Tuesday 30 November 2010

No Great Surprise

Although I'm still enjoying my break with the blog on 'autopilot' for most of the time, I feel I ought to say something about Ken Clarke's plan to privatise Community Service. This seems to have been rumoured and expected for so long that it really shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. I can remember it being talked about more than 10 years ago as an obviously discrete aspect of the job that could be farmed out. It now seems inevitable that for all sorts of reasons it will finally come to pass, not least in order to put the 'frighteners' on the unions involved. It's always sad in my view when politics gets involved in any aspect of criminal justice policy as it almost invariably ends up being a dogs breakfast with loads of unintended consequences. 

From what I gather the idea is not just to get a cheaper service, but also one that satisfies what I would call the 'Casey test' - can the whole thing be made more punitive in order to keep her happy and by extension of course the wider public. I think I've heard ideas being mooted such as offenders working five days a week, presumably if unemployed, and having benefit reduced or stopped for any non-compliance. Like many such ideas, it might sound good in theory but with it will come a whole host of other potential problems. 

I guess it will not be a great surprise that I'm against the wholesale privatisation of this area of our work, not least because I gather Probation Trusts will be barred from bidding - and that can only be for political not operational reasons - and because it moves CS even further away from the rehabilitation ethos, as originally intended, to one of punishment only. This is a grave mistake in my opinion and will set the cause of rehabilitating offenders back years - and thus will be in direct conflict with the new governments explicit aim of reducing the prison population. I will expand on this further when I've had the chance to read exactly what is being proposed.  

Monday 29 November 2010

Probation by Numbers

Just as the Ministry of Justice launches a consultation on making criminal justice statistics more transparent, it triggered several thoughts in me about numbers generally. Basically old-style probation officers don't like them, not least because of the difficulty of making people fit neatly into measuring boxes, like OASys and OGRS. Readers will be aware of my contempt for the former, but as regards the latter, I have to say I've never really understood the argument for the Offender Group Reconviction Scale.

Although refreshingly short in comparison to 'War and Peace' OASys, I've nevertheless found the process tedious and pointless when having to use it, especially at court when preparing FDR's. It's supposed to predict re-offending, but only measures static factors such as age, gender and criminal history, so does it really tell us anything we didn't know already? Along with dreaded OASys, it supposedly helps to categorise people neatly into one of four risk tiers, but we all know management manipulate that process in order to help massage the workload figures. 

I'm pretty sure magistrates and judges find the predictive risk section of PSR's confusing, irritating and dare I say, useless. I remember reading a report written a couple of years ago by a very well known probation officer on an elderly recidivist. Helpfully the risk of reconviction was stated to be something like 96%, a figure that the author felt in his professional opinion "was almost certainly an under-estimate."    

Of course figures and especially all this predictive stuff are the domain of the academic and I was interested to read an article on this topic written by Leigh Brauman and concerning Prof Lawrence Sherman in the latest issue of the Cambridge Alumni Magazine. Now to avoid any speculation I must hasten to say I have no connection with such an august institution, but happily blogging seems to attract information from all sorts of quarters. Anyway, this extremely eminent person who holds the prestigeous Wolfson Chair of Criminology, according to the article:- 

"........ is developing a general theory of crime, harm and criminal justice - a theory of how to use the criminal justice system to reduce total harm to society. Employing a 'crime-harm index' (CHI), the theory seeks to focus justice not on 'how to punish criminals' but on producing less harm to society at large."

He is about to embark on research with 10 police forces to test his hypothesis that society should focus on harm reduction, rather than punishment. Apparently one group of offenders will be 'prosecuted' fully, whilst the second will be processed using this predictive tool. Now I'm no lawyer, but I can already see some scope for an appeal here and wonder just how ethical this research is? The method seems to rely on measuring 49 variables and a computer with a brain the size of a planet in order to tell judges and magistrates which people should go to prison and for how long. The professor appears to be scathing of current sentencing practice using mere 'guidelines' and acknwledges that:-

"Social justice reformers don't like this approach because they are ideology-driven, and one of their ideologies is that numbers are bad. But that's not my problem."

Well I'm going to stick my neck out and say that maybe the professor has spoken a little prematurely and he has possibly under-estimated firstly the ability of finding an adequate IT system capable of performing these tasks (OASys regularly crashes) and secondly that anyone, especially sentencers, intend to take a blind bit of notice. People have that irritating habit of just not being willing to fit neatly into boxes, no matter how hard scientific endeavour tries to force it upon them. Thank goodness. 


Sunday 28 November 2010


I have to admit I don't know what training new recruits get nowadays on interview techniques. Come to think of it, I can't remember what training I got either, but I guess each officer develops their own style and technique. Of course there are many different types of interview in probation work, each with varying aims and purposes. I suppose the spectrum goes from quasi-interrogation to therapeutic counselling, and with PSR type somewhere in the middle. The venue can often be quite a significant factor and include places such as police station cell, clients living room, office interview room, hospital ward or prison visits area. 

Personally, I never know how any interview will start until I see the person and I never know what the first question will be. Some of my most memorable interviews have begun with the words 'you seem upset/angry/irritated.....' Sometimes there is an obvious starting point 'how did you injure your head/arm/leg? Or 'what sort of work are you doing? having noticed mud on boots/oil on hands/paint in hair. You get the gist.

One particularly memorable interview in recent time took place in the smallest interview room I've ever encountered at the local Magistrates Court. To make matters worse, I had a trainee probation officer with me that day and so three of us had to squeeze into a box not much bigger than a walk in wardrobe. The magistrates wanted me to do a quick, routine FDR with a possible view to UPW. I can't remember the offence, but it was almost certainly an assault of some sort. We all sat down and the situation was explained to the defendant.

Now FDR's are quite formulaic and involve basically getting information in order to fill a form in. I don't like them for this very reason and it doesn't suit my interviewing style. Anyway, it seemed appropriate to start simply by asking 'why did you do it? There followed what I can only describe as the longest pregnant pause I've ever encounterd. It went on for an acutely embarrassing length of time - in fact so long that I was beginning to reflect that my normally infallible interviewing technique was about to fail spectacularly, and in front of a TPO. I was seriously considering having to ask a supplementary question, before getting an answer to the first. 

But then it came. It started as a slow burn, but soon escalated to become a passionate, angry tirade of pain, hurt and accumulated hatred that had clearly been effectively bottled up since his abused childhood. The young man spoke uninterrupted and barely drawing breath for over 25 minutes. I guess it could variously be described as a boil being figuratively lanced, or a genie being let out of a bottle. I don't think he had ever told anyone else what he told us that afternoon in that small room and it was all deeply worrying. Nevertheless, in the limited time we still had available, the genie somehow had to be put back into the bottle. My pen never touched the paper and all thoughts of an FDR were abandoned. This chap had to see his GP urgently and I knew we needed a psychiatric report. The point as ever is that you simply never know what course an interview is going to take and it's wise to try and be prepared for anything.    


Saturday 27 November 2010

Prison Visits

By the very nature of the work, probation officers find themselves visting prisons on a regular basis. Personally I've always enjoyed this aspect of the job, that is as long as you can carve out enough time and escape the tyranny of the damn computer. There are basically three types of visit. Half a day for a local remand prison for a PSR, and while you're there you might as well see a couple of other prisoners who might be on remand for new offences say, or someone sentenced but on medical hold or pending a court appearance.

A full day would mean up at the crack of dawn and typically a two hour drive to some distant prison, desperately trying to remember the way as they're always in the middle of no where, poorly signposted and you visit so infrequently you always forget the route. It could well be a Sentence Planning meeting and the only chance to see a prisoner from one year to the next. Life isn't all work and no play and afterwards I always treat myself to a nice pub lunch chosen from the Good Beer Guide and if there's time a quick visit to some local historical landmark.

