Friday 31 December 2010

Justice Affairs Committee 7

The House of Commons Justice Affairs Committee have now called for supplementary written evidence in the light of the governments Green Paper published a couple of weeks ago. Significantly they are wanting to zoom in on the next Big Idea, namely Payment by Results:-

  • What are the relative merits of payment by results and place-based budgeting models as means to encourage local statutory partnerships and other agencies to reduce re-offending? What can be learnt from the implementation of payment by results models in health and welfare reform? What results should determine payment in applying such a model to criminal justice?
  • What freedoms would probation trusts like to have to enable them to manage offenders and reduce re-offending more effectively?
  • The Government proposes a lead provider model and suggests that commissioning for the delivery and enforcement of sentences and for efforts to reduce re-offending will not be separated. What is the appropriate role for probation in such a model?
I don't think the stakes could be higher for the future of the Probation Service as we currently know and love it. 2011 really is going to be crunch time and these two consultation exercises, the Green Paper and this Parliamentary Enquiry are major opportunites for people within the profession to fully engage and come up with a robust, innovative and well-reasoned argument for our future within a landscape of keen new players. The deadline is 24th January, so now is definitely the time for some late night oil to be burnt and all those senior strategic managers, Union officials and interested academics to earn their pay.  

Happy New Year everyone! 

Thursday 30 December 2010

More Questions than Answers

One of the fascinating aspects of blogging is the statistical information provided about readers, such as the time of day, country of origin and type of browser being used. But possibly the most fascinating are the questions or statements that readers feed into search engines and thus subsequently end up viewing this blog. I thought it would be fun to try and answer a few recent ones.   

Bad probation officer
How do I change my probation officer?
As with every field of human endeavour, there are good and bad people everywhere, but in my experience there really are relatively few truely bad probation officers. Of course it depends how 'bad' is defined. I have several clients who have tried for years to get me off their case, but that's because they are dangerous and highly manipulative. Management have so far always taken the view that there are absolutely no valid grounds for a change of officer. Any client can request a change of officer, but there must be valid grounds.

Are probation officers on duty between Christmas and New Year?
Do probation officers make home visits during holidays?
Basically the answer is no. Probation is pretty much a Monday to Friday 9 to 5 job with normal Bank Holidays. However there is some evening reporting, but generally only one night a week. Programmes are often run in the evening and weekends and some tutors are PO's, but most are PSO's. This year offices will have closed about 4.00pm on Christmas Eve and re-opened on 29th December because Christmas Day and Boxing Day fell on Saturday and Sunday respectively. Offices will be closed on Monday 3rd January in lieu of New Years Day falling on a Saturday. However probation staff are always on duty 24/7 in hostels and the duty manager is almost invariably either a PO or SPO. Much Community Service is undertaken at weekends, however virtually all supervision of this is undertaken by PSO's. There is always a duty Assistant Chief Officer on call 24/7 in case of a serious incident or need for emergency recall. 

Does prison time rehabilitate?
Basically there is no short answer to this as there are so many variables. It will depend on factors such as the attitude of the prisoner, the length of the sentence, the quality of the prison regime and the environmental factors back in the community when the prisoner is released. One of the stated aims of the Prison Service is rehabilitation. 

Historical background of probation world
Probation has a long and distinguished history both in this country and others. In the UK we celebrated our 100th birthday in 2007, which was the anniversary of the passing of the Probation of Offenders Act 1907 that basically set up the bones of the service we have today. 

Can a Probation officer penalise me for not completing my community service?
Yes probation officers regularly take breach action in relation to failing to complete a Community Service Order without good reason. It's a complete myth that 'people get away with it'. In my experience CS are like the Mounties - they always get their man, even if it takes years.
A blog for people on probation?
Sounds like a good idea and an opening just waiting to be filled!
Opposing views on probation
Well this blog is attempting to help redress the sometimes biased opinions expressed in some of the media and by some politicians. I believe there is widespread ignorance about the Probation Service and hopefully blogs such as this might serve to enlighten in addition to stimulating reasoned debate.

Is a pre sentence report a good thing?
Absolutely as this is a key document prepared independently of the prosecution and defence and read directly by the sentencing judge or magistrates. It aims to explain the circumstances of the offence, the history and background of the offender, together with constructive suggestions for a disposal that will both address punishment and rehabilitation.  

Who regulates probation officers?
As with all public servants there is a comprehensive code of practice and system in place for investigating staff of all grades. In addition, all actions by staff are accountable ultimately to the Minister of Justice and there is an independent Probation Ombudsman and HM Inspector of Probation.

Probation home visits
Home visits are not conducted as frequently as in the past, but every licence and community order has a requirement that home visits must be received. They are mostly undertaken in high risk cases or in order to check an address for a Curfew Order, as a release address for Parole or ROTL, Release on Temporary Licence. 

How do I lie to my probation officer?
An easy one - just go ahead! You certainly won't be the first or last - but you have to ask yourself what the purpose in lying is? Generally speaking PO's are there to be part of the solution not the problem and they can be most effective if they have the whole picture. They are also pretty good at spotting if something doesn't add up or just sounds unlikely. In reality the problem is that often clients tend to be rather too honest if anything.
How many probation officers hurt on the job?
A good question and I don't know. My gut feeling is very few indeed despite the hairy situations and people we are often involved with.

Will I be able to clear my criminal record after my probation?
In the past a probation order was not a sentence, but rather an alternative to a sentence in respect of a criminal act and therefore viewed in a rather more sympathetic light. Unfortunately it has been a sentence in its own right for some time now and the offence, together with the disposal are subject to the terms of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. Basically this allows for certain offences to be regarded as 'spent' after varying periods of time. However serious offences can never be dealt with in this way. Unfortunately the situation is further complicated by the disclosure terms relating to the Criminal Record Bureau system of checks in relation to certain jobs. Basically for certain types of employment involving children or vulnerable people, no convictions are regarded as spent. There is widespread concern about the situation and change is likely in the near future.
How to help somebody on probation stop getting into criminal activity?
A damn good question and a lot of probation officers would like to know the answer. It obviously varies from individual to individual, together with the persons situation. Homelessness, unemployment and drug and alcohol issues all play a part, to name but a few. It is a huge subject that continues to tax academics, politicians and professionals alike.
Can people on probation have facebook?
Generally speaking yes, however there will always be issues of appropriate computer usage by sex offenders and other high risk offenders. Indeed some people may be the subject of Court Orders or Licence conditions that prohibit computer or internet usage.

When do you have the mental capacity to identify what is right?
A tricky one this. In the UK the age of Criminal Responsibility is set at age 10, but it is higher in other countries. Clearly the age of maturity will vary from individual to individual and this is one of the reasons why there have been moves to raise the age in this country.
What would prevent anyone being able to leave a country?
Over the years I've been asked fairly frequently if someone on a licence or probation order can leave the country for a holiday. In years past a PO could give authority if they felt it appropriate, but this discretion was removed round about the time National Standards were introduced. The straight answer to the question is therefore no, but if I felt it appropriate I've made the point that the government stopped recording people who left our borders some time ago. As long as they didn't appear on the front page of the Sun it would be ok, but I could not give explicit authority. It was a very stupid thing to remove the tracking of people on the way out, but I believe this is due to change shortly.   

Wednesday 29 December 2010

A Cautionary Tale

The Probation Service that I joined in 1985 used a tried and tested method of dealing with clients and it was known as the Casework Method. It basically involved looking at an individual, their history and background and through the building of a trusting relationship, attempts were made to change that persons attitude and situation for the better in the hope that offending would either cease or be reduced. This philosophy had developed over many years, was widely understood and became to be known as 'advise, assist and befriend'.

Now possibly like many other people, I just assumed this was the only way of doing things and it would just continue. I assumed it must work for some people, but if it didn't it was because of environmental factors such as unemployment, homelessness, abuse, mental health etc. and as a result the probation service was clearly set up by society to try and deal with these environmental issues. We duly got stuck into setting up projects that sought to address the environmental deficits such as housing, training, employment etc. These were exciting days and I just assumed we were doing the right thing, that it would work and just carry on.

