinking about which ones. Now maybe the general public are not as aware as regular prison visitors as to just how much historic real estate HM Prison Service is sitting on and how small some of our old gaols are. There's a bit of a dispute as to the oldest still in use. Some claim Lancaster Castle certified for 244 and currently designated a Cat 'C' for drug users and although occupying part of the historic grade 1 listed Castle, only opened in 1955. HMP Shepton Mallet listed grade II* has a much better claim I think, having started out as a House of Correction in 1625 and is now a Cat 'C' reserved for lifers and holding 186. 

Not surprisingly, at various times Inspectors have commented on the poor fabric of these establishments and it would be reasonable to think that given their historic significance and small size, they would be prime candidates for closure, not least on economy of scale grounds. After all there are plenty of historical precedents such as Abingdon Gaol which closed in the 1970's to become a leisure centre and Oxford Gaol which was converted into a very smart shopping venue and Malmaison hotel when it closed in 1996. However, having visited many, many prisons over the years, including both Lancaster and Shepton Mallet, I can confirm what inspectors frequently report, namely that there are benefits in having small prisons with stable populations which can greatly assist with rehabilitation. 

For anyone interested in the heritage aspects of the English prison estate there are two excellent books published by English Heritage entitled 'English Prisons - An Architectural History' and 'Behind Bars - The Hidden Architecture of England's Prisons'. I've always found the amazingly different architectural styles, often coupled with stunning rural locations, help make even the most difficult prison visits more than worth the effort.

A Few Observations

On the very day the coalition government is due to announce swingeing cuts in public expenditure that will affect life here in Britain for years to come, I find myself reflecting on that seminal tv series Boys From the Blackstuff recently repeated on BBC4. I well remember the effect this series had on me when first shown in the early 1980's and I was at university hoping to become a probation officer. I find many of the issues covered are just as relevant today and continue to resonate with my own probation practice. In many ways, this amazing series has served as a metaphor for much of what I've witnessed through work and in my opinion is still worthwhile viewing for any aspiring PO's. I note it's due out on DVD shortly and will certainly be on my Christmas list. 

I have to say I'm appalled by the news that the US charity Project Prevention has signed up it's first UK drug addict who has agreed to a vasectomy in return for £200. The ethos is that drug addicts cannot be adequate parents, which is a view that I wouldn't necessarily disagree with in many cases. However, the whole notion of encouraging sterilisation for people deemed as being unfit raises in me some deeply unpleasant historical parallels and an avenue that I really don't think we should be heading down. If nothing else, can a person really give informed consent at a time of psychological and possible physical addiction? I certainly doubt it.

It's good to see that NAPO have taken steps to redesign and simplify their Forum pages and hopefully some lively discussion might be forthcoming soon. In the meantime I love this quote from the Hampshire and Isle of Wight branch pages posted by George Clarke:-

"There will be those who believe that probation found it true way during the past decade and there will be those who believe it lost its way - some saw an oasys... others realised a mirage... "

A couple of stories recently concerning high profile Bloggers serve to highlight that this can be a risky business. I note that former blogger Katharine Birbalsingh who outed herself and accepted an invitation to speak at the recent Tory Party conference has parted company with her school. I hope she is not unduly surprised by this, because I'm certainly not. Although I never read her blog, having picked up the gist and heard her speak on the BBC radio 4 Today programme yesterday, I can see why her position would be untenable. I have a suspicion I wouldn't agree with all of her thoughts on education, particularly the desirability of more exclusions. We already have 10,000 a year and I think it would be preferable to put effort into engaging with those kids and their parents and offer support instead.

Finally, I see that some people feel that Inspector Gadjet might have accidentally revealed his location in a recent post. I have to say I find that degree of sloppiness hard to believe in such an experienced and accomplished blogger and wonder if it might not just be a clever smokescreen? Whatever, I hope he carries on raising the issues he does for a lot longer, even though I wish he were a bit more open to some serious discussion and possibly some acknowledgement that there just might be some other answers to the problems that he so graphically illustrates. 

Tuesday 19 October 2010

PO/PSO What's the Difference?

It's interesting to note that after six weeks of blogging, my most visited post is on the subject of PSO's. Without doubt this is a tricky area, especially for someone like me that's 'old-style', but I have been thinking it's a topic I should return to. I've been prompted by a recent response by a PSO to a comment made on the Magistrates Blog and a comparison with PCSO's. I can well understand she feels insulted, possibly as I might be by her comment that "Unfortunately, I come across scores of 'old school' PO's who haven't adapted and are still using out-dated methods and are simply not capable of adequately managing the risk of the people they work with."