Finally there's the overnight stay with a very long drive each way and the opportunity to take in a couple, or even three prisons if you plan it carefully. These opportunities are getting more rare as management try and reduce the expenses bill, but what sort of service do these prisoners get so far from their home patch. Of course HM Prison Service is not known for it's ability to co-operate with many agencies, let alone it's supposed close allies in the probation service. I well remember undertaking a long  journey with overnight stay to visit a prisoner at HMP Winchester, only to be told by the gate staff at 9.30 in the morning that 'he's on that coach heading back up your way'. They think that sort of thing is very funny of course and always cite 'security' for not being able to inform you, even though they know full well you are due to visit. 

There are many different types of prison ranging from the Maximum Secure Cat 'A' establishments, to a Local Remand, 'Cat' B Training, to 'Cat' C and 'Cat' D Open Prisons. There's Womens Prisons, Young Offender Institutions and the Special Hospitals. An enormous variety, each unique in operation, culture, layout, design and most amusing to me, booking in procedures. I've never known any two prisons have the same system and routine. You can get photographed, scanned, finger-imprinted, dog-sniffed, rubbed down, inked, tagged and issued with slips, cards, tokens, forms, passes, badges and any combination of each.

I believe prison visits are extremely important and are always appreciated by inmates. It signals that you've taken some trouble, got off your backside and that you care about them and their situation. It must be very dispiriting for a prisoner when it's say a sentence planning meeting and you're not there. I know audio links are available, but what message does that send the person? I would never dream of missing a really important meeting, say a Parole Board Oral Hearing and in my experience they will re-schedule in order to accommodate with your diary.

Whatever management might say about video links or even audio links, how on earth can you discuss sensitive issues over a TV link? Indeed how can you build or maintain a relationship with a prisoner in this way? It is self-evident that you can't of course and the bean counters must be reminded that visits remain a vital part of the job. But it's getting increasingly difficult with petty rules about maximum distances before having to use a hire car. Personally, I just can't stand the hassle and just claim the maximum allowed by personal vehicle and stand the rest myself.


Friday 26 November 2010

Prisoners Online

I see that the coalition governments Digital Champion Martha Lane Fox is repeating her desire to see prisoners having access to the internet and indeed expresses amazement that as a group they are being excluded. In an article in the Independent she talks of 'controlled internet access'. Now I have no idea what that means, how feasible it might be or to put it frankly what aspects of the internet might be left that couldn't be put to malevolent use. There is no doubt that used positively the internet could be hugely beneficial, for instance by allowing prisoners to undertake Open University courses once more and now that they are sadly no longer available by old fashioned post.  

Over the years I've come to be mightily impressed with the ingenuity of clients generally and in particular their 'Great Escape' ability to improvise whilst incarcerated. Ok they're not digging 'Tom Dick or Harry' as in the film, or as far as I know, but have you ever wondered about some of those stereotypical prison-type tattoos and how they get them? They've moved on from a needle and ink substitute to constructing electric tattoo machines out of paperclips, bits of wire etc.

Making hooch in the lead-up to Christmas really does still happen in some locations and I've never been quite able to look at an orange without recalling one prisoner telling me about the simple expedient of inserting a piece of yeast from the kitchen and leaving it to slowly ferment into alcohol on his window ledge. Before facilities were widely available, another prisoner told me how he made tea and toast in his bare cell. He would tear a strip off his prison bedsheet, plait it into a tight wick, ignite it and pass it under a slice of bread laid flat on the sprung mesh beneath his mattress. Water was boiled by a similar process using a small coffee tin.

Now these are all examples of relatively harmless 'easing' behaviours and the natural result of many fertile and creative minds being incarcerated with endless time on their hands. However, the sad fact is that just as much effort goes into extremely unpleasant activity, such as the construction of weapons. The general public will not be aware of the 'black museums' of confiscated and hideously ingenious weapons that some prisons have on display in the official visits area. Some are truely dreadful and give some insight into the degree of deviousness and evil intent sadly present amongst some prisoners. I have no doubt at all that should internet access be provided to prisoners, a similar amount of effort would be expended by some to use it for malevolent purposes. 

Despite all the efforts of the prison service, mobile phones are widely available in prison already, thus enabling all sorts of criminal activity to be conducted from inside, ranging from witness intimidation to control of drug rings. Does anyone seriously think that 'controlled internet access' would provide any serious deterrent to some very sophisticated prisoners? 

In my experience, some clients who indulge in criminal activity are always remarkably well informed about technical innovations and very quickly discover ways to use technology to further criminal activity. I well remember being amazed by a guy informing me that not only had I no idea how phone card technology worked, but how easily payment could be avoided by the simple use of a scalpel. Or another telling me how he read the coded data on a credit card with the help of a domestic video recorder. Without doubt I've met some very bright and resourceful people over the years and it's always struck me as a great shame that their skill and ingenuity couldn't be put to better use. Sadly, internet access by prisoners would in my view pose too many risks and therefore outweigh any possible benefits.


Thursday 25 November 2010

Mixed Message

Although I am on leave and enjoying a much earned rest, I can't resist just saying something about the recent review of the Jon Venables case. According to the Guardian, the supervising probation officer 'has been cleared' of any lapses in supervision, but in the words of Ken Clarke there were:- "a number of potential opportunities that might have opened up had circumstances been different and that might have made the further offences less likely."  Now what on earth does that mean? I think it means that unless Venables was subject to 24/7 supervision there was no way of knowing what he was up to. But to me it confirms once again that should you have the misfortune to supervise someone who offends seriously, no matter how diligent you've been, there will be a suspicion that in some way it's still your fault.  

Wednesday 24 November 2010

Oh For a Part B!

Regular readers will already be aware of the unbridled contempt I hold for OASys - the sheer length of the thing; the brain-numbing questions that seem to go on for ever; the resentment that you are wasting valuable time when you have loads of other things to do; the computer system crashing, locking up or just being plain 'unavailable' - you get the gist. But just possibly all this would be worthwhile if the finished article was useful, right? Wrong! I'm pretty confident the thing will never be read completely by anyone ever again, including the manager who will be counter-signing it - unless that is you are very unlucky and one of two events occur:-

Your client murders somebody.

It's the subject of audit or inspection.

In either case, you should check that your membership of NAPO is up-to-date and a sick note from your GP might be useful. Unless you are an extremely diligent officer, ideally blessed with the benefit of hindsight, forensic analysis of the completed OASys will reveal something you've not quite got right, or worse, haven't updated. Oh yes, I forget to mention that one of the real benefits of this system is that it can be updated continuously, omg.

Now, any organisation needs information in order to function efficiently, the Probation Service being no exception and sometimes getting the right information in a timely manner can be critical in making very important decisions that affect peoples lives and safety. Obviously I started out in a pre-computer age when we relied upon card indexes, paper files and personal knowledge. If we needed to know about a client quickly, either current or closed, it was straight to the file to look at the last PSR and Part 'B' assessment. The latter was on pink paper and typically a paragraph or two was completed every quarter outlining the situation - what the risks were, what the problems were and what was happening. Simple. Even 20 years worth of a life sentence amounted to only say 15 sheets. It could be digested quickly, it worked and I naively felt that the advent of the computer would just replicate it, albeit electronically. After all, the Part 'C' on white paper that recorded all client contacts had eventually turned into electronic CRAMS - so why isn't there an equivalent of the Part 'B'? 

Of course there is - all the information is in OASys - you just have to spend an hour or two locating it - perhaps printing it out? - between 60 and 90 pages - not really an option - but it is all stored safely and electronically, including all the myriad updated versions. Unfortunately that's now causing a problem. I remember about three years ago there was a major panic as somebody noticed the servers at Head Office were virtually full and a desperate message came out that we had to throw stuff away urgently, or the whole thing would crash. With no hint of irony we were blamed for storing either too much stuff or the wrong stuff. Currently there is a national project to migrate everything to massive NOMS data stores 'following some selective deleting'. I do hope none of that important OASys stuff disappears.