But then I became aware of what became known as the 'What Works' agenda. Basically academics, mostly in North America, were saying that evidence showed that we were barking up the wrong tree and that the problem lay with clients thinking. Apparently if these cognitive deficits could be tackled in structured and specially designed groupwork programmes, evidence proved that such an approach was more effective in reducing re-offending. This was seized upon as the magic bullet solution and programmes were started first in prison and quickly rolled out in the community following some limited experimental pathfinder projects. The timing was perfect because the 43 independent services were effectively nationalised and programmes became the holy grail imposed from above that replaced all the ad hoc local groupwork projects. Entry and training requirements had changed and all new recruits were required to train as programme tutors.

Basically the massive focus on programmes came to highlight even further the cultural shift within the Service. Many old-style officers refused to have anything to do with it and remained deeply sceptical that such a proscribed intervention that did little to address environmental issues would work. In essence, right from the beginning the joke was that 'What Works' didn't bloody work and was never likely to. Of course it did for some, but not the majority and certainly not to the extent that anywhere near justified the resources put into it. When at a conference I tackled an academic on this point she said 'well 'What Works' was always meant to be a question, not a statement'.

Anyway the whole sorry saga is about to come to an end as one of the inevitable results of spending cuts. Of course management and the unions and possibly some academics will say it's all a terrible mistake and sex offenders and domestic violence perpetrators will go 'untreated'. Indeed that would be a mistake, but the answer is that we return to something we had before, namely an holistic approach with some old-fashioned groupwork and casework tailored to an individuals needs, not the present factory-style attempt at processing people and trying to localise the causes of crime onto individual pathologies. I've never been impressed with the thinking deficit argument alone and never will be.             

Friday 24 December 2010

It's Christmas!

The time has finally arrived for this blog to take a rest. It started back in September out of sheer anger and frustration at a job I absolutely love being systematically ruined in my eyes. I sought inspiration from blogs like The Magistrate and Inspector Gadjet and just started tapping the keyboard with little thought as to where it might go. I've genuinely surprised myself that some four months later I'm still here, not bored and seemingly not stuck for words.

People who know me and are privy to my endeavours say that I'm loads more relaxed, enthusiastic even, despite the grimness of some of the posts. That has to be down to you, the readers. I have come to realise that feedback is absolutely vital for enterprises like this and I want to warmly thank everyone who has taken the trouble to post a comment. I have been absolutely thrilled by the warmth of the kind words and it's really great to know that my efforts on here at often strange times of the day are appreciated. 

I've been amazed by the statistics telling me just how far afield this blog is read. I had assumed that it might only be of some interest to people within these shores, but that is not the case at all and confirms that the internet really does connect the world. So, wherever you might be reading this, if you celebrate it I hope you have a wonderful Christmas and that you might return to the amazing world of probation when normal service resumes on December 29th.

Merry Christmas!

Thursday 23 December 2010

A Conundrum

The case of Stephen Griffiths serves to graphically illustrate a problem that society has yet to find a solution for. The self-styled 'crossbow cannibal' who was sentenced yesterday at Leeds Crown Court having pleaded guilty to three counts of murder and given a 'whole life' tariff was clearly dangerous and suffered from a serious personality disorder. We know this because the signs were there from quite early on and he is reported as telling his probation officer that he would kill when he reached his thirties.

I'm pretty sure the probation officer did not need telling because Griffiths had been in touch with psychiatric services from the age of at least 17. He spent periods at Rampton Special Hospital and was treated as an outpatient at two other psychiatric hospitals right up to 2009. Although he was assessed as 'highly dangerous' crucially psychiatrists said he was not suffering from a mental illness and therefore was regarded as 'not treatable'. This is extremely significant because it means that the powers available under the Mental Health Act cannot be invoked.

The conundrum society faces is that basically no matter how sure we are as to a person's dangerousness, their liberty cannot be denied before they commit a serious offence. If you like a situation like this is at the extreme alternative end of the very broad health and safety spectrum. Most probation officers will know of similar scary clients that cross their path, but until they commit that serious so-called index offence, there's seemingly nothing that can be done.

I've always had an interest in forensic psychiatry and psychology and I know from experience that there are a relatively significant group of people in touch with psychiatric services who display equally worrying behaviours and symptoms. But can anything be done? We already have thousands of prisoners in custody under the terms of Indeterminate Public Protection sentences who should be released. The problem is that everyone knows that some of them - estimated by one Governor to be about 40 - are very dangerous. The problem is, which 40? 

As regards Griffiths, I think the prognosis is extremely poor and the Prison Service will be greatly tested ensuring that he does not take his own life, or that of another whilst in prison. For these reasons, not withstanding his supposed 'untreatable' condition, I feel he will be transferred to Special Hospital sooner rather than later. 

Wednesday 22 December 2010

Probation and Christmas

I think it would be fair to say that a majority of prisoners find Christmas a particularly difficult time and especially so if they have young children. For this reason many probation officers will have become aware of the phenomenon at this time of year when it becomes noticeable that a larger than average number of people fail to turn up for their Pre Sentence Report interviews. This is not because they're getting over a worse than normal hangover or frenetic Christmas shopping has led them to forget, it's because they want to avoid being sentenced to custody over Christmas.

Many decide to take the calculated risk that the Court will not sentence without the report and adjourn matters till January. It is not unheard of for yet others to fail to make the hearing even when the report has been prepared, again in the hope of ensuring they get Christmas at home. This is a particularly risky strategy of course because it could easily lead to a warrant without bail, unless the solicitor is particularly persuasive on the day and the Bench are in possession of a degree of Christmas cheer. In my experience no amount of trying to persuade such people that this is a piece of seriously faulty logic will work. Even if custody is unlikely, they simply do not want to take the risk and effectively 'go to ground'. They would rather incur the wrath of the Court and take their chance in the New Year.

It has to be said that over the years I've always found conducting prison visits on family visiting days in crowded halls full of loud, excited children a profoundly sad experience at the best of times. You can't help noticing just how young some of the fathers are, and how delighted the kids are to see them. It makes you wonder what the lasting memories will be and how the kids resolve and answer that nagging question as to why Dad isn't at home? Who knows what effect such experiences will have on young minds, but it reminds you of the statistics that say the cycle will in all probability repeat itself and here you are watching it happen in front of your eyes. At Christmas it just seems to be even more poignant as the staff do their best to make the room look 'Christmassy' complete with a decorated tree and tinsel wrapped round the bars at the windows.

I've never been comfortable sending long-term prisoners Christmas cards. It was routine when I started, but I always felt it inappropriate wishing someone a 'Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year' when we both knew they had umpteen years left to do. I've tended to send a letter instead, but I've always been touched by inmates who routinely send me a card. I think they understand. Unfortunately by 1985 I was too late for the traditional habit of prisoners giving their probation officer a gift of a model made from thouands of matches at Christmas. It was usually a gypsy caravan for some reason and sat on the filing cabinet in most of the older officers rooms.

I can only recall ever getting a Christmas gift from one young man many years ago, in the days when we supervised juveniles. It was a small wicker basket with two pairs of white socks inside. Not really my style at all, but I was touched and despite one or two colleagues being sceptical, I really didn't think it had been stolen. I was already an important part of that young mans life and sadly remained so for many, many years. I last saw him selling the 'Big Issue' on the streets of a nearby large city, a sad broken, homeless man of 36. The truth is that some people are so damaged and have such a raw deal in life that try as we might, we simply can't seem to stop the inexorable path of decline. Christmas always makes me think of him.       

Tuesday 21 December 2010

Common Sense on Drugs

For years I've been hoping that we could have a common sense discussion about drugs in this country, but the trouble is no politician dare start it. Well, not one with any commonsense or a career to think about, hence my heart sank when I heard Bob Ainsworth MP of all people daring to put his head above the parapet last week in an interview with James Naughtie on the BBC Radio 4 'Today' programme. 