I think it's very unfortunate that a colleague seeks to denigrate such experienced colleagues, many of whom will have spent years supervising dangerous people, often alone in their homes, in the days before mobile phones, panic alarms and risk assessments. But this very neatly serves to illustrate the cultural and professional divide that has been forced upon the Service and the tensions that inevitably result. But it doesn't get us very much further because we both know there are hapless PSO's just like there are some unsuitable PO's. As it happens some of the scariest people I've ever met have been PO's, and some of the laziest have been PSO's, but to a certain extent that's life.

Firstly some history. When I joined, typically each field probation office or team had a Probation Service Ancillary or Assistant who might have started as a volunteer, or in the case of my office, a clerical officer. Their duties did not involve supervising any clients, but rather undertaking ancillary tasks like transporting clients or family members to a distant prison, or other similar practical tasks. Remember these were the days when we were called the Probation and After-Care Service and indulged in things like Kindred Social Work, Matrimonial Supervision Orders or even Money Payment Supervision Orders. These posts had absolutely no training attached and this remained the case when the post title initially changed to Probation Services Officer. In recent years there has been some general training for PSO's as their role steadily expanded and began to attract a different type of person, more frequently with a degree and aspirations of qualifying as a PO. This situation will become the norm as from April this year the only route to PO qualification will be via previous employment as a PSO. 

Obviously during this period of extensive transition we have many PSO's with varying periods of service and levels of experience, training, expectation and capability. One of the real concerns both for them and PO's is the role boundary and that is becoming ever more blurred as the numbers of qualified PO's reduces. Management are continually finding ways of basically getting PSO's to do the work of PO's as they are cheaper. I am aware that some areas are allowing PSO's to take on Tier 4 cases, the highest level of risk and involving sex offenders, domestic abuse and similar.

I've already pointed out that many PSO's, in addition to preparing FDR's, are being asked to write full PSR's with counter-signing by qualified staff. We are rapidly approaching the point where it will be obvious that there is no difference between the two grades, apart from about £7,000 per annum. So, the obvious question will be, why have a PO grade at all if it can all be done by PSO's? Why bother with the training programme? What is going to happen to the staff who qualify, only to be told there are no PO posts? In such a situation, it's going to be very difficult to resist management when they ask such PSO's to do a PO's job nevertheless. 

My colleague's penultimate line states "And plenty of newer PO's that are too jaded to care any more." As a Service we've got ourselves into a real mess by basically 'dumping' all the accumulated experience of 'old-style' officers and along the way denying its relevance. I think it's going to be very difficult for this new type of officer to cope in the long term, and deliver all that is expected, as possibly the selection, training, and preparation just hasn't been sufficient  or thorough enough. 

Some light relief:-

Monday 18 October 2010

Meeting Targets

When I started out on this blog I really didn't envisage having to get quite so involved in economic theory. I think I'm reasonably ok on social theory, but all this stuff about Payment by Results (PbR) I find is confusing the two. I'm grateful to the NAPO Hampshire and Isle of Wight forum page for pointing me in the direction of yet another Guardian article on the subject. It's becoming obvious that PbR is definitely becoming popular with the coalition government and Crispin Blunt the probation minister told NAPO members as much at the recent AGM. As I've already mentioned, the idea was initially set rolling by the previous Labour government at HMP Peterborough with cross-party support.

It has many attractions in terms of not requiring government capital funding up front, no risks because payment is only by results and it funds activity in the private or 'third' sector. But the suspicion is that the figures will be 'fudged' and this article confirms that the big downside of this big new idea is indeed how everything needs to be measured. Just when we thought the target culture that Tony Blair was so keen on could be dismantled, it seems it has to reappear as a method of measuring the outputs as part of this big new idea. 

By nature I will admit to being a pessimist. I have an over-powering sense of foreboding about our future as a public service in an environment of spending cuts, contestability, value for money exercises and straightforward privatisation. But I am also attracted to the whole Social Impact Bond idea as a method of doing things that are not being done at the moment, as at  HMP Peterborough. However, I'm not stupid or that naive to think it's going to stop there though. The idea is clearly going to take hold and inevitably move into areas of our core work. Now at least one person has commented on this blog that the essential ethos of the probation service might be safer and possibly have a brighter future, if it moved into the third sector.