Oh, and in case you were wondering if there was a Part  'A' - yes, on salmon paper, but I don't think I ever bothered with it as from memory it was supposed to record the antecedents and in my time these have always been supplied direct by the police. 

Tuesday 23 November 2010

Probation Records

Now it would not be fair unless I started this piece by being completely up front and saying that I come from a time when record-keeping within the probation service was, well, problematic. There was a long tradition of being well behind with part 'C' entries, (record of all contacts) with an enormous push necessary when an inspection was due. At such a time you had to hope that you had a brilliant memory, decipherable diary entries and some friends amongst the clericals. Of course it fell to them to listen to endless rambling audio recordings, make sense of them and transcribe them into print via a good old-fashioned typewriter. If you were really lucky, and to get you out of a tight spot, a friendly clerical would take dictation from you in shorthand so as to have some evidence in front of the Inspector in time.

According to folklore, there were officers who just didn't do records. There were stories of files mysteriously disappearing, only to be found years later either under carpets or behind filing cabinets. It was even rumoured there was an officer who kept all his records in the boot of his car, for fear of them being required by management for some reason. Another was known as Mr Memory Man due to his legendary ability for near-perfect recall of events months before. All or none of this might have been true, but it has to be said the system was not brilliant and doing the work always seemed to get in the way of record-keeping.

As time passed and in order to save money, we were encouraged to hand write records and for a period things seemed to improve. The problem as always was if you started to get behind the situation just got worse because you couldn't always judge how big a gap to leave in order to be filled in later. Then there was always the small matter of trying to remember what happened and when, several months down the line. In all honesty there was a degree of creative writing, albeit informed from clues from your diary. This is not something I'm particularly proud of, but the practice was endemic and as I said, the system was still not that much better than when I started.  

But then we entered the computer age. Initially the office was equipped with linked word processors and a modem attachment to Head Office. Someone invented a 'word' document form that passed as a running part 'C' and suddenly for the first time we had a workable system for recording events easily and quickly, if you could get to a terminal that is. Information was now available to anyone, anywhere on the system and the old card indexes began to fall into disuse.

Such a simple system couldn't last of course and eventually we were saddled with CRAMS. It could be worse I suppose, but at least it allows entries to be made out of sequence, thus saving us from returning to the nightmare of the original paper system when everything had to be recorded in sequence. The only problem I have with it now is the urge to continually correct other peoples spelling, lack of punctuation and try to resist the urge to re-write 'text message' style entries. But I guess that's an age thing. I wonder if the impending new Delius system will encourage better entries? Somehow I doubt it.

Monday 22 November 2010

Criminal Records

I notice that NACRO's campaign 'Change the Record' has steadily gained momentum with a range of organisations pledging support. This is indeed an old chestnut with numerous previous calls to amend the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 and update it. All probation officers will be acutely aware of the thorny issue of how clients deal with previous convictions on application forms for jobs or accommodation. Really this should have been addressed at the same time as legislation was enacted setting up the Criminal Records Bureau.

I first became aware of previous conviction disclosure becoming an issue when clients started being routinely refused Local Authority accommodation. I discovered that my ever-sympathetic council had started paying for the secondment of police officers to their Housing Department. At the time I thought it was outrageous that data from the Police National Computer could be routinely used for this purpose, and as far as I know without Parliamentary Approval. But of course this was the era of 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime' and the ASBO, so public sympathy was in somewhat short supply for a group broadly regarded as undeserving.
Of course it was not a huge issue prior to the CRB coming along, because despite any advice officers might give their clients, many simply neglected to answer the question, or just lied. Increasingly it seems that potential employers and educational institutions are insisting that details of all convictions, cautions, final warnings or reprimands are disclosed, whether spent or not and irrespective of the requirements of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. At least the new government have announced that a full review will be undertaken into how criminality information is to be handled in the future.

It may not be generally known, but the Probation Service has never had direct access to a persons antecedent history, or 'pre-cons' as they are universally referred to. We have to rely on the police or CPS supplying us with printouts as we have no direct access to the computer database. I guess we are simply not trusted enough. The other group who have no access are clients and they routinely ask probation staff for copies because their memories are never that good. Strictly speaking we shouldn't oblige, but it's always struck me as very strange that the person that the record relates to is denied a paper copy. There is a regular ritual in open court when the prosecutor shows the defendant a list of pre-cons to confirm their accuracy and you just know that its length and scope comes as something of a surprise to them. Memory can be very selective sometimes.

Over the years the other things that have surprised me about pre-cons are firstly how often they are incorrect and secondly just how many people have exactly the same name and birthdate. Several times when following proceedings as a CDO in court I've been horrified at what was recorded on the pre-cons, only to be told by the prosecutor when they sat down that 'oh that's the wrong Joe Bloggs'. Amazing, but it does make you wonder.  

Sunday 21 November 2010

Disaffected but Ambitious?

Then this could be just the right time for you according to this post post by Max Chambers of the centre-right think tank Policy Exchange

"A true solution to reducing reoffending will seek to actually fix the fragmentation and perverse incentives in the public sector, and build on the expertise that is already there. Policy Exchange’s preferred model would be for the Government to introduce financial incentives to reduce reoffending (payment-by-results), but then go further and enable a mix of public sector professionals to come together with private providers and the voluntary sector to form a Public-Private Partnership, or a ‘Reducing Reoffending Mutual’.  Groups of disaffected but ambitious public service staff could club together and “spin out” from public sector agencies to form independent employee-owned social enterprises. Public sector staff with expertise in reducing reoffending could unite from across the range of services, while the private and voluntary sector could bring their own expertise to bear.  We believe this approach will inspire the most innovative approaches with a wide enough remit to make a difference and ensure chronic offenders stay on the straight and narrow."  (my emphasis)

Max feels that Ken Clarkes announcement of trying to achieve the aim of reducing the prison population by 3,000 has 'got everyone in the sector geed up' and Payment by Results will deliver coordination of services for offenders by the simple expedient of financial incentives.

"The argument for payment-by-results is quite simple: reducing reoffending requires the contribution of many different agencies to address issues such as accommodation, mental health, debt, employment, skills, and drug and alcohol addiction. The delivery of public services to address these issues for a small number of chronic criminals is fractured, bureaucratic, siloed, and ineffective.  By giving providers a direct financial incentive to reduce reoffending, you reward what works, and stop paying for what doesn’t.  The incentives will drive the private and voluntary sector to work together to better coordinate interventions and services for offenders, making sure they are sequenced properly, appropriate for individual circumstances, and more likely to reduce reoffending."

I have said previously that the idea has attractions and in my view is unstoppable particularly as it seeks to address a group which the probation service does not work with at the present time, except for a small number of seperately-funded initiatives. It's also clear that it has political momentum from a new government intent on getting to grips with a number of issues that previous administrations have been content to see slide. The main issue for me is how the probation community, Trusts, Unions, academics and friends respond beyond rubbishing the idea. We desperately need a slightly more nuanced approach in my opinion and I fervently hope that wise heads are currently engaged in that process. The background to this article is the recent report 'Carter but Smarter' published by Policy Exchange. 

Saturday 20 November 2010

NOMS and the Future

I think we all know what a complete disaster NOMS has been, or the 'Nightmare on Marsham Street' as it became affectionately known amongst senior civil servants. But it's always satisfying to find yet more evidence to support this view. I would normally be somewhat sceptical about reports coming out of think tanks that describe themselves as 'centre-right', however 'Carter but Smarter' recently published by Policy Exchange is a cracking good read just for the forensic analysis it delivers on one of the biggest policy disasters by government in recent years.