A lot of what he had to say I agree with, but why, oh why did it have to be this former deeply uninspiring Defence Secretary? Under some reasonably gentle questioning it was obvious Bob hadn't really thought through the consequences of his general hypothesis that the War on Drugs was completely futile and decriminalisation was a better route. Now this is a huge topic and deserved something rather better than this half-baked 5 minute interview. I know it will be the subject of a Westminster Hall debate, but even so.....

Of course all Bob has succeeded in doing is getting the right wing press over-excited, as with Simon Heffer in the Daily Telegraph. I try not to read such stuff because it only gets me very annoyed, but I was pleased to read a comprehensive dismantling of Heffers article by Jackhart on his blog here. The sad fact is that the changes made to legislation in the 1960's and which removed drug issues from GP's and the medical profession have been a complete disaster and pretty much resulted in the massive crime wave of the 1980's. For years shoplifting has been synonymous with drug addiction and all the effort put into treatment regimes based on methadone prescribing have failed. The present government have conceded the latter point, signalling an end to 'maintenance' methodone prescribing, but are completely unrealistic in thinking addicts can be persuded to come off everything quickly.

Part of a better answer lies in experiments authorised by the last government into trials involving a return to the prescribing of heroin under medical supervision. If this sounds uncannily familiar, it is and mirrors success in places such as Switzerland where evidence shows addicts are far more likely to make a transition to a drug-free lifestyle under such a system of phased withdrawal. For some though it might mean a maintenance 'script for heroin, but again evidence shows such people can often hold down jobs and carry on with settled lifestyles. There are none of the serious health risks associated with street drugs such as cutting agents and the ever present risk of an unintended overdose with unknown purities. Finally of course, all of the activity is legal, regulated and most importantly beyond the scope of criminal involvement at any stage. 

Even this doesn't solve all the problems though. There would remain the issue of how experimentation could be handled. Sophisticated drug gangs are not just going to throw the towel in and go back to other less lucrative activity like extortion or prostitution, they would put renewed energy into recruiting young users and that must remain a big concern. Having said that, most so-called drug dealers that have come my way are in fact people heavily addicted themselves and fund their use typically by supplying small groups of friends and associates. The only real suspected 'Mr Big' that I've ever dealt with was for violence and he never got any conviction for drug-related offences. So much for the 'War on Drugs' and I suspect this is not atypical. 

I have deliberately not addressed cannabis here because I'm completely with Professor Nutt in reminding people how vastly more harmful alcohol is. Throughout my career I have never written a report concerning an act of violence committed under the influence of cannabis. There are some dangers of course, but as a society lets tackle the main issue, not the side show.   

Monday 20 December 2010

American Perspective

It's rapidly becoming clear that one of the real joys of blogging is that people send you stuff and I'm grateful to a reader for pointing me in the direction of what the hard-nosed conservative right are presently advocating over there in the USA. It makes fascinating reading, not least because it completely debunks the arguments being put forward by our own right wing for the greater use of prison. Here is a flavour of what Right on Crime is saying:- 

"Under the incarceration-focused solution, societies were safer to the extent that dangerous people were incapacitated, but when offenders emerged from prison – with no job prospects, unresolved drug and mental health problems, and diminished connections to their families and communities – they were prone to return to crime.

While the growth of incarceration took many dangerous offenders off the streets, research suggested that it reached a point of diminishing returns, as recidivism rates increased and more than one million nonviolent offenders filled the nation’s prisons. In most states, prisons came to absorb more than 85 percent of the corrections budget, leaving limited resources for community supervision alternatives such as probation and parole, which cost less and could have better reduced recidivism among non-violent offenders.

Illustrating the failure of the entire corrections system, two-thirds of individuals now entering prison are offenders whose probation or parole was revoked, and half of these revocations are for technical violations such as not reporting to a probation officer, rather than for new crimes.  Parole and probation reporting are critical elements of community supervision, but it is worth asking whether re-incarceration is a sensible sanction for such violations."

Obviously it would be preferable if these sentiments were being expressed from a moral or philosophical standpoint rather than from pure economic necessity. But it serves as further evidence, if any were required, that the financial crisis has helped concentrate right wing minds on evidence-based practice rather than just political dogma.

Since publishing his Green Paper on crime, sentencing and rehabilitation, Ken Clarke has come in for a real hammering from the right-wing press over here. The Sun is campaigning for him to lose his job and the Telegraph and Daily Mail have each speculated about a rift between the minister and David Cameron. It's reported that Tory back-benchers are fulminating about a 'soft' Justice Secretary and are privately urging the Prime Minister to sack him as part of a New Year cabinet re-shuffle. However, many readers of this blog will be aware that I feel Ken is in fact on the right path and here we have evidence of a similar emerging agenda from the right in the USA of all places.

What now seems inevitable is that the economic situation is dictating that an accommodation has to be reached between the right and more liberal thinkers. Of course here in the UK this has been cemented formally in a coalition government since the Electorate denied any one party an overall majority at the last General Election. It's just possible that both parts of the political spectrum are beginning to learn that they have more in common than they earlier supposed.    


Sunday 19 December 2010

10 Reasons Why Probation is Finished

As we head to the end of one year and the beginning of another, I find that I'm in a particularly sombre and increasingly angry mood, hence the stark title of this piece. I know I'm prone to being a pessimist, but those who really know me are aware that throughout my career I have always tried to be positive. I'm by nature a fixer of problems - you have to be to be a Probation Officer in my view. But a good Probation Officer should also be able to analyse a situation and sort the wood from the trees. Talking my profession down gives me no satisfaction at all, but there comes a time when we have to recognise the direction of travel and face up to some uncomfortable truths. Only then can we begin to do something about the situation.

The following is my analysis of where I think we are and where we are heading and it's not good. I seriously believe we are destined for the same treatment as the Forensic Science Service whose demise was announced last week with little ceremony. If others think I'm wrong, misguided or over-stating the position, then please tell me.  

  1. Ken Clarke can't stand the Probation Service for some reason and hasn't mentioned it once since taking up office as Justice Minister. This does not bode well for the Minister responsible for the Service to come to its aid. Indeed I think the groundwork is being prepared so that he can 'do a John Reid' and declare the whole thing 'unfit for purpose.'  
  2. The Coalition government are privatising Approved Premises and Community Payback, so have a very clear agenda of wanting to see the Service slimmed down and operated more cheaply. In relation to Unpaid Work, the government obviously feel that the current ethos would not be conducive to the implementation of a tougher work regime.
  3. Pre-sentence reports have been 'dumbed-down' and are rapidly becoming useless as sentencing documents. This is all too clear to people who have been around for a while. Together with the inexorable growth in short format FDR's, even at Crown Court, it will only serve to convince sentencers that they can largely dispense with PSR's completely.   
  4. There is an inexorable move towards PSO's doing the work of fully qualified PO's. I predict that the full role of PO will be undertaken by PSO's in a couple of years. The training has already been dumbed down and there is a growing chorus from PSO's that PO's weren't that skilled anyway. This is great news for management because they are much cheaper to employ.  
  5. The Probation Unions refuse to acknowledge Payment by Results as worthy of field trials. I have repeatedly said that this stance is a big mistake and arguments about it not working are utterly futile because if necessary, the figures will be fiddled to prove otherwise, just like all those in the past. Oh, of course it just might work too. I think the public image of NAPO looks tired and needs sharpening up.
  6. Probation Trusts continue to support large Head Offices at the expense of field offices. I continue to be amazed at the size of the management bureaucracy, just as local offices are being shut to save money. One Assistant Chief is currently trumpeting a 'going local' initiative at the very time that he's closing a local office. Such humbug will not go unnoticed. The same Service is introducing a leave purchase scheme to save money with each officer being able to buy up to 30 days extra leave a year. That not only says a great deal about current attitudes to the job, but I wonder who is expected to cover for all these missing people when caseloads are so high?
  7. The Service has no unified public identity, national champion or high profile leadership. Since the control freak government of Tony Blair, Chiefs of Probation have been effectively silenced and have yet to find an effective voice. The new Chiefs Association has been ominously silent for a couple of months now, and even before only spoke in relative hushed tones. There is no longer any central Probation Management, it having been completely dismantled and subsumed into a prison-dominated NOMS.
  8. The public simply do not understand what the Probation Service does. This is extremely handy for a government intent on breaking the whole thing up. There will be absolutely no public opposition to our demise.  
  9. The Service is paralysed with bureaucratic processes which hinder client contact. The imposition of OASys was utter ill-thought out madness and has done more damage to client contact and morale than any of the worst excesses wreaked on our Service in living memory. Can I remind people that, far from management having the bottle to admit this, the real driver behind them imposing the short format FDR's is that they cunningly avoid a full OASys. 
  10. The architecture is in place to facilitate the dismantling of the Service. Together with the powers contained in the legislation that set the National Offender Management Service up and the compulsory transition to independent Probation Trusts, the government would find it administratively very easy to transfer all probation functions to any organisation it felt appropriate. 