I can't believe I'm saying this, but would we be better embracing all this PbR and Social Impact Bond stuff? We could carry on doing what all public bodies do in response to targets and fiddle the new outcome figures? In my area, we've been doing some 'creative accounting' on the numbers of clients getting employment for ages. As the Guardian article points out:-

"Targets failed nearly everywhere partly because the most important objectives – education, health and so on – are not really susceptible to narrow measurement. So services had to make do with something less precise, which was bound to distort. But they also failed because of the phenomenon known as Goodhart's Law, named after a former Bank of England director: any measure used to control people – and all targets are that – are bound to be inaccurate.
It doesn't matter how inefficient the service is, staff and managers always know how to manipulate the definitions so that their numbers look better. That is why the Labour government spent huge sums checking, auditing, redefining and systematising their controls. Every time they did so, the rules became more complex, more expensive and less connected to reality."

So even though we all know targets don't work, are a huge distraction and distort an organisations operation, we will need them to measure outputs with this great new idea. We're all independent Trusts now and fiddling the figures is precisely what all the third sector bodies will be doing anyway. The government won't mind if we do the same, don't get found out and everyone can claim success. Oh dear, it seems I'm even more cynical than I thought.    


Sunday 17 October 2010

Good and Bad News

I've just got around to reading the transcript of the speech made by Crispin Blunt, probation minister, to NAPO's AGM last weekend. Amongst the platitudinous stuff you'd expect from the minister he said a couple of things that will particularly gladden the heart of probation staff about the need to reduce bureaucracy, the negative effect that targets were having and an acknowledgement that:-

"National Standards were limiting your ability to use your skills and judgement."

 He said we must:-

"be ruthlessly and relentlessly focused on delivering effective offender management. Diverting you from that task by requiring you to become principally data inputters rather than principally offender managers is a shocking waste of your professional expertise and this has to change." 

I take this last point to be a barely veiled snipe at OASys - or am I being naive here? He went on:-

"You are spending far too much time on paperwork, consuming the time that should be spent on face-to-face contact with offenders. If you are to have a real chance of changing lives and reducing re-offending, the amount of direct contact time needs to increase and there is a real opportunity to make this possible." 

All fantastic stuff that would induce a standing ovation on their own. However delegates were less keen to hear him extolling the virtues of Payment by Results and the need to get the cost of CS down by privatising it. But then we all know there are huge cuts in spending just around the corner and as I write this, the Guardian is reporting that Ken Clarke has failed to get a good deal from the Chancellor and the Ministry of Justice looks likely to take a 30% hit as a result of being one of the last departments to settle. Surprising that, for such a seasoned operator.

I was puzzled by this section of Crispin's speech concerning sentencing and rehabilitation:-

"I wonder if we shouldn't be asking sentencers to judge the balance between punishment, restoration, public protection and rehabilitation. I am examining, when it gets to the detail of the rehabilitation, whether it would be better to leave the judgement about how best to devote those compulsory hours to you the professionals. You have the knowledge of an offender, whose needs may change when in your charge, and quite importantly the knowledge of what rehabilitative services are actually available and effective in your local area. These are bound to vary, not least as the voluntary and private sector will be the source of many of them." 

Anyway, he wants our views on the idea and is asking the Probation Association and Probation Chief's Association for comments. I would have thought the Magistrates Association could have a view on this, however it might be that we all have to wait for the promised Green Paper due out in December for full details.

Saturday 16 October 2010

A Response

I notice that Inspector Gadjet is highlighting the case reported in today's Daily Mail of three young professionals spared custody for assaulting a passenger on a train. This report comes hard on the heels of the recent article basically saying it's virtually impossible to get sent to prison nowadays. I think it's important to respond, but I'd rather try and shed some light on the issues rather than just generate heat.

  1. As of 8th October there are 85,325 people in prison in the UK. I believe this is close to an historically high figure. The UK imprisons 151 people per 100,000 of the population compared to 95 in Germany and 85 in France.
  2. It's always difficult to pass meaningful comment on a sentence in the absence of full information, but I'm going to stick my neck out and say I think it's about right in this case. Having good professional jobs, I'm assuming the three had no relevant previous convictions. They got the maximum number of CS hours and four months imprisonment suspended for 12 months. The compensation to the victim was £300 which tells me the injuries were relatively slight. Had the three got custody, no order for compensation could have been made, or indeed the Order for Court costs of £660 and they would have lost their jobs. They will have to complete the CS as any breach of a Suspended Sentence Order from Crown Court  will almost inevitably lead to activation. They were lucky - I've had cases where one blow led to death and a subsequent life sentence for manslaughter. 
  3. In relation to the other recent case of three young men assaulting and torturing over three days a 17yr old suffering from aspergers syndrome, I feel the sentence of 80 hours CS and a curfew order probably doesn't reflect the seriousness of the offences (although I don't know what the charges were) and I think an appeal by CPS is likely.   