The history of the National Offender Management Service is truly monumental and farcical, right from conception, all the way through to non-delivery. I'd say it's up there with aircraft carriers having no planes. Re-organised four times already since birth and described by two former Chief Inspectors of Prisons and Probation as completely ill-conceived and dysfunctional, at one time its costs exceeded the total annual probation budget. It lost a small fortune on the abandoned C-NOMIS computer project and the whole sorry saga has certainly gained its place in history as an excellent example of how not to develop policy. Although slimmed down further in the recent spending review, it stubbornly refuses to die, so what happens next?

This report goes on to discuss the current situation and background to imminent decisions on offender rehabilitation. It makes some extremely valid, if dare I say, patently obvious points such as querying the reduction in reconviction rates and wondering if this might be connected in some way to greater cautioning and fixed penalty notices being issued by the police? Also the staggering observation that money expended on putting offenders through programmes is not likely to be effective if they're homeless. Indeed the report highlights the fact that current rehabilitation efforts are significantly hampered because agencies involved with housing, drug treatment, employment and training are not in any way integrated. They identify this as one of the major failures of the whole Carter end-to-end offender management idea. Although they confirm that local initiatives like Integrated Offender Management have succeeded to a degree, they note that there has been little or no practical engagement or join-up with other public bodies and certainly no pooled budgets.

I guess it's not surprising that a report like this is very enthusiastic about the whole Payment by Results idea, but there is also a very timely word of caution and highlighting of several potential problems. The first is connected to whether the aim is to really reduce reoffending or just massage the figures. They make the point that if it's the latter, the money might be better spent paying the police and CPS just to prosecute less offenders! On the other hand if it's the former, then they make the equally obvious point that the statistics have to be honest and services actually have to be delivered. I think the key observation the report makes is:-

"As these services are largely being provided by the state, there could be a situation whereby private providers are using public money to commission services back from the public sector. In effect, this means the state is paying twice and, unless the measurement of success is robust, the state could be spending twice for outcomes that have not actually improved."
Another potential fine mess then. But hang on, hasn't the state always been paying the probation service to do battle with other state bodies like the NHS, Local Authorities, Job Centres etc in order to get the services clients require? Surely the answer has to be just work on them. Now I think the Policy Exchange intends to say more about this in a further report due out in January next year. Can't wait.


Friday 19 November 2010

Innocent Man Goes Free

So Sergeant Mark Andrews has won his appeal and walks free, a totally exonerated man. The result serves to confirm what I said in my post on 11th September that, in my experience, it's extremely difficult to convict a serving police officer. I felt that cctv had made it somewhat easier, but clearly by this judgement I got that bit wrong. No doubt there are a few red faces at Thames Valley Police Headquarters, especially following the forthright comments by at least one Assistant Chief Constable. Not only will there have to be some grovelling apologies from his employers, but possibly an expensive compensation claim to settle relating to his six days in custody. 

I guess it will not surprise some that over on the Inspector Gadjet blogsite there is much gloating and unbounded praise for a very sensible Judiciary that for once has handed down an eminently appropriate judgement, and so soon after the G20 'successes'. Normally of course sentencers come in for a fair bit of derision by Gadjet for basically 'letting scrotes off scot-free'. It's funny, but I seem to recall a rather different line from him in the beginning, together with some comments from other police officers who were horrified by the cctv images. There was a feeling that Sgt Andrews had 'lost it' due to the stressful nature of the role. Nevertheless Gadjet now says he's particularly pleased at the result because it will really upset the 'handwringers'. I wonder what came of the two officers whose evidence so upset the District Judge that he reported them to their Chief Constable? 

I think it's interesting to contrast this result with the recent outburst from the Daily Mail about 'what it actually takes to get sent to prison.' An interesting point, especially on the same day this news broke about another police officer. If I'm not mistaken, isn't former Commander Ali Dizaei lodging an appeal? 


Thursday 18 November 2010

DIY Probation

The announcement that the government is keen to encourage public sector workers to band together, form John Lewis style co-operatives and bid to manage their organisation at first sounds barmy, but how many of us have said in the pub that we could indeed run things better? I know I have. 

However I find the John Lewis analogy a little unfortunate given its obvious middle class exclusive nature, its unhappy connections with the parliamentary expenses scandal (remember all claims were measured against the so-called John Lewis list) and its sheer arrogance in the way it demands certain planning criteria to be met before deigning to plant any branch in a city. I digress, but anyone familiar with the new store in Liverpool couldn't get a better illustration of the John Lewis attitude to society. The rear end of the store backs onto the bus station, but there are no doors, whilst overhead a bridge delivers the middle classes direct from their 4x4's safely parked in the multi-storey. I hear the same is planned for Leeds, only with the rear to the market and bridge over the Headrow linking a new car park. 

Having got that off my chest, the John Lewis ownership model, with no employees but 'partners' instead is an interesting one. Is it so fanciful in this new climate of voluntarism, Big Society, reduction in bureaucracy and encouragement of innovation to think that at least one group of probation managers might have a go at something different? Ideologically I am as much attracted to the notions of mutuality, co-ownership and co-operation as I am to public ownership. It's private companies entering the field of the Criminal Justice System that I have problems with. But then I have problems with bloated Head Offices, too many managers and tiers of management with command and control agenda's.

I think it behoves some part of our profession to prove that it need not be like this. That another model and method of operation is possible with a root and branch examination of all practices. This could be the opportunity to prove that a return to small community-based provision is better and cheaper. That a massive Head Office bureaucracy is unnecessary. That responsibility and discretion could be returned to practitioners. That the focus could return to front line activity in partnership with other agencies, but probation with it's ethical and professional base in control.

Let me give just one concrete example of how I would change things. For many years I was a volunteer with the Samaritans and found that their ethos and method of operation dovetailed neatly with my professional work as a probation officer. Like all organisations it had a management structure and bureaucracy, but the impressive thing was that everyone, from the Chairman, National Officers, Directors downwards all had to do the same amount of duty and face to face contact with the public. This meant that not only was there not an air of hierarchy but also that management never got distanced from the core business of the organisation. I would insist on something similar with all probation managers having to write some PSR's, fill in the damned OASys and actually see clients. I think that would lead to a very different culture with less command and control directives from a distanced management. Come on then - who's up for this?

Wednesday 17 November 2010


Probably because the job of a probation officer was always felt to be stressful, leave entitlement has always been pretty generous, even for the public sector generally. So for this and other historical reasons my annual entitlement eventually rose to 40 days. However, in a somewhat remarkable move, my union negotiated a significant reduction some years ago in order to allow harmonisation with other grades across the Service. I have to say it's always been a bit academic though because I can count on the fingers of one hand the years in which I actually used my full entitlement. Pretty much they were the years I was in the Court Team. In my experience it is virtually impossible to take two weeks leave in a Field Team without generating such extra stress as to make the whole exercise counter-productive. Interestingly, no manager has ever queried my inability to take all the leave to which I was entitled.   

Unlike most people in employment who are able to eagerly look forward to a period of leave, it often fills me with dread. Unfortunately I know only too well that preparing for two weeks absence from the office has to be planned like a military operation and takes at least a month of additional stress to try and put in place all the elements necessary. With typically three week lead times for PSR's, they have to be batted away quite early on in order to ensure none fall due while you are away. But then there are Parole Reports that suddenly become urgent so prison visits have to be fitted in. The computer keeps telling you OASys supervision plan reviews are due and clients begin having crises. Inevitably a hostel wants to turf out one of your high risk cases and usually the day before you finish another client screws up and needs urgent recall.