Saturday 18 December 2010


I suspect that the idea of having supervised accommodation for offenders has been around for as long as probation itself. The hostels operated by the probation service are 'approved' for the purpose by the Ministry of Justice and prior to this by the Home Office. Increasingly they are being referred to as Approved Premises (AP) rather than hostels, but I don't understand why. Many are still owned and operated by voluntary and religious groups, thus once again reflecting our roots. 

Traditionally probation hostels served mainly two distinct purposes, that of a supervised bail address as an alternative to a remand in custody and secondly as a place of supervised re-integration into society from a period in custody. Additionally, in the past it was not uncommon for someone made subject of a probation order to be required to reside at a hostel for a period, usually because of particular problems in being able to live independently. The time at the hostel was used so that appropriate community support could be arranged, together with accommodation. Hostels were also able to be used for short periods in order to afford 'respite' and in cases where some structured support was required say for people with mental health problems.

In my experience it has always been wise to foster good relations with hostel managers because it quite often tipped the balance in being able to get your client accepted, either when they had been refused elsewhere, or worse thrown out by another hostel. However, that was all in the past. Nowadays finding hens teeth is easier than a hostel place and the reason is basically because all facilities are full of high risk parole cases being released from custody. There are virtually no bail places at all and the few that do crop up are again reserved for the high risk cases. Now I'm all in favour of hostels being available for this challenging group who require a high degree of monitoring prior to being allowed to live independently, but it means that there is little or no provision for other lower risk people, but that might have greater welfare needs.

This situation has been developing for some time and prompted the previous government to let a contract several years ago for bail places to be provided by a private contractor. A company called Clear Springs won the Bail Accommodation and Support Service contract, despite having no experience of working with offenders and they supplied several hundred addresses, typically 3 and 4 bed-roomed houses as 'supervised' bail addresses. Unfortunately the supervision proved to be minimal and when neighbours and the wider public became aware, there was a great deal of negative publicity. In the end a death at a property persuaded both Clear Springs and the Ministry of Justice to part company earlier this year. The BASS contract has subsequently been awarded to Stonham Housing, a charity and specialist housing provider working with offenders. 

Sadly, the whole future for Approved Premises within the probation service is about to be thrown into turmoil as it is the stated ambition of the coalition government to divest itself completely of the management and operation of all probation hostels in the very near future. Along with the decision to privatise Unpaid Work, the dismantling of another fine public service looks certain to follow in the footsteps of the Forensic Science Service and the National Air Sea Rescue Service.  

Friday 17 December 2010

So, Does Prison Work?

It's a ridiculous question of course, but one we all feel obliged to address ever since Michael Howard made it his slogan some 20 years ago for unashamed political ends. In many respects the mess we're in now is a direct result of criminal justice matters becoming a political football. The answer is not conducive to a simplistic soundbite response but if pressed I would have to say it's obvious and 'yes and no'.

Since the abolition of the death penalty, imprisonment for life is the only sanction available for the most serious offences of murder, rape or arson. To the extent that a persons liberty is removed, the requirement for punishment and public protection are both satisfied and therefore prison can be said to work. However, virtually all life sentence prisoners will be released into the community at some stage and it has to be recognised that prison almost certainly damages everyone. This was confirmed recently by the governor of HMP High Down during the BBC Newsnight programme.

One of the reasons why many lifers go way past their tariff before release is that they've been affected adversely by their incarceration, in the most serious cases leading to a condition commonly referred to as institutionalisation. In order to try and deal with this takes time and great care and is not always successful. At best re-integration into society is difficult for this group as it will invariably involve constructing an entirely new life as much if not all of their former life will have either been destroyed or disappeared. In this regard prison can be said to have failed. 

In relation to long and medium term determinate sentences imposed for serious offences, prison again satisfies the dual requirements of punishment and public protection. There is less danger of institutionalisation and with the possibility of gaining early release on Parole Licence, every incentive to take part in programmes and courses that might address offending behaviour and possibly improve employability upon release. However, such long term sentences can have a very negative affect on relationships with many failing and the difficulty of gaining employment from a long prison sentence cannot be over estimated. In a sense, whether in these cases prison can be said to have 'worked' or not will depend on how each prisoner responded to the sentence. For some it will prove to be the turning point in their life and they do not return. For others, they become more determined not to get caught next time and will have picked up lots of tips on better execution and avoidance of detection.  

Where prison can be said to almost certainly fail is in relation to short sentences. Even so for some the so called 'short, sharp shock' might work, but for the majority it might have the opposite effect and they come to realise that prison is not that bad, in fact it can serve as a welcome respite from the chaotic drug and alcohol-fuelled world of unemployment and misery outside. The trouble is that they're typically not in long enough to take part in programmes or courses and if serving less than 12 months, will not be under any statutory supervision upon release. However, their stay in prison might just be long enough so that they lose their accommodation, any employment, relationships and community support for things like drug treatment and regaining any combination of these upon release is not easy.

Not surprising then that the re-offending rates for this group is extremely high. In essence, any short term benefit that society might derive from having a 'rest' from such offenders, is more than outweighed by them being rapidly returned in a worse state than they went in. Not a very intelligent way for society to tackle this group in my view. Nor is it to build more prisons and fill them with yet more short term prisoners. Ken Clarke is definitely on the right track and Michael Howard and the rest of the bleating right wing will have to get used to the idea that a financial recession has finally brought some commonsense to prevail. We are fast approaching the start of a new year and it would be my earnest wish that the whole pointless, juvenile argument about whether prison works or not is put to rest. Thankyou.


Thursday 16 December 2010

What's Going On?

No, not a quote from 'Eastenders', just an expression of overwhelming disbelief! Surely I'm in some kind of bad dream? It's not April the first, but has the world gone completely mad? A judge chewing gum in court? That requires re-reading just so that the significance of it can sink in. But it gets worse, the judge in question wasn't sitting in judgement, she was being judged and according to this report, had to be told to stop by the court usher during a two-day trial in relation to an allegation of keeping a dangerous dog.

During the trial Judge Beatrice Bolton, who normally sits at Newcastle Crown Court and her partner were described as 'the neighbours from hell'. Upon conviction she was reported as shouting that the verdict "was a fucking travesty" as she strode out of court declaring "I'll never set foot in court again." I have to say that judging by this performance, that might be the best option for all our sakes. Exactly how can the dignity of her office be upheld now, even following a comprehensive apology?

But this comes on top of the case of the police superintendent who changed her plea at the last moment to one of guilt, having fully intended to put the public to the expense of a trial in relation to a speeding offence. She had been stopped when clocked by a radar speed gun when exceeding the 50 mile an hour limit by 29 miles per hour. Apparently she came out with the classic line "I didn't realise what speed I was doing."  Nevertheless the hapless traffic PC felt the matter could be best disposed of by means of a warning when he discovered her identity, but this decision was overturned by senior management and the CPS. All this is understandable at all sorts of levels, but the real gem I think is that she intended to allege that her own force radar equipment was inaccurate. 