A Cunning Plan

It has been obvious to me for ages that our policy on drugs is simply not working. Any probation officer who has been around for any time will be aware of the phenomenon whereby a drug dependent client will beg you for a period of time in custody. I'm sure magistrates will be aware of this too because I've heard heart-felt pleas of 'please lock me up' from the dock on more than one occasion. The same goes for solicitors and it is hard not to be moved by the sheer desperation and hopelessness of such an individuals situation. This has come about basically because it is virtually impossible to obtain an in-patient bedspace for drug treatment. If by some miracle one was located, funding would be an impossibly bureaucratic nightmare. 

One might be tempted to ask how this has come about? The answer is partly the sheer numbers involved, but also that the politically correct, and by happy coincidence cheapest form of drug treatment, is by means of so-called community-based methadone prescribing. It's politically correct because the ethos says it enables the client to remain in their home, possibly employment and maintain their community support networks. The only trouble is the people I'm talking about are invariably homeless and 'sofa-surfing' hopelessly unemployable and all their mates are on drugs as well. So, in a situation like this, a request to be either remanded in custody or serve a sentence is an extremely rational decision. In the old days the itinerant town drunk would lob a brick through a shop window in order to spend Christmas eating HM Prison's festive turkey. Nowadays offences such as shoplifting are frequently committed deliberately by drug users as a route to residential drug treatment provided by HM Prison.

Again, one might be tempted to point out that prisons are hardly drug-free environments. I've certainly had clients go in clean and come out addicted and vice versa, but the key thing is the degree of motivation. Many clients have told me that it's much easier to get clean and stay clean in prison if you are minded to. It obviously helps if your 'padmate' is similarly inclined and you're on a drug-free wing, enforced by the inmates by the way, not the staff. Prisoners can be the best form of support for each other, or the worst of bad influences, such is the reality of incarceration.

Apart from cost and the absurdity of it, the main problem with this way of society dealing with the chronic drug problem is the length of sentence. Even with a record and history of failed community sentences, a string of new shop lifting offences will not often result in more than 6 months, and usually much less given an early guilty plea. Now the punitive amongst us might be surprised to hear that many clients would dearly love longer behind bars because they know a release in just a few weeks isn't enough to detox completely or to make the most of treatment that's on offer.

The answer to this has to be a bit more sophisticated than longer prison terms, essentially for drug treatment. We need a way of providing residential drug treatment facilities that are sufficient in number, relatively easy to access and affordable. But we're in a recession and government has no spare cash. Having read further about Social Impact Bonds and the project at HMP Peterborough, I think this could be a possible funding route with payment made on results.

We are all aware that many of our prisons hold inmates who have drug problems and I have outlined how many choose custody as a way of dealing with their addiction. If a way could be found to fund a network of residential treatment facilities, I feel there would be merit in exploring a radical alternative for low level drug dependant offenders that diverts them from the Criminal Justice System completely. I envisage such people being offered the opportunity of a residential treatment place as a possible alternative to a conviction and sentence following an admission of guilt. I suppose technically it could be viewed as a Deferred Sentence with a return to court should the placement break down for any reason. Successful completion would ideally in my view result in no conviction being recorded. I'm fairly sure this wouldn't be possible at the moment and might therefore require legislation, or at least some better qualified legal opinion than mine. 

What is obvious to me is that drug policy is failing completely at the present time and therefore some radical thinking might be appropriate. I think a scheme like this could deliver better treatment and lower prison numbers, with capital funding for the centres off the Public Sector books, and all with the prospect of real savings to the taxpayer. The Holy Grail and a cunning plan I think.     

Friday 15 October 2010

Too Many in Prison

In an effort to stimulate further the debate being stirred up by today's Daily Mail, I found this article in the Times from March this year by Paul Mendelle QC of the Criminal Bar Association. I may be wrong, but not an organisation known to be particularly liberal. Of course it was written before the election and hence what the likelihood of cuts in public expenditure were going to be. I found it interesting to be reminded of what the old Justice Affairs Select Committee was saying in the last Parliament.