All this and more has to be handled on top of arranging extra visits from as many clients as possible in order to tide them over the time you're away. This is not just so as to avoid inconveniencing your colleagues, it also avoids all the moans from disgruntled clients when you return and they say things like 'who was that I saw last week?' He/she wouldn't give me my bus fare; gave me grief for being late; lectured me about this that and the other etc etc. For those that have to be seen while I'm away, recognising that we are all individuals with differing styles and strengths, I try and tailor each client to certain colleagues. But the most serious worry for me is being found out. Inevitably some case will go haywire and the manager gets involved only to find OASys isn't up to date, the supervision plan isn't quite complete, they missed their last appointment and no reminder letter was sent etc etc. To be honest it's difficult to convey the sheer feeling of dread when you cross the office threshold again and gingerly peer into your pigeonhole or turn the damn computer on. 

The really strange thing is that almost invariably it's ok. Your professional world didn't fall in, there is no urgent invitation to meet the Chief at Head Office or start preparing for a Serious Incident Case Review, but no matter how many times I remind myself of this, it never seems to make any difference. As it happens Jim Brown is off on a sojourn next week, so there may well be a break in transmission.  

Tuesday 16 November 2010

False Choices

We supposedly live in a world where choice is deemed to be 'a good thing'. In fact successive governments have made choice in public services such as housing, health and education absolute top priorities in their political pitch to the electorate. All this in addition to the consumer choices that have increased exponentially during my lifetime and since the end of the Second World War. Personally I've never been that impressed with significant amounts of choice and suspect many other people may feel the same, but that might merely be a reflection of our age and nostalgic memories.

In addition to politicians feeling that choice is what the public want, there has been an increasingly politically correct view about 'choice' and this impinges directly upon our client group. The ethos seems to be that all citizens should be treated as being essentially responsible and should be trusted and encouraged to make decisions for themselves and that those choices will be in their own best interests. In essence the view is that we should move away from an essentially paternalistic approach by the state to one of enabling instead. Now, like many social policies, it sounds great in theory, but the effect in practice is often quite different, leads to unintended consequences, but worst of all some might be deemed as just plain cynical because they involve hidden agendas. 

Following on from the whole 'Community Care' agenda in the 1990's which many would say was simply about saving money, another cynical example I would cite is the current trend to give people with Learning Disabilities control and choice about their care as part of Personalised Care Budgets. Under this system, staying with the status quo is not one of the choices on offer and yet many individuals would choose that option if it were available. They don't want change and cannot comprehend all the factors involved in making alternative care decisions. Many lack true capacity to understand fully, and even with careful and professional mentoring, the whole process is really just about saving money, but dressed up as delivering 'more choice'. 

It will be patently obvious to any probation officer that many of our clients are often in trouble and have great difficulty resolving their chaotic lives precisely because they are not very good at making decisions and quite often make the wrong decisions. I have lost track of the number of times in a PSR I have used the phrase 'Mr X has clearly not acted in his own best interests' in a PSR. It is often astonishing and depressing when we learn of a clients spending decisions when they have so little money by virtue of living on State Benefits. Now I appreciate that this is dangerous territory for someone who is middle class and has always been reasonably well off and it is not my intention to conjure up the stereotypical tabloid image of flat screen TV's, fags and booze. All these might well be deemed important for individuals with little other cheer in their life. I think it's much more fundamental and one reason why programmes like Enhanced Thinking Skills are so important for many of our clients.

But as a society, why do we compound the problems facing so many clients and feel it's sensible or fair to set many of them up to fail by giving choices such as that relating to Housing Benefit? At present it is not possible to elect to have Housing Benefit paid direct to a private landlord, until at least 8 weeks arrears of rent have accrued. I feel this is such a cruel situation to put many clients in when many have difficulty with managing a budget on a restricted income. Having the money paid direct into a personal bank account when they are quite likely to be facing other competing financial demands such as utilities and food is going to add considerably more stress and temptation to an already difficult situation. They may well have money owing to dodgy local money lenders who often threaten violence for repayment and who could blame someone for giving that priority over rent payments? For our clients, it almost seems to be a system designed specifically to encourage debt to build up. Quite understandably it annoys landlords and does nothing to increase the pool of properties available to clients. Indeed it simply serves to encourage many to turn claimants away.

I find it particularly galling from a politically correct point of view to see that Social Landlords have very recently won reversal of the decision to pay their tenants direct under the proposed new Universal Benefit coming into effect in 2013. I notice they didn't complain that tenants might not be trusted to hand the money over, rather they were concerned that it "would jeopardise the stable income they receive from housing benefit". Now just how disingenuous is that?    

Monday 15 November 2010

The Dog that Doesn't Bark

As we all anticipate exactly what Ken Clarke's rehabilitation revolution will mean for the Probation Service, it got me thinking about the fact that we hardly ever hear much from NACRO these days. I must admit that I hadn't caught up with the fact that the seasoned campaigner Paul Cavadino is no longer running things. It turns out that he was replaced at the end of 2009 by Paul McDowell, a former prison governor at HMP Brixton. Rooting around on the internet led me to this very interesting article in the Guardian by Nick Cohen almost exactly a year ago. It seems he was also pondering on the near-silence from this once robust campaigning organisation on behalf of ex-offenders. Apparently he was told this was because 'of an internal re-organisation'. But as Nick Cohen explains, the truth might be a bit more worrying:-

"The charity's former allies have a blunter explanation. Harry Fletcher from the probation worker's union said Nacro has gone soft because it has become dependent on the state. Local and central government had funded its training programmes for prisoners for years, but now it was entangling itself further with the government it once criticised by forming a partnership with a private prison corporation to bid for contracts to run jails in London and Liverpool. It was straining credulity to imagine that it could argue for fewer people to go to prison when its new business model relies on the judiciary sending a steady stream of customers through the cell doors."

At face value this seems to be a remarkably cynical explanation, but there is little doubt that NACRO is already heavily dependent on government contracts and by their own admission is likely to benefit considerably from the new competitive environment in offender rehabilitation. 
Graham Beech, Strategic Development Director for Nacro says:-
“We welcome any plans which will revolutionise the rehabilitation of offenders. What is proposed represents a radical change which will open up opportunities for charities like Nacro to play an even greater role in reducing reoffending and making society safer.”

As organisations begin to position themselves in readiness, I notice that a piece entitled 'We Did not Join Probation to Become Poor' on the NAPO Hampshire and Isle of White branch webpage highlights the fact that former home secretary John Reid has availed himself of a lucrative consultancy contract worth £50,000 per annum with G4S. Of course they are a private company also gearing up for business opportunities in the new world of rehabilitation. It seems the same company has also recruited the former governor of the Isle of Wight prisons 'with an offer he could not refuse'. I wonder which members of senior probation management will be getting phone calls in the weeks ahead?

Sunday 14 November 2010

Wheel Turns Again

There is a sad inevitability about all bureaucracies and management structures in the public service. Typically they have way too many managers in so-called strategic roles whose job it is not just to keep the wheel turning, but to keep re-inventing it as well. Lets be honest, their career development and progression depends on this and of course they 'positively thrive' on perpetual change. Looking at the latest copy of the Probation Association magazine an article entitled 'Professional Judgement Pilot' caught my eye.

Apparently the Surrey and Sussex Probation Trust are extremely proud to have been chosen to pilot a brand new idea that gives probation officers 'greater freedom to exercise their professional judgement in managing cases'. Amongst other things it introduces the astonishingly good idea of the ability to arrange to see some clients more frequently if they have greater needs. If it wasn't so serious it would be funny. I've been doing this since I started and just sort-of carried on. How can you build a meaningful relationship with a client who's just spent an hour telling you about all their problems and at the end say 'right see you in a week/two weeks time then?' To be honest I also carried on seeing less of the ones that didn't need much attention as well. So, yet another example of Jim Brown not being stuck in the past after all and using out-moded methods, but actually being in the vanguard of cutting edge practice, albeit somewhat unwittingly. 