It seems that common sense prevailed in the end, but did not prevent the District Judge having some choice words for Nottinghamshire Constabulary. Anyone working in the Criminal Justice System will be aware of the issues raised by these two stories such as contempt for the legal process, denial of responsibility and futile challenges of the legal process. It's just somewhat surprising to find them coming from within the system! 


Wednesday 15 December 2010

Thoughts on The Disturbances

As everyone seems to have written about the recent London disturbances, I thought I might as well. I seem to remember from the dim and distant past that the authorities are always loathe to call such events 'riots' because when so described, the Metropolitan Police were required to pay for all the damage caused. I bet it's not like that now though.

My first thoughts have to be connected to my own experience of university and students. Yes I am indeed part of the generation that not only enjoyed a 'free' four years at Uni, but was also supported by a maintenance grant paid by the county's ratepayers. I went as a mature student and remember being struck as to what a left-wing bolshy lot most were. A demo or petition would be rustled up in no time on a whole range of social issues and as a group we complained about everything. I graduated, the years rolled by and I became increasingly aware of a deafening silence from the incumbents at our seats of learning.

As we would have said on my radical Social Work course, they were basically silenced by the establishment. They were indoctrinated and seduced into becoming acquiescent capitalist lackeys for the State whilst learning the discipline and responsibility that comes with mounting debt. In the last few years I can't remember students getting seriously vexed about any issue since possibly the poll tax. It's a sad fact of life, but we're all possibly just selfish and only really concerned about something that affects us directly. The inevitable changes in university funding certainly does affect all students and they are reacting.

I think I've always been aware that just beneath the surface there have always been elements within society waiting to take advantage of any possible trouble and hijack it for their own anarchic ends. I was struck by the comment recently from a former miner left on another site that during the Miners Strike in the early 80's, groups of men in balaclavas would turn up on the pickets and nobody knew who they were or where they came from. That sounds reminiscent of the disturbances recently. I'm prepared to believe that most of the serious trouble causers are not students at all but have an extreme anti-state agenda instead, hence the attack on the Supreme Court.

As a probation officer I'm always fascinated to know why people do things and I want to make an observation about people in groups and in particular the effect group behaviour can have on individuals. It may be completely irrelevant and possibly too tenuous to be worthy of discussion, but I'm absolutely fascinated by the effect of so-called 'Flashmobs'. For those unfamiliar have a look here on youtube for some examples. They are basically perceived by unsuspecting members of the public to be spontaneous events by upwards of 200 people who perform in a collective activity, only to disperse after typically four or five minutes.

The key bit for me is the effect it has on bystanders. They appear compelled to take part in the activity and indulge in copy-cat behaviour. Ok this is a fun example, but even this has a subliminal message of advertising a tv programme and has come to be part of so-called viral advertising. Can a similar process operate at demonstrations and people be influenced to certain negative behaviour? Crowd psychology is a funny thing and I wonder how much of a factor this has been during recent demonstrations? Come to think of it, I wonder what the effect would be of playing some Rodgers and Hammerstein really loudly, 'Do-Rei-Me.......  

I've been interested to see the comments from police officers on Inspector Gadjets site basically calling for radical action that ranges from 'shoot the buggers' to 'send for the water cannon'. The more reasonable make the very valid point that in this country neither is a distinct possibility because it is far more politically acceptable to see injured officers than injured protesters. It's been like that I guess since the Peterloo Massacre and I can't see the slightest possibility of it changing. I would have thought most police officers know this and accept it as part of the job.

I should say at this point that I have no sympathy at all with violent demonstrations of any kind and do feel sorry for the police who are required to deal with such events with limited methods at their disposal. I think 'kettling' is a big mistake, would seriously annoy the likes of me and almost certainly is counter-productive in winning any propaganda battle. I feel sorry for all those injured and regret the destruction of original windows in the listed former Middlesex Guildhall and now Supreme Court. As to the cause on which the students are protesting, I feel the argument is lost and in a sense always was the likely outcome of having a target of 50% of young people going to university in the first place. Completely bonkers, unnecessary and unaffordable sadly.  

ps I wrote the above several days ago and have since heard that the police have arrested 180 people, some of whom have been reported as saying they are 'devastated' having been shown cctv images of their behaviour. Also, I seem to remember that the police played loud music at the rooftop protesters during the long riot and takeover of HMP Strangeways some years back. 


Tuesday 14 December 2010

Real Change or Smoke and Mirrors?

Emma Harrison CBE is just the sort of person that really irritates me. Always smiling, utterly self-confident with boundless ambition, enthusiasm and energy, she seems to fit perfectly the profile of the 'oustanding self starter' required by those equally irritating job adverts in the quality Sunday papers. She has risen from engineer in a Sheffield steel works to multi-millionaire owner of A4E (Action for Employment) with nothing short of world domination in her sights. She and her company benefitted enormously from Labour government contracts and counted David Blunket as an adviser. But that was then and unbridled ambition means that she can now claim David Cameron no less as a close ally.

As a passionate entrepreneur, no doubt she has been working assiduously behind the scenes lobbying the new Prime Minister into giving her the opportunity to prove that her seemingly unique philosophy will work with some of the most challenging families in Britain. On Friday it paid off as the Prime Minister announced the launch of a new initiative 'Working Families Everywhere' as part of a major speech on support for relationships and families.

According to David Cameron, "We have known for ages that a relatively small number of troubled families are responsible for a large proportion of the problems in our society." I don't think probation officers would demur from this and certainly Inspector Gadjet regularly highlights this group. He went on to say that just 46,000 families in the UK with little or no history of employment are estimated to cost the state a staggering £4 billion per year in benefits and services such as social workers, police time and YOI places. He wants the new initiative spearheaded by Ms Harrison and her company to focus attention on 500 such families and offer them tailored support. The website states:-

"Now, under this programme, every troubled family will have their own champion able to use every existing resource to help them get going, face up to and sort out their problems, whether they be parenting challenges, poor health, debt, addiction, dependency or lack of motivation. Most importantly, it will involve helping people into meaningful employment to help create happy, working families with a new sense of purpose and an active role in society."

Interestingly on her website she talks about helping 100,000 'never-worked' families, but is making a start with a modest 6 that will be carefully chosen and exposed to media attention. Do I sense a bit of self-publicity here in the form of another Ch 4 tv documentary? Whatever, she does have a business to run as well as changing the world.

I guess I might sound a touch cynical or negative about the whole thing. After all as professionals haven't we struggled for years trying to help this same group? This is just the sort of pioneering, experimental, non-bureaucratic, potentially life-changing stuff that I've always wanted to hear in order to prove to the Daily Mail and Inspector Gadjet that people can change if given some positive attention. But the trouble is I've also got this nagging doubt that the whole thing just might be more 'smoke and mirrors' so loved by Tony Blair and his ilk. Exactly how many families are going to be funded? There's no mention of helping re-house people away from sink estates. Or help with kids excluded from school. I hear on Ch 4 News that the Sure Start budget is not ring fenced at all and will be 'discretionary' spending by Local Authorities. If that is true, it's a direct contradiction of what David Cameron said on Friday:-

"That’s why we are not only protecting funding for Sure Start children’s centres, but increasing their focus on the neediest families."

I really do wish I could believe what politicians tell us, but the track record isn't good and I guess we're all a bit 'edgy' at the moment. 

Monday 13 December 2010

Home Visits

It has always been a requirement of any probation order, community order or prison licence to receive home visits from the supervising officer. When I started out such visits were absolutely routine and very much part of the job. In our office the area was divided into 'patches' and it was not uncommon for an officer to be going from address to address on foot well into the evening. I guess more people on our books in those days had jobs and it was the only time to catch them in. Certainly in our part of the world it was not felt to be unusual to have to conduct an interview in front of other family members, friends or clients even from further down the street. The concept of confidentiality had yet to take hold and the probation officer was very much felt to be a trusted part of the community.