"Some crimes are so serious and some criminals so dangerous that prison is the only possible disposal; nobody disputes that. Even so, why have prison numbers burgeoned by nearly 40 per cent since 1997 to a level where we now imprison more per 100,000 of population than any other country in Europe? Where we have more lifers than Russia? How has it come to this?
An answer can be found in Cutting Crime: The Case for Reinvestment, a report by the House of Commons Justice Select Committee. It concluded that the incessant growth in the prison population was caused by a toxic cocktail of sensationalised or inaccurate reporting of difficult cases by the media; relatively punitive overall public opinion; a self-defeating over-politicisation of criminal justice policies since the late 1980s; and the sentencing framework and sentences.
This means not just that we are sending too many people to prison for too long; we are also sending too many of the wrong people to prison — too many mentally ill people, drug addicts, minor offenders, young people and women. But we cannot go on like this.
The committee said that the criminal justice system was facing a crisis of sustainability. The Ministry of Justice has to find £1.3 billion in savings over three years; yet new and existing resources are being pre-empted by spending plans to accommodate a potential prison population of 96,000 by 2014.
Each prisoner costs the state about £41,000 a year and building each prison place costs £100,000. Twenty thousand too many people in prison cost more than £800 million a year; 10,000 new places will cost £1 billion — and who is to say the limit will be reached at 96,000?
Public expenditure is under the greatest pressure. Now is the perfect time for the Government to be bold and curb a policy that is hogging resources to the detriment of not only the criminal justice system but also society as a whole. If, as is said, only one in 20 crimes results in the perpetrator being caught, it seems that a repressive penal policy may have no appreciable effect on the rates of offending. We could spend less and achieve more by diverting resources to prevention, treatment and rehabilitation.
Locking up more people for longer plays well with the populist press. But the costs of this policy are huge and increasing and there is little to suggest that the policy works. Douglas Hurd, the former Home Secretary, once remarked that prison is an expensive way of making bad people worse. On that basis, our prison policy is an expensive way of doing more harm than good."
Paul Mendelle QC

What Makes a Career Criminal?

I know it's probably not wise to take too much notice of what the Daily Mail says, but I'll make an exception today. The Mail is fulminating about so-called career criminals who have accumulated over 100 convictions and have not gone to jail. A recently retired magistrate adds his two-penneth complaining about 'do-goodery' and extolling the virtues of Michael Howards view that prison works.

Lets take the last point first - does prison work? The answer of course is yes and no. As Inspector Gadjet has previously noted on his blog, prison does indeed give the community protection for the period that an offender is removed from it. But what's the point of that if the underlying reasons for committing the offences are not dealt with or worse, if the offenders situation has deteriorated, for example through loss of accommodation and therefore re-offending is made more likely upon release? At the present time anyone serving less than 12 months gets no help from the probation service, unless they are under 21. It strikes me that this is not a very sophisticated way of dealing with the initial problem and in fact quite likely to make matters worse.  

It's regrettable to hear a recently retired magistrate rubbishing 'do-goodery' and by extension I guess the probation service. Unfortunately I think this is one consequence of breaking the historic link between the Magistracy and probation. Through much of my career it was typical practice to meet members of the local bench at least every four months in order to discuss matters of mutual concern, present case studies, take part in joint sentencing exercises and inform magistrates of new initiatives. These were often lively affairs and well attended, and not just because I suspect they were regarded as contributing towards an on-going training requirement. Most importantly they served as a valuable conduit for understanding so that comments like those in today's Daily Mail would be less likely. 

When there is any discussion of locking more people up, I think it is relevant to remind protagonists of this argument that Britain already has the highest rate of imprisonment of any other comparable European country. This begs two questions, why is this country so different and does it not indicate something is going seriously wrong with our current approach to the problem? 

Over the years, I'm not sure I've ever met many 'career' criminals as a probation officer. On the other hand I've seen quite a few when watching tv programmes like 'Watchdog'. To me a career criminal is someone who makes a conscious, calculated decision to make a business out of crime, say 'ripping' people off, quite often vulnerable people, safe in the knowledge that apprehension will be most unlikely. Many are likely to be smart and middle class involved in financial fraud, in addition to the perhaps more stereotypical 'dodgy builder' types. Accumulating a lot of convictions does not make someone a career criminal. I've had quite a few elderly men who have very lengthy records and without exception they are sad, institutionalised individuals who find living in the community too frightening or difficult and so typically commit alcohol-related offences in order to return to a place where they feel more at home - prison. They are not career criminals in my book.