But hang on, this begins to unpick the reasoning behind that current probation mantra of 'resources follow risk'. Now I've never subscribed to that either and have continually argued that it should be 'resources follow needs and/or risk'. Maybe this wheel is turning quicker than I thought. Interestingly, it was one of the key issues mentioned by the four clients who recently gave evidence to the House of Commons Justice Select Committee. They said officers spent too much time talking about offence-focused stuff and hardly any on problems like housing or employment. Of course it also goes some way to dealing with some of the issues raised in the House of Lords debate earlier this year and discussed in my recent blog Friends in High Places.

The Probation Association article goes on:- "Our staff are well trained professionals and in the main they have responded enthusiastically to this opportunity to move away from a focus on process to one which tailors their activity to the needs of each individual case and allocates their resources to maximum effort". Absolutely amazing stuff and whoever had the idea is obviously destined for high places. In passing I can well imagine why the odd few are not that enthused because they were probably recruited when we were going through that very fashionable-at-the-time phase of command and control. Lets hope they can learn to use a bit more judgement for the sake of their clients. 

The article is worth reading in full just for its complete inability to acknowledge any hint of irony but I particularly love this bit:- "and the prospect that OASys will at last come to be seen as an essential tool rather than a beast to be fed". Now that really is an example of hope desperately trying to triumph over reason!

As a footnote I hear that as my and many other probation offices are due to close, the very latest management thinking is a move towards 'localism' and 'community engagement' at a local level. I feel I could easily get quite angry soon.    

Saturday 13 November 2010

Reformed Offender?

I notice that a magistrate and fellow blogger has posed me the following interesting question:-

Perhaps the author of a new blog “On Probation Blog” might have some answers that lend themselves to a stricter analysis of “reformed”.

To summarise the hypothesis, I think he is basically suggesting that probation officers might take an offenders assertion that 'he won't do it again' as possibly sufficient grounds for making an assessment that he was 'reformed' and therefore become an appropriate message to convey to the sentencing magistrates or Judge in a PSR.

"So there it is….in need of cash? Some thieving will see you all right. Get caught? Tell those that listen….judges, magistrates, probation officers, you won`t do it again. OK! Now you are reformed. Oops! Done it again? Let`s start from the beginning."  

Gosh, where do we start? Generally speaking probation officers are not naive. At some time they will hear the refrain 'I swear, God's honest truth, on my life; my childrens life; my grandmothers life I didn't do it; I won't do it; I've stopped drinking; I won't drive again' etc etc. I try not to listen to it and I certainly don't encourage it because I don't want people to humiliate themselves. I am only really interested in the reasons for the offending, some signs of insight and an indication of a willingness to try and change. It is ludicrous to tell a court that further offending is unlikely if the individual is still using heroin, is still a problem drinker, hasn't got a home, has no job, still has debts etc etc. On the other hand if there are signs of progress, possibly some lifestyle changes, if the prognosis is improving, that's a different story, but still doesn't amount to a 'reformation' in my book.

Obviously we are handicapped because we only see the failures. Walking through town I might spot someone from the past and think 'I recognise them, been a few years - they must be doing ok'. Sometimes people will seek me out and say simply 'it's been 5/10/15 years now Jim' and that's great. But who's to say what anyone would do if the kids were starving, if they got back on the drink, if they lost their job, or home? Being a probation officer means being continually mindful of two opposing truths. On the one hand we know that past behaviour is a strong indicator of future behaviour, but we also know full well that all individuals are capable of change. I suppose this is why Alcoholics Anonymous would always refer to members as being a 'recovering alcoholic' rather than being 'recovered'.

In my entire career I have never used the term or indeed ever thought in terms of 'reformed offenders', or 'character' even. I think such a term is unhelpful precisely because it then begs a definition. If pressed I think my gut feeling is that it is not so much about the passage of time, as a way of thinking and one that has to be confirmed by actions. I have said previously, that I've not come across many 'career' criminals. I can imagine a fraudster or dodgy builder, both of whom might be preying on the elderly or vulnerable, possibly undergoing a conversion and seeing the error of their ways, but I can't recall one. I can imagine a truly religious conversion, but I've not supervised one. I have had experience of sex offenders who have been moved to change their beliefs and behaviour when their abuse at the hands of others has been exorcised, but it's quite rare and a very slow, painful process. All these would be good candidates I guess for being considered as having been 'reformed' but I'd still be cautious. In my work I aim for assisting and encouraging improvement in a clients lifestyle, prospects and their thinking as all being supportive of a crime free future. That period might range from hours to years, but it might represent significant progress for the individual concerned and probation officers are well used to measuring success in small amounts. 

It's a sad reflection that I don't feel able to be more upbeat. I suspect that might represent length of service as much as my character, but unfortunately no matter how good the probation officer is, they cannot solve all the many problems our clients have and which lie at the root of much of their offending. I really wish I could because I know that would put them on the route to becoming 'reformed'.

I should finish by saying that nothing I've said here should be taken as being critical of Unlock the charity run by and for 'reformed' offenders. They do excellent work and as with any organisation, have chosen certain terminology and definitions, but I would not necessarily endorse them. It must be remembered that the probation service has variously called people clients, cases, ex-offenders, offenders and currently service users. I think we skipped customers, but I have heard the un-pc term punters used now and then. I prefer client, but then I'm old-style and unreformed.

Friday 12 November 2010

Friends in High Places

As we all try and get to grips with the world of probation post Comprehensive Spending Review and as key decisions are being prepared and battle lines drawn, I find myself reflecting on what was being said by various worthies prior to the May General Election. 

I regret to say that I had not noticed that our very good friend and former HM Inspector of Prisons Lord Ramsbotham had managed to engineer a major debate on the Probation Service in the House of Lords in January this year. I've been reading the transcript and to be honest you can't help but be impressed with the level of debate in the Upper House in comparison to the charade that passes for the democratic process in the House of Commons. 

Lord Ramsbotham basically castigated Jack Straw for first nationalising the Service, then abolishing it and subsequently allowing the Prison Service to effect a takeover through NOMS. He drew attention to a whole range of concerns including the increase in numbers of Probation Services Officers at the expense of fully trained Probation Officers and the result of a survey that confirmed only 24% of an officers time was spent on direct face-to-face client contact. A staggering 41% of the time was taken up with sitting in front of the computer. He said :-

"There can be no more damning indictment of the Government's failure to provide probation with the vital resources of people and time. It explains why probation officers say that some have case loads in excess of 100, which means that they can spend no more than 15 to 30 minutes with medium-risk offenders, often having no time for others. The report concludes:
'NOMS needs to decide whether the reported amount of direct contact time with offenders is sufficient to meet its main objectives of reducing re-offending and protecting the public'."

Even Lord Birt, one of Tony Blair's closest policy advisers was not happy with what had happened to the Probation Service and stated that in his view the original vision for NOMS had evaporated and he had

"never experienced a better example of the law of unintended consequences.".....  "The greatest tragedy has been the emasculation of the probation profession and ethos-the precise reverse of the original intention".

So here we have a person who was at the absolute centre of government when key decisions were made about the Service and they confirm that the end result resembles nothing like the original intention (barmy as that was of course). Of course there were six Home Secretaries in twelve years and a general acceptance that there had been no strategic vision. Baroness Stern highlighted the increasingly prescriptive Offender Management model and said:-

"Many noble Lords have said that we need a substantial rethink and a new understanding of how the non-custodial part of our penal system should operate. We need to rebalance the probation service away from the mechanistic model and towards a model that is responsive to people and places. The former Lord Chief Justice, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Phillips, told the centenary probation conference:
'The job is not primarily about meeting targets, or satisfying business cases, or enforcing community punishments, or breaching those who do not comply with orders, or risk assessments. These all may be part of the job, but if building relationships is not at the heart of the exercise, the exercise will be likely to fail.'