As with most aspects of this very strange job, there has always been a degree of folklore attached and I well remember being told of instances where the officer would be so tired during a visit that they'd kick their shoes off and have forty winks. I heard of another officer who would routinely borrow money from his clients whilst doing his rounds and yet another who'd regularly stay for a meal! As the new boy, all this seemed unprofessional to me, but it serves to further illustrate just how much society has changed in a relatively short period of time. In those days officers from the Supplementary Benefit Commission would carry out a home visit in respect of all new claims and even up to the late 1980's, crisis payments from the DHSS were delivered in person by an officer during weekends and Bank Holidays.

Anyone who has had to undertake home visits as part of their work will be well aware of the potential pitfalls and as a consequence develop coping mechanisms. Top of the list, but not far behind dogs, is the filthy household. To be absolutely honest my coping strategy has been to get the visit over asap and have a range of damn good reasons to refuse all offers of refreshment or seat even. It never has ceased to amaze me just how big the gulf is in terms of some people's concept of hygeine and cleanliness. Just talking about it brings back the rank odours and I suspect this sort of issue might be the real reason why such visits have almost completely fallen by the wayside. By the way, over the years I really did see coal kept in a bath and floorboards used on the fire.

Even today, despite the demands of the computer and health and safety issues aside, home visits cannot be ignored and have to be undertaken in high risk cases such as sex offenders and in order to check out addresses for possible parole or curfews. There remain many other good reasons for such visits, not least in trying to find out exactly why somebody has not reported before going to all the bother of warning letters and breach action. Yes I know every client has a mobile phone, but it's amazing how many don't keep the same mobile phone or simcard even. To be honest recording mobile numbers on CRAMS is often useless when you either get a failed connection, or the inevitable "no mate - he sold me this last week."  I still find that a personal visit or a note left does the trick and keeps compliance up. 

Sunday 12 December 2010

Phil Wheatley and G4S - Update

I'm grateful to Mike for pointing me in the direction of these two recent disturbing stories involving G4S. The first involves their recent loss of the contract to forcibly remove foreign nationals from the UK and the second involving the death of an Aboriginal elder in Australia. Clearly in appointing Phil Wheatley they hope to be able to try and repair their damaged reputation and improve their prospects in being able to bid for further public sector work.

Gamekeeper Turns Poacher

The news that Phil Weatley the former Director General of NOMS and who retired barely six months ago is to take up an appointment with the private security firm G4S will not surprise some, but is still shocking in my view. How can it be in any way right that the former top Civil Servant and man privy to all the internal costings of the Prison Service, will now be advising the commercial competition when the next round of prison market testing begins? He will also have detailed inside knowledge in relation to other services due to be contracted out in the Probation Service such as Approved Premises and Unpaid Work.

I might add that as if that wasn't bad enough, in the summer he accepted an invitation to join the board of the St Giles Trust who of course are responsible for running the first Payment by Result project at HMP Peterborough. They are likely to be significant beneficiaries of further government contracts. Am I being naive here, but I always thought that one basic tenet of capitalism was a level playing field?

Interestingly, Mr Wheatley got into a spot of bother last year following a conversation with Harry Fletcher of NAPO when it is reported that he appeared partisan in advising the Union not to attack the government and Jack Straw in particular and warned them that a future Conservative government would be likely to make big cuts.

I even notice here that the jailhouse blogger and friend felt that the reason for his retirement was that 'things would be too uncomfortable if the Tories win the next general election'. Well what a silver lining that particular cloud has delivered for Mr Wheatley!     

Saturday 11 December 2010

In the Clients Best Interest?

During the course of their career, most probation officers will pick up a rudimentary knowledge of the Mental Health Act and in particular the provisions for assessment, compulsory treatment and detention. Many of our clients have mental health problems and generally speaking we are aware of the processes involved under the terms of the Act.

I have written previously about the distinctions to be drawn between mental health and learning disability. In relation to the latter, fairly recently I became involved in a case being supervised by a colleague and in particular the enormous amount of effort that had to be expended in trying to get the Local Authority to make an assessment and agree to assume responsibility for the clients suitable care and accommodation. In the process, what puzzled both of us was the eventual realisation of the clients restriction of liberty and by exactly what mechanism?

All the questions directed at the social worker seemed only to confuse the situation further. My colleague and I were both vaguely aware of the Mental Capacity Act but it wasn't until I became aware of this case on the Law and Lawyers Blog that I fully realised what an Orwellian nightmare seems to have been created:- 

"Stephen Neary is aged 20.  He is autistic.  He lived with his father (Michael) until his father had a serious bout of influenza and was temporarily unable to care for him.  Michael arranged for Stephen to be cared for at a local authority run respite centre for just 3 days.  Stephen had been there before.  The respite centre decided to transfer Stephen to a "Positive Behaviour Unit" alleging that he had committed assaults whilst at the respite centre.  The Unit decided to deprive Stephen of his liberty so that he could be "assessed."  He has been held for almost a year and it is argued that he is not suitable to return home.  It now appears that the local authority has applied to the Court of Protection for "Welfare Deputyship."

There is a disturbing full account of this case on the Anna Racoon blog that would reward reading in order to fully appreciate the frighteningly Kafkaesque world that this Act has created, pretty much unnoticed by the public and many professionals alike. What is becoming apparent is just how complex and non-transparent the whole thing has become and I for one remain very uneasy about the process for appeal, or even review of decisions. It's very uncomfortable indeed to realise that what we felt was in our clients best interest in ensuring that he avoided a custodial sentence, has clearly resulted in the deprivation of his liberty, but via a completely different route. A most unintended and worrying outcome.

Friday 10 December 2010

An Enduring Problem

A recent post on the Magistrates blog about a homeless, mentally disturbed alcoholic man and what society could or should do with him got me reflecting about my probation journey and supposed progress. Over the years many such men have come my way professionally and undoubtedly they continue to pose society a problem. When I started out there were people called 'tramps', but the state at that time had a nationwide network of Reception and Resettlement Centres or 'spikes' that were open 24/7 and accepted men in any condition.

They were run by the Department of Social Security and were the direct descendants of the dreaded Victorian workhouse. They had a dual role of receiving itinerant or workshy men and making attempts at resettling them into independent, useful lifestyles. I vividly remember visiting one in the 1980's and being shown the fully tiled isolation room where the drunk or lice-ridden  were cleaned and sobered up and given fresh clothing before moving on to cubicles in a dormitory. Those able to work were engaged in either making large leather satchels for social workers and capable of holding their A4 notepads or equally bizarrely terrariums, also for social workers or probation officers. I still have one gracing my fireside. By the time the government decided to close them in 1985 there were still 15 dotted around the country. 

The last such facility closed only around 1989, all victims of the growth in political correctness that labelled such places as demeaning and dehumanising, but in the process handily avoided the knotty question of how such people were to be dealt with in the brave new politically-correct world. The sad fact is that there was never adequate replacement provision in either quantity or scope. Some might be tempted to ask if they worked? My answer would be that even if they didn't, wasn't it a rather more humane way to try and deal with such people than the situation we have today? We simply don't have the right facilities anymore and no agency claims any responsibility.   

In the 1970's when the Home Office was known for its pioneering experimental approach to social problems, they funded a Detoxification Centre in Leeds, West Yorkshire. The idea was to divert itinerant drunks from the Criminal Justice System completely and instead offer them a safe place to detoxify before being offered on-going support and accommodation. As an alternative to arrest and a night in the cells, the police could simply give the person a lift to the 'Detox' and hand them over. Sadly research apparently showed it wasn't 'successful' and the idea didn't spread. However Leeds continued to fund the facility for many years and it continues to this day, albeit in a substantially altered form. I would say that the original concept is as valid today as proposed all those years ago.  

I happen to notice that the city of Leeds is recently reported as being proud of a new joint policy between the council and police in dealing with those people found sleeping rough in the city. They're arresting them. I'm surprised they haven't thought of ASBOing them. The man from the council is quoted as saying that "there's places available at the local night shelter and so no excuse for rough sleeping." He clearly knows little about the subject and why that isn't always possible. Or maybe he thinks that some people just choose to sleep outside on damp cardboard in sub-zero temperatures for the hell of it. Many have pet dogs for warmth and unconditional companionship and shelters or hostels do not accept them. Some fear violence and others are barred for one reason or another. I still firmly believe that one measure of a decent humane society is how it chooses to treat such people and arresting them is definitely not it. 