I suspect the Daily Mail is really talking about a relatively small, but significant group of prolific offenders. This group typically commit large numbers of offences within a short period of time and often have multiple problems that should have been addressed somewhat earlier. I guess this brings me into the realms of 'do-goodery'. For this group, custody may prove beneficial for some if all other avenues have been explored and they use the experience to gain qualifications and are able to deal with drug and alcohol issues. I've seen many young men changed for the good by YOI, but equally it can damage others.

The evidence shows that many just stop their chronic offending and grow out of it as part of the maturing process or by forming a relationship. On more than one occasion I've speculated that for some young men, the probation service might have more success if we operated a dating agency. I cannot overstate the dramatic effect a girlfriend can sometimes have on a young mans offending pattern. She often replaces the control previously exercised by mum and says 'you're not going out'.  It might make a nice research project to compare this group with the ones on Prolific and other Priority Offender (PPO) initiatives run by the police. 

Thursday 14 October 2010

Justice Affairs Select Committee 4

The Howard League for Penal Reform will shortly be giving oral evidence to the Committee and a recent post by Frances Crook gives a flavour of where they are coming from. Basically they suggest the probation service is 'rebranded' and becomes a 'resolution service'. Frances Crook may be an expert in the field of criminal justice, but obviously not in branding. 'The what service? Anyway, this sounds promising:- 
"If government intends to cut the cost of an expensive prison system, probation must be the weapon at the front and centre of the new system. It must change its focus, working not on the mundane box-ticking of bureaucrats but engaging with individuals in the community as many dedicated probation officials would really wish to. Just as our police officers must be free to spend more time on the beat so probation officers must be freed up to spend more time in the community."
"The problem is this recommendation on its own is not enough. After years of a failed “prison-works” doctrine and a generation of the press vilifying failed probation; probation requires rebranding and reintegration within the community. Our submission calls for a shift away from offender management and a shift towards a localised “resolution service” that the public can both see and understand. It calls for a community resolution service that works with those who have committed crime, whereby local probation/resolution officers serve as a local, individualised gateway to offer individuals access to support on problems such as housing and health care."
"If probation could define itself in this way, then there is little reason why probation should remain solely in the portfolio of criminal justice. Probation could serve as a one-stop shop for all people who are vulnerable in the community. They could go out into the community acting as a dispute resolution and support service for all within society, for example anti-social behaviour matters could be channeled to appropriate local services instead of towards overcrowded prisons."
But I'm not too sure about this idea. It would require social work skills that we've just spent 10 years comprehensively removing from the service. The really funny bit is it sort of makes a case for an integrated probation and social service department - in fact a bit like they have had in Scotland all along. Oh and of course we did used to help mediate in divorce cases over child access and custody and we used to resolve neighbour disputes. Nothing new under the sun then.

Justice Affairs Select Committee 3

I note that the Committee is cross-examining the minister at 10.30am today on proposed court closures.

Why are PSR's so Bad?

Like most aspects of human endeavour, the PSR has gone through some significant changes over the years. It has always been regarded as a key skill of a probation officer because it forms a significant part of the information courts consider at the very moment that sentence is determined. I've already stated that it has been one of the most enjoyable parts of the job, but recent comments by the Chairman of the Magistrates Association and indeed a couple of commentators to this blog, tend to confirm my suspicion that the quality has deteriorated over the last couple of years. The shocking indictment that probation management must take account of seems to be 'yes we nearly always get a PSR, but hardly ever any information'.

Now when I started out, Social Enquiry Reports were written in a very different style and in today's climate of political correctness would be shocking to many people. For a start they were written on virtually all cases, including not guilty pleas, so you can imagine the offence analysis part of the report was a little sketchy to say the least. This was the tail end of the period when reports might well have contained mention of child-rearing methods and other similar social work theories, but most alarmingly when considered today, there was discussion of housing conditions and standards. Yes, I did indeed used to say things like 'johnny comes from a well known criminal family, most of whom have been supervised by this Service. The house is typical of the area with average standards of hygiene and cleanliness. The garden is not particularly well kept.' I'm not particularly proud of this aspect of my early career, but it was typical of the time.

I think most would agree that reports improved enormously when they became Pre Sentence Reports and each officer was left to develop their own individualistic report writing style, eventually within four basic headings. In my view a good report has to tell a story, give a coherent explanation of a persons background and the reasons and circumstances surrounding the commission of offences. Having explained the individuals current situation and any problems, it should flow easily towards a possible way forward that will address punishment and any issues that will support a cessation of offending. Ideally the reader should arrive at the conclusion with no great surprises and feeling that the recommendation is eminently sensible.