"The Minister may say that that is fine, but sounds a bit woolly. I assure him that the idea that what makes people change is usually connected to a relationship of some sort is well supported by a large body of evidence. We need a shift from computer programs to the use of professional judgment. We need another look at the role of professional staff, who are a scarce resource. Does the Minister know of any other probation service where most of the offenders are supervised by unqualified people? We need an end to national management and control. Probation should be a local service, but with a powerful central voice, a media presence and a research and development capacity. We must have an end to targets that are about process and distort the work of everyone in the service".

"A most welcome report from the Centre for Social Justice has set out such a model. It calls for probation boards to reopen offices in those deprived areas where most of the people who will be supervised live. From these offices, the service can begin to rebuild its local knowledge of offenders, their families and communities. The probation service must start undertaking home visits again. The service must rethink its role and identity to become, to cite the report,
'a benign authority, rather than an offender manager'.
The importance of the probation service in promoting a safer society cannot be overestimated. The work to rebuild it needs to start as soon as possible."
So all this encouraging stuff was being said barely 10 months ago by our many friends in the Lords. We now have a very different political landscape in the Commons, but any legislation will have to get through both Houses and fortunately there is likely to be some very thorough scrutiny from the Upper House at least. As I've said before, we're going to need all the friends we can muster in the months ahead if the heart and soul of the Service is going to survive the 'reforms' that are just around the corner.

Justice Affairs Committee 6

The Committee duly took evidence from the Victim Commissioner Louise Casey on Tuesday 9th November and I'm pleased to say that some of the questioning made her look decidedly uncomfortable and possibly not really on top of her brief even. She got quite tetchy when asked if she had any evidence for her comments last week about Crown Courts being clogged up with unnecessary trials at the expense of victims and merely said it was 'common sense'. Along the way she confided that she was neither a lawyer nor brain of Britain, both statements that are only too obvious in my view. Despite having been billed as being asked if she'd changed her mind about community sentences since taking up her new role, I was disappointed to see that the Committee chickened out, but I had to listen right to the end of the video to discover this. I really wouldn't recommend it as enlightening viewing, unless you are a Casey fan of course. For me it merely served to reinforce my previous impression that here we have someone who has  possibly been promoted a little too far.      

Thursday 11 November 2010

Prisoner Ben

Regular readers will have noticed that I follow prisoner Ben's blog, but until now have resisted making any comment on what is a current case. However, seeing that his situation is reported in the Guardian and eminent persons such as Lord Ramsbotham have made comment in the past, I no longer feel quite as constrained. As a blog by a serving prisoner it is of enormous value in being able to give some insight into this normally very secretive world, but additionally due to his lifer status it also serves to shed some light into the issues that surround decisions concerning such prisoners and why they do not seem to be progressing towards release. As I have pointed out before, there are many lifers that are way over their tariffs due partly to the Parole Board becoming increasingly risk averse as a response to public opinion.

By blogging, Ben is either being extremely brave or unwise or a bit of both. In normal circumstances it would not be a good idea to comment on a case without being privy to the file or indeed knowing the person at all. All we know about the case is from Ben himself and that he is some 20 years over his 10 year tariff. We are not going to hear the other side as it were, but there has to be some particular reasons why this man does not seem to be making progress towards release. I suspect the clue is in his reported policy of not being particularly co-operative with 'the system'. Now as all probation officers know, being co-operative is precisely what 'the system' requires in order to inform its decisions about progress and ultimately release. 

In 'normal' circumstances the power balance is massively weighted in favour of 'the system' as opposed to the prisoner and possibly most people would not be that surprised and in fact might question how it could be any different. But here we appear to have someone who wants to challenge that power balance, whilst at the same time presumably also wanting to be released. There seems to be an impasse as to exactly on whose terms progress can be made. It strikes me that this only poses a problem to 'the system' because Ben has decided to make it all public. Normally the public would know nothing of such things, but I can't help but note he asserts  in a recent blog that he does not manipulate

I know of a very similar case where the prisoner refused to co-operate with any programmes, courses or processes that could have assisted with efforts in helping him progress through his sentence and towards release. Although regarded as a 'model' prisoner, despite much effort at trying to persuade him to co-operate he resolutely refused, thus making meaningful assessments of risk quite difficult. After several years of making absolutely no progress at all, I well remember attempting to make as good a case as I could at an Oral Hearing that possibly 'the system' might have to adopt a different approach towards making a decision because I could see absolutely no prospect of the man changing his attitude. The exchanges with the Parole Board Panel were interesting, but their written response some weeks later confirmed that such an idea was not going to be possible. The simple fact is, 'the system' at present just can't cope with people who decide that for what ever reason they're not going to play ball. In the end the guy took matters into his own hands and absconded from an escorted visit and remains unlawfully-at-large to this day. I think most would agree that this is not a very wise way of resolving such an issue.    

Wednesday 10 November 2010

Prisons Closing 2

According to this report in the Guardian, the Ministry of Justice is drawing up a 'hit list' of 6 prisons that could be earmarked for closure, including Dartmoor, North Sea Camp, Shrewsbury, and Shepton Mallet. All very different, geographically spread and each regarded as problematic in certain ways. I think I'm right in saying that only North Sea Camp is not 'listed' by English Heritage as being of historical or architectural importance, thus making demolition of the others most unlikely. I've visited both North Sea Camp and Shepton Mallet, the latter having been highlighted as a possible closure in a previous blog, along with HMP Lancaster. 

Built originally to hold prisoners from the Napoleonic Wars, HMP Dartmoor is interestingly owned by the Duchy of Cornwall and certified for 646 inmates. It still seems to have a reputation akin to escape-proof Alcatraz, when in fact it's been a Cat 'C' trainer for quite a few years, typically holding non-violent and white collar offenders. Ironically, despite it's age and remoteness, it currently enjoys a very good reputation with excellent training and workshop facilities. It's had a load of money spent on it and there're not that many jails in the South West.

HMP North Sea Camp is an old Borstal on the wild Lincolnshire coast and was actually built by the inmates in 1935, having been marched from HMP Stafford and who lived in tents initially. It's now a Cat 'D' open prison for 306 inmates, some of whom work off site locally. Until fairly recently it was the only prison that owned and operated a narrow guage railway installed initially to maintain the sea defences and used later to reclaim land from the sea. This land later became one of the largest prison farms until sadly sold off a few years ago. As with other 'open' establishments, absconding is an occupational hazard, understandably attracting negative publicity, but almost certainly exacerbated by inappropriate allocations in recent years. 

The prison in Shrewsbury is interesting because it's regarded as officially one of the most over-crowded in the country and in 2008 was reckoned to be so by 183%. Built in 1877 it's otherwise a typical Victorian 'local' serving courts in the catchment area and hence takes a wide range of adult male prisoners both on remand and sentenced, plus other groups such as fine defaulters. Certified for 182, it currently holds 340 prisoners and is designated a Cat 'B'. Local prisons have particular difficulties due to the constant daily coming and goings and as a result are very often under great pressure in terms of over-crowding. If this jail closes, it's difficult to see how it's function can be easily replaced, unless a new facility is being planned. There is no room on the current site for expansion and of course the whole point about this type of prison is that it is indeed 'local'.

In many ways it's hard to make a case for not closing HMP Shepton Mallet. It's the oldest in the estate dating back to 1625 and difficult to maintain. The certified establishment is 186 prisoners and it's currently designated a Cat 'C' lifer prison. The small stable population is in many ways ideal for such long term prisoners, but it must be very uneconomic to run and many prisoners are a very long way from their family connections. 