As to helping the Magistrate decide on a suitable disposal for his chap, surely it has to be a probation order? Historically that's what courts have always done with problem offenders and it's what we were set up to do. He needs a mentor, an advocate, a friendly face, a person who understands. Yes I know it doesn't fit neatly into the ethos of the modern day service, but exactly which other organisation's remit does this guy fit? Answer there is none.       

Thursday 9 December 2010

The Revolution Has Started

Ken Clarke promised us a 'rehabilitation revolution' and with his Green Paper published only a week late due to some uneasiness on the part of the Prime Minister, without a doubt penal policy has finally returned to a saner path. At last we have a Justice Secretary willing and able to challenge Michael Howard's ridiculous soundbite 'Prison Works' that unleashed 20 years of punishment inflation, all too-willingly stoked up by Tony Blair's government.  Anyone who doubts why criminal justice policy really shouldn't be part of party political knockabout should have a look at the comments generated by Mary Riddell's article in the Telegraph. 

I happened to be in my usual haunt last night supping several glasses of winter ale and mulling over Ken's ideas with friends. It was pointed out to me that Ken might be doing the right thing, but it was for the wrong reasons. This is all about saving money supposedly, but I'm not so sure. Ken Clarke is pretty liberal by nature and he was an inspirational choice as Justice Secretary. As a seasoned Tory big-hitter, only someone of his stature is going to be able to steer these true penal reforms through Parliament and be able to take on all the reactionary forces they are bound to generate in his own party, the tabloid press and the House of Commons.

My only real dismay is that Ken clearly has no time for the Probation Service and is doggedly sticking to his ideological belief in punishing us for some reason. I feel it is incredibly sad that at the very moment when we have a minister intent on instigating thoughtful policies that accord with much of our historical beliefs and values, we are being marginalised at best and set on the path of destruction at worst.

Interestingly I doubt that these plans will get much opposition in the House of Lords where their Lordships have a long history of being a far more reasoned bunch than their Lower House colleagues. If there is to be any opposition at all it will be over the treatment of the Probation Service as we have considerable support in the Upper House. I repeat what I have said previously. I really do think it is sensible to try and have a dialogue with the Justice Secretary concerning our role in these plans and that does mean the Unions reviewing their blanket opposition to 'Payment by Results'. For goodness sake, look at the bigger picture here and in particular what this Green Paper is proposing in the round.      

Wednesday 8 December 2010

Lessons from History

In the week that the government publishes its Green Paper on sentencing policy and rehabilitation, Monday nights second episode of Ian Hislop's 'Age of the Do-Gooders' on BBC2 made fascinating viewing for several reasons. I was particularly struck by the piece on Mary Carpenter who published a report in 1852 entitled 'Juvenile Delinquents, their Condition and Treatment'  and which contributed to the passing of the Juvenile Offenders Act of 1854.

As with so many Victorian social reformers of the time, she was driven by strong religious faith and a firm belief that child offenders could be reformed by compassionate care and love. She put these beliefs into practice by opening the first Girls Reformatory in Bristol in 1852 and in effect was responsible for ushering in a more enlightened approach towards child offenders that exists to this day. But what the programme made clear was that the path was not easy or straightforward and along the way Mary found it particularly upsetting when certain girls failed to respond to compassionate treatment.

Some 150 years later we find that the issues are pretty much the same. Some children have very poor upbringings that lead into poor life chances and inevitably for some, anti-social behaviour and criminal activity. As I discussed the other day, Frank Field's recent report confirmed all this and stressed just how vital good parenting is. But as Mary found all those years ago, today some child offenders have been so damaged that they remain difficult and challenging for society. Better that they are not damaged in the first place.

The difference nowadays is that, unlike in the age of the reforming pioneers, there no longer seems to be a universal acceptance as to how to treat delinquent children, or indeed what the causes are. I suppose with the general demise of a religious belief in compassion, the public have not been convinced by more recent sociological arguments. We have a vociferous right wing 'punishment' lobby which whole-heartedly supported the 'ASBO' approach, coupled with increases in the use of custody. Happily though, I continue to see signs that the coalition government is intent on returning us to a more intelligent and compassionate approach to the whole subject, even if motivated by the imperative to save money. The 'Age of the Do-Gooders'  would repay viewing on i-player for those interested in the historical background to current penal policy.  

Tuesday 7 December 2010

Saving Money Can Be Expensive

As soon as Justice Secretary Ken Clarke announced his intention to reduce the prison population by some 3,000 and close several prisons, speculation began as to exactly which might be in the firing line. Indeed I have previously stated that two of the oldest, HMP Lancaster and HMP Dartmoor must be prime candidates because of their small size, state of repair and listed status.

In fact according to the latest report from the Independent Monitoring Board at HMP Dartmoor, the harsh weather has continued to wreak havoc on the fabric and conditions are so bad that more wings have been declared uninhabitable. As a consequence the capacity has reduced from 614 to 493. The case for closure is therefore even stronger and the Ministry have made it clear that they would dearly love to close it, but there is a problem because perversely in so doing, it would cost a small fortune.

The reason is that the property does not belong to the government, but is instead rented from the Duchy of Cornwall for a current annual rent of £667,134. As it would appear to be held on a full repairing lease, should the Ministry wish to close the doors, they cannot just hand the keys over and walk away. The property would have to be fully repaired and refurbished before the landlord would accept a surrender of the lease. Clearly all the money in theory 'saved' over the years by deferring repairs is going to end up costing a whole lot more in an expensive refurbishment.

Of course the supreme irony is that far from being a candidate for closure in order to save money, it looks increasingly as if HMP Dartmoor has a bright new future as a fully repaired and modernised prison. To do otherwise and hand it back to a grateful landlord would after all be an astonishing waste of public money. It seems that the local Princetown economy might be spared after all and have the Duchy of Cornwall to thank.

It's highly likely that HMP Lancaster is in the same situation in relation to their landlord, the Duchy of Lancaster. By the way, for readers overseas the beneficiaries of these two ancient Trusts dating from the 13th Century are the heir to the throne and monarch respectively. No doubt each can afford expensive lawyers to ensure that the terms of any lease are fully complied with.


Monday 6 December 2010

Mad or Bad?

The news that Peter Sutcliffe the so-called 'Yorkshire Ripper' is applying to the High Court to have his whole life term rescinded raises many issues, not least that he was found fit to plead in the first place and that the jury did not accept that he was not guilty of murder by virtue of diminished responsibility. I think it was clear to most people that he was in fact suffering from a serious mental illness at the time of the murders, but I guess they were such appalling crimes that there would have been great public alarm had there been no trial or conviction. 

In fact Sutcliffe was diagnosed with a serious mental illness and was transferred to Special Hospital under sections 47 and 49 of the Mental Health Act quite soon after conviction. He has remained detained at Broadmoor ever since. If a Mental Health Review Tribunal ever form the view that he has recovered sufficiently, he will be returned to prison. Although there had been an earlier recommendation for a 30 year tariff, this was subsequently made whole life, no doubt taking into account widespread public concern. It will be interesting to see what Lord Justice Judge and his fellow Justices decide, as it would appear that Sutcliffe does have legitimate grounds to have the tariff set aside because he was clearly mentally ill at the time of the offences. 

I suppose some would say it is all a bit academic because one way or the other it is most unlikely that Sutcliffe would ever be regarded as safe to release either through the MHRT or Parole Board route, but I guess in a democracy with an independent judiciary, how the State deals with such notorious cases is important for all our sakes.   