In my view the best reports are those that paint a rounded picture of the individual and one that should not resemble the somewhat partisan one given either by the prosecution or defence. I always try and tell it 'as it is' and give a fair description with some colour and feeling. In my view the probation officer must come to a decision as to what they feel is the best way forward and go for it. Of course the sentencers may not agree, but I feel the officers role is to use their professional judgement, not just go through the motions and list the options. In my experience, turning up at court can make all the difference and indicates that the officer really stands by their recommendation. Over the years I've found that on balance this approach has earned me more favourable than negative comments from sentencers.

Unfortunately, all the above has had to be achieved in spite of continual attempts to impose an increasingly rigid and constrained report which in my view has now resulted in a sterile, almost meaningless document full of formulaic computer-generated, politically correct phrases devoid of any sense of colour, feeling or passion. It started with having to address aggravating and mitigating factors and then eventually moved onto risk analysis and meaningless OASys graphs and charts. Working recently as a Court Duty Officer, I could barely bring myself to read most of the days offerings, they were so utterly boring, repetitive and formulaic. Unfortunately I had to when they were regularly the subject of criticism and I was left to try and explain what the officer meant. So, regrettably I think that when the last old-style PO bows out, we really have seen the end of the PSR being a meaningful aid to sentencing, and with it's passing we will have lost one of the most valuable aspects of the job.

I will end on a couple of anecdotes. When I was a CDO I was enormously surprised one day to find an old format PSR written in 'freestyle' by an SPO from out of town. It was such a wonderfully refreshing read that I rang him before the Bench came in. He was full of apologies saying that the computer system had crashed and the poor PO was so stressed, on impulse he just decided to knock out an old-style report instead. Everyone, Bench included, could only marvel at what reports used to look like and remind themselves as to what has been lost. Finally, a retired colleague of mine recently decided to earn some cash writing freelance reports for another town. Being somewhat of the same persuasion as myself and not having a career to worry about, he engineered his reports in the old-style, much to the annoyance of local management. Eventually he was summoned before the local District Judge and asked 'Mr Smith, why can't all your colleagues write reports like this?' 

Wednesday 13 October 2010

Safe to Release?

I note from the Guardian that it's the turn of the Prison Governor's Association to draw attention to the sorry situation surrounding the 2,500 or so prisoners being held beyond their tariff date on Indeterminate Public Protection sentences. Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons and Probation has previously raised the issue, as indeed have penal reform groups.

The IPP sentence was introduced in 2005 and replaced the previous so called 'automatic' life sentence that was triggered for repeat specified serious offences such as rape. However this new sentence has proved somewhat controversial in that when Parliament passed the legislation, it was envisaged that it would only apply to a relatively small group of offenders, not the significant numbers that have been handed down (6,130 at latest count). It should be regarded as a type of life sentence as release is only possible when the Parole Board are satisfied that an individual no longer poses a risk to the community. Although in many cases a relatively low tariff of say 3 or 4 years was imposed, many prisoners have not been able to complete appropriate courses whilst in prison or convince the Parole Board that they are safe to release. Only about 90 individuals have been released back into the community under probation supervised licences.

Apart from the civil liberty aspects of incarcerating ever greater numbers of people for what might end up as life terms for offences other than murder, the various agencies involved are concerned about the effect it is having on the prison system with so many 'lifers'. It also raises the issue of how 'risk averse' the Parole Board is becoming and there are concerns about the way in which the whole process of assessing risk is currently being handled. It will be no surprise to regular readers that I feel OASys features heavily in this and particularly the blind faith members of Parole Board panels seem to put in it. At several Oral Hearings I have been asked by panel members if I've completed an up-to-date OASys as if it is a highly scientific process that will magically produce the answer. In fact it is of course highly subjective and in my experience has massively clouded consideration of risk issues. 

I'm afraid that in order to explain we have to delve further into the mysteries of this fiendish invention and the ethos of 'end-to-end offender management'. As part of the theory, in a surreal twist of logic it is the probation officer based possibly 100 miles or more from the prison who is nominally in charge of the offenders management in prison. So the person who knows least about the operation of a prison is expected to chair sentence planning meetings, possibly by video conference call due to travel restrictions. I and many of my colleagues, according to a recent HMI report, refuse simply because the whole thing is bloody daft. Sentence Planning meetings on lifers used to be chaired by Governors and then more recently prison officers.