Tuesday 9 November 2010

Good and Bad News 2

Well it looks as if at long last someone in the media has cottoned on to the fact that there just might be a few good story lines in probation. It seems like the BBC have commissioned a drama series, 'Public Enemies'  based on a youngish lifer returning to the community after serving 10 years and a youngish probation officer returning following a period of suspension. It's absolutely great to hear that we're going to get some mainstream exposure, but already I'm beginning to feel just a little uneasy about the probable 'forbidden love' angle. Yes obviously it happens and I've already said that the current gender and age imbalance makes it highly likely, but just when I was hoping some really important issues might get an airing, I'm disappointed that this appears to be the angle chosen to 'sex it up a bit'. I can forgive the inevitable inaccuracies in procedure etc, but not if the authors skirt around the really important stuff.   

The Ministry of Justice published its Business Plan yesterday and our worst fears and concerns have been duly confirmed as to what the future looks like for probation. Somewhat ominously the plan baldly states it will:-

"Create a system introducing greater involvement of the private and voluntary sectors in the rehabilitation of offenders, including use of payment by results, to cut reoffending. The Department will no longer……provide rehabilitation services directly without testing where voluntary or private sectors can provide it more effectively and efficiently." 

Basically, if the likes of Nacro or Serco feel like it, pretty well everything we currently do is up for competitive tender. Graham Beech, strategic development director for crime reduction charity Nacro is quoted in the Independent as saying:-

"What is proposed represents a radical change which will open up opportunities for charities like Nacro to play an even greater role in reducing reoffending and making society safer."
Now obviously it's going to be extremely important as to how the Unions involved decide to repond. Again the Independent has this from Napo:- 

Plans to treat more mentally ill offenders and drug users in the community rather than sending them to jail are admirable but "fraught with difficulties", the probation union Napo warned today.
Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of Napo, said the Government would need to find hundreds of millions of pounds to make the proposals a reality.

But we all know that and the Government has spelt out how the money will be raised. I can't help thinking that the sensible approach is to go for what just might be achievable, recognising along the way what just might be impossible. Payment by Results is coming, that's a fact and any attempt to deny it will ultimately prove futile and a self-fulfilling prophecy. I would whole-heartedly embrace the concept, no matter what misgivings I might have, for services focused on offenders serving 12 months or less. This is precisely the group Ken Clarke has to demonstrate progress with in order to achieve much of his reduction in re-offending rates, and is the group probation currently does nothing with. But the quid pro quo is that Ken agrees to back track on the provocative market testing of our key functions and instead have some meaningful discussion about efficiencies.  I think blanket opposition to PbR will not only get us nowhere, it will appear as just plain bloody-minded, especially in the absence of any proof either way of its effectiveness. 


Monday 8 November 2010

March of the FDR

Many people will be aware of the Pre Sentence Report and its place in the Criminal Justice System as a vital element in the sentencing process. Traditionally prepared by a Probation Officer either for Magistrates or Crown Courts, they've been around for years and can often significantly influence what sort of disposal is handed down. They have always represented substantial pieces of professional work and anyone who has experience of preparing them will know how much thought and skill is required to tell an often complicated story, provide meaningful analysis and a cogent and easily understood explanation for a particular course of action. This takes time of course, but over the years the time allowed has reduced from four to three weeks.

As I have previously described, the whole process has been made more bureaucratic, time-consuming and intellectually challenging by the introduction of OASys and the computer generated finished product. However at the very same time, various efforts have been made to speed the court process up and as a result the concept of the Fast Delivery Report has developed, having grown out of the verbal 'stand down' report of old. Management particularly like the idea because FDR's can be undertaken by PSO's at court on the day and so are not only quick, but considerably cheaper as well. Naturally courts have got to like them for the same reason, but the trouble is there's been considerable 'mission creep' in that they are now being used routinely for quite serious offences and have spread to the Crown Court.

It will be appreciated that an FDR is not the same as a full PSR, or Standard Delivery Report as they are increasingly being called. In my view the seemingly inexorable spread of the FDR is undermining the essential role and purpose of a PSR. In essence the FDR started out as a quick method of checking that an offender was suitable for a particular disposal, mostly Community Service. Then the remit widened to include other possible disposals, including checking what possible negative effects custody might have, a very bad development in my view. 

We now have a situation where Crown Court Judges are getting used to the idea of sentencing on quite serious offences on the basis of either an FDR prepared in less than five days, or on a quick interview at court on the day. Personally I'm appalled at where this is taking us as an FDR is simply not of the same quality or as comprehensive as a full PSR. Seemingly the only sentence that the Chief Presiding Judge is ruling out as capable of being imposed following an FDR is one of indeterminate Imprisonment for Public Protection. This is getting crazy - the PSR as a vital sentencing document is being completely undermined.

Also there seems to be a view growing up that a PSR is not required if a substantial period of imprisonment is inevitable. Again this is extremely worrying in my view and I would cite the following example of why it can be very unwise. It is certainly not untypical in my experience for a defendant to arrive at Crown on bail ready for a trial on a serious charge, possibly Rape, only to be encouraged to change his plea on the day to one of guilt to a lesser charge say of Indecent Assault. The Judge states that a PSR is not necessary as custody is certain and hands down say 5 years. Now, when the time comes for a probation officer to interview the prisoner say in order to assess him for SOTP or further down the line for Parole, he will deny culpability saying 'the only reason I pleaded guilty was because my brief told me to'.

Now, had the Judge requested a PSR, this line would not have been possible because an equivocal plea would not have been acceptable to the interviewing PO or indeed the court. The defendant would have had to admit commission of the offences for which he had entered the guilty plea and the report would have addressed the circumstances of the offences in some detail. On the other hand, without that discussion, months or years down the line the probation officer is more than likely going to be met with blanket denials or minimisation. As a result the interests of public safety are considerably compromised by the lack of a PSR. I would go further and say that the process of justice is being undermined by the ill thought out spread of FDR's. 


Sunday 7 November 2010

Somewhere to Live 2

The Probation Service has a long and proud history of innovation and in particular of being able to find solutions to social problems. In essence this was because two key elements were present at one and the same time. Firstly some very able and life experienced officers and secondly a benign management structure that gave staff encouragement and freedom to innovate. Unfortunately a predominantly young and first career workforce, coupled with a centralised command and control structure means that innovation is very definitely not on the agenda nowadays. We are therefore pretty much stuck with what has been developed in the past, or responding to outside initiatives.

In my part of the country we were very fortunate that many years ago a probation officer had the foresight, initiative and freedom to found a housing project for offenders. Basically it became hugely successful, was floated off by the Service and is today a major Social Landlord serving all kinds of disadvantaged people, including many offenders still. In such schemes it's vital that support is provided as part of the package, with the hope that a transition can be achieved either to a full council tenancy, or to a private landlord. But supply has never come close to meeting demand and there seems to be a continually reducing quantity of Local Authority housing available. Also, resources for offender accommodation is no longer 'ring fenced' and it has to compete with other groups, such as the disabled for funds out of the local 'Supporting People' budget. When this change was brought in I pointed out, sadly to no avail, that this would merely serve to re-introduce the notion of the deserving as opposed to the undeserving. To a certain extent this has indeed happened.

One glimmer of success in recent years has been the growth of the Foyer  movement, an idea borrowed from other European countries and that has rapidly taken hold here in Britain. Basically each project takes in young people, provides supervised accommodation for up to 12 months and during that time arranges either employment or training as well as general support and guidance. A great idea, but I still have a few misgivings about some Foyers selection policy. The same old issue arises of the distinction between who is perceived as deserving as opposed to undeserving. Now in the good old days, I'm convinced the probation service, or to be precise, one or two individual officers, would have been right in there sorting issues like that out. But we're not allowed to now of course, that's a job for management and they don't like rocking the boat with partners

Basically if Ken Clarke is going to achieve his aim of reducing the prison population and particularly the re-offending rate for short term prisoners - the group most likely to have serious housing problems - some extra resources have got to be found from somewhere to help with their accommodation needs. At the risk of repeating myself, in an era of spending cuts, I can only see the likelihood of this coming through the new idea of Social Impact Bonds and Payment by Results.