Sunday 5 December 2010

Iron Fist in the Velvet Glove

Long before Paul Boetang famously declared us to be a Law Enforcement Agency and set us on the path of enforcement and punishment, probation officers already had quite a degree of clout in terms of influencing sentencing and early release, together with initiating breach or recall. There was a high degree of discretion and judgement, but the powers were invariably used sparingly and carefully. But they were used and clients knew what the score was. It was this aspect of the work that basically divided us from our social work colleagues who were often not comfortable about it, although the training had been very similar and the qualification was identical.

I have previously discussed my views on custody and have stated that I have only ever recommended it once, as opposed to recognising incarceration as being inevitable. I have always felt there is a difference that is more than subtle, but more-recently qualified colleagues don't seem to feel the same way and do amazingly recommend custody quite frequently. If memory serves me correctly the latest sentencing statistics issued by the Ministry of Justice record the highest concordance rate for sentence recommendations as 89% - and for custody! I find this an incredible figure and worthy of some explanation surely?

Anyway, about the time I recommended custody. Admittedly it was some years ago, but I remember it well. It was a case of multiple sexual assaults on young boys by a man in his late 60's. By some mechanism this chap had oversight of a derelict industrial property being routinely broken into by young boys. On the pretext of trying to stop this he would detain them inside, put the fear of God into them and abuse them. As it happens several other men were doing the same thing. It was a guilty plea at Crown Court and I was politely advised by the mans barrister to consider a period of probation taking into account his age and health. He had previous convictions for Indecent Assault and some 10 years previously had been placed on probation. I was able to read the file.

The man duly attended at the office for his Social Enquiry Report, with his wife and appeared considerably out of breath, frequently using an inhaler and requesting water with which to take medication. I did not suggest that his wife attend, but decided to proceed with the interview in any event. On this occasion I felt discussing the offences first would be appropriate and his response was to deny committing any and indeed spent much time blaming the 'naughty children'. He stated that he had only pleaded guilty 'because the barrister told him to'.  As a result the interview was terminated and I explained I was not prepared to continue as I believed his plea to be equivocal and I intended to inform the judge. It should be self-evident that no work could be undertaken within the terms of a probation order if the client denied committing the offences. 

Several days later the barrister telephoned me and asked if I would kindly try again as I may have misunderstood his client. I suggested he come alone next time and this was agreed. At the second interview we had a similar bout of breathlessness and pill-taking but I succeeded in dragging out a sort of admission, albeit still with all the blame being put on the boys. He basically said they had lied. So what was I to do with this man? Any report suggesting probation again would be pushing at an open door. His family didn't believe he'd committed any serious sexual assaults, despite the victim statements.

The man himself attempted every form of minimisation and appeared a very poor candidate to face up to his offending. Other men had been involved, but never charged. What had he been doing over the last 10 years? This man, his family and all his friends were just expecting another probation order during which he could 'jog along' arguing the toss with his officer over what had and hadn't happened. He showed not one shred of remorse or concern for the victims. In my view this man had to go to jail even for a few weeks in order to mark the seriousness of the offences and send an unmistakable message to him, his family, his friends and the other perpetrators that were never charged. The judge duly obliged and he got eight weeks. I'm not aware he ever offended again.      

Saturday 4 December 2010

Nature or Nurture?

It's one of the oldest chestnuts around and I've said before that my working hypothesis since university has been basically one of 50/50 because it conveniently means I don't have to give it much thought. Having said that, reading a bit about Frank Fields findings in his recently published report on child poverty makes it very clear that "there is overwhelming evidence that a persons life chances are most heavily predicated on their development in the first five years of life." It goes on to say that "lifes race is determined for poor children before they attend their first day at school."  They are likely to be unable to benefit sufficiently from state education and become part of a new generation of unemployed. By inference, they are more likely to cause society problems as well.

But the report makes clear the equally important point that good parenting is absolutely crucial and far more important than money on its own. I don't think probation officers would be particularly surprised by any of this and possibly it might not be surprising to a large chunk of the public either. The main concern of the report is to try and break the cycle whereby poor children become poor adults and is therefore extremely laudable, but didn't we always know this and it used to be called the 'cycle of deprivation?

To be honest I think this report serves to remind me exactly why I have difficulties with the stance often taken by the likes of the Daily Mail, Inspector Gadjet and the proponents of the ASBO approach to social problems. I have always been amazed at the vilification of many young people, routinely demonised for all sorts of criminal and anti-social behaviour, without taking due account as to exactly what the causation might be. Here we have a report making it clear that people aren't born a particular way, rather we all have to respond to our very different environments. Of course none of us can choose either our parents or our background. Hence the saying 'there but for the Grace of God go I.'

As a society we owe these kids from poor and neglected backgrounds some understanding about their situation when they start causing us problems. More importantly, we owe future generations of kids some much improved prospects. Of course in between these two statements, social workers, YOT workers and probation officers have to try and deal appropriately with the generation that has already been created and do some damage limitation, patching-up and general remedial work on behalf of society. I really do get the feeling that this government might actually be able to initiate some intelligent responses to the seemingly intractable social problems found in numerous parts of our communities beyond just 'ASBOing' people.

I have to admit I haven't read the report beyond the first few pages, but I notice that one proposal is for parenting education to be undertaken in schools up to GCSE level. A great idea as long as the kids aren't excluded from school of course and I do seem to remember that subject being around at my old Secondary Modern. 'Nothing new under the sun' then as the saying goes.     

Friday 3 December 2010

Louise Casey on Unpaid Work

While I was busy on leave the Policy Exchange published their report 'Fitting the Crime : Reforming Community Sentences' and I notice that Louise Casey was the star turn at the launch event. Spouting off as usual she asks if “making costumes for the Notting Hill Carnival, working in a charity shop or making tea for the elderly is a punishment?”  In so doing she yet again demonstrates a significant lack of knowledge about the subject. Single placements for Unpaid Work such as in a charity shop or making and serving meals to the elderly are typically arranged for offenders either with special needs or who are felt to be vulnerable in some way. They are not routine because they are expensive to organise in staff time and the opportunities are obviously very limited. Such a placement is often felt appropriate for a female offender, rather than putting them with a typically all male work group. In my view these are entirely appropriate.

What Louise Casey sadly fails to understand, or is deliberately ignoring, is the enormous benefit that often flows from the interaction between the offender, members of the public and staff in such placements. They can be life-changing scenarios and fit precisely with the original rehabilitative ethos of Community Service. Experience shows that old people in particular are often non-judgemental and enjoy the interaction with the mostly young offenders and this is reciprocated to the benefit of each. Making costumes for the Notting Hill Carnival is an equally imaginative and constructive use of an offenders time in my estimation. Ironically all the examples cited also satisfy the test of being socially useful. Sadly it is precisely because of the inability to tailor more such placements due to financial constraints that Unpaid Work has lost its effectiveness in many ways.

By way of illustration I will cite two recent examples where the operation of Unpaid Work is no longer able to fulfill one of the original key objectives. In the first example a qualified football coach given 100 hours UPW spontaneously offered to undertake that punishment by coaching young offenders. In the old days that sort of thing could and did take place. Common sense says it's a win win scenario. Young offenders get free football coaching and the professional coach is giving something back to society by way of punishment. The whole process is rehabilitative and useful. The second example was a professional manager from industry given 200 hours UPW who again spontaneously offered to prepare and write up full risk assessment manuals for all our UPW placements. Unorthodox yes, but we used to do such things. Sadly, stifling bureaucracy and this ridiculous emphasis on only the punishment side of things mean such flexibility and innovation is impossible. 

Regrettably it seems that Louise Casey is really all about soundbites and not substance. She simply is not able to understand that the 'chain gang' punishment approach to UPW might play well in the Daily Mail but is a very unsophisticated way of attempting to change someones behaviour. In fact it will lead to all sorts of problems connected to supervision and breach. Above all else society wants an offender to stop offending as part of any court disposal. If used intelligently and adequately funded, UPW can help to do that,  but it has to be tailored to the individual and that costs a bit more in the short term. For some offenders, a work gang approach with heavy labour say clearing canal towpaths will be just the job, but a 'one size fits all' punishment approach will not work and will not help rehabilitate.