But more importantly, the OASys is completed by prison staff with 'ownership' only transferred to the probation officer for limited periods for updating or editing. In every case of a lifer, I've had to amend the risk section because the prison has reduced it to 'low'. Common sense says that 'medium' as a minimum is appropriate for somebody in prison for very serious offences, but the prison are using different criteria. The joke at sentence planning meetings is the typical response from prison officers when asked about the inmate, such as  'he keeps a clean and tidy cell and is respectful to staff'. I deliberately paraphrase, but in their eyes that basically makes him low risk. At quasi-judicial Oral Hearings at the prison when the prisoner is legally represented and the probation officer, or 'offender manager' is in attendance, it makes a mockery of the new set-up when the prisoner challenges the change in risk status and demands an explanation.

No wonder the Parole Board has difficulty in assessing risk in any meaningful way nowadays with a reduction in the quality of the information they are getting. Probation Officers are no longer staying in one office or position for long periods and so often don't have the intimate knowledge of lifer cases they once were expected to have. Lifers are invariably moved around the prison system at regular intervals and widespread travel restrictions to prisons means that visits are now extremely difficult. Video conferencing is just no adequate substitute. Can you imagine trying to discuss the details of a murder or other serious offence in this way? How can you build a relationship by video? In these circumstances, how much weight would a Parole Board panel give to an LSP3E Parole Report from a PO perhaps recommending a move to open prison, or release even? The system is becoming a joke.

Until it was cancelled for cost saving reasons, each prisoner applying for Parole used to be interviewed by a member of the Parole Board who produced the so called 'independent' report. In my view this extremely valuable contribution to the process should be re-instated urgently as one way of improving the information available to the Parole Board. We've got ourselves in a real mess over IPP sentences and it's going to be interesting to see what Ken Clarke's response is going to be.   

Tuesday 12 October 2010

Justice Affairs Select Committee 2

Four service users associated with the Revolving Doors Agency gave evidence to the Select Committee today about their experience of the probation service and their individual officers. Very worthwhile viewing if you have 75 minutes to spare and this is the link.

Lets Try Inclusion

The news from the Equalities and Human Rights Commission that in England and Wales we imprison more black people proportionally than America is quite shocking. The figure is seven times greater than their representation within the wider community. In the US the equivalent figure is four times. A quarter of all people in prison are now from ethnic minorities and the figure has gone from 11,332 in 1998 to 22,421 by 2008. Apparently some prisons in the South East are virtually all black with a high conversion rate to Islam. 

The report speculates that the problem may start in schools which I find to be a somewhat staggeringly obvious conclusion to draw. It makes the point that black kids are three times more likely to be excluded from school than white kids. For many of my clients, black or white, things started to go wrong when trouble at school resulted in either exclusion or expulsion. It's always amazed me how easy it has been for the education system to wash it's hands of so many youngsters. There are over 10,000 exclusions a year apparently. I routinely ask young clients when they left school and invariably the answer is about 13 or 14. Now of course this cannot be right because the statutory school leaving age is 16 and as far as I know it is still the duty of a Local Education Authority, or whatever the equivalent is nowadays, to supply appropriate education until that age. I know they don't of course, or at least any that works and they don't seem to put a great deal of effort into trying to engage with these troubled kids. 

It's always been glaringly obvious to me as a probation officer that this is simply storing up major trouble further down the line. Why on earth doesn't society put greater effort in at the stage when difficulties first begin to manifest themselves? I'm sure Tony Blair's SureStart initiative has been worth the investment, but something equivalent is needed for these older kids or, as the figures are proving, they end up in custody and costing society a great deal more than if the problem had been tackled at the appropriate stage. Sadly though, as another recent report has highlighted, all we've done is inappropriately diagnose thousands of children with ADHD or a whole range of other similar behavioural conditions.

I suspect, like most intractable social problems, there is no 'silver bullet' but part of the solution might be a charity I hadn't heard of before called School-Home Support. Having been started by an Educational Welfare Officer in London 25 years ago, they aim to avoid school exclusions by supporting the family and working with the school. Growth has been slow but steady and now operates in Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire partly thanks to support from the Private Equity Foundation, but maybe the time has come for a more rapid expansion through the new big idea of Social Impact Bonds and so-called Payment by Results. I know there are deep suspicions about this concept, but at the moment I think it's our best hope in a period of reduced government funding especially as it would be paying for an additional resource. As I say, I'm sure it's not the complete answer because I know we desperately need a fully resourced Youth Service as well. But it could be a useful start.