Monday 28 February 2011

Cautionary Tale 3

From time to time it's not unheard of for the workload to increase to such an extent that help has to be summoned from neighbouring offices. It was just such a situation a few years ago that found me visiting a young black guy on remand in order to prepare a PSR for Crown Court. Living as he did in the big multi-cultural city it gave me the rare opportunity of getting involved with someone from a very different culture and background to my usual overwhelmingly white clientele. As such I recall vividly being somewhat more tense than usual when approaching the prison gates, I suppose just because of all the accumulated race awareness training that up till that point had been mostly of academic interest only.

The guy was in his early twenties, physically large and fit looking with a broad smile. He was facing serious charges of possession with intent to supply heroin for the third time and as such was looking at an extended sentence of up to seven years. The interview proved to be one of the most difficult I have ever encountered. No matter how I seemed to approach the questioning I didn't seem to get any answers that made a great deal of sense. It was difficult to hear him despite us being in a semi-enclosed glass booth, but amid the loud din of family visits taking place in the adjacent visits area. He seemed to be constantly distracted and alternately 'laid back.' I remember concluding the interview and driving home thinking it had been a disaster and that the cultural challenges being posed by this case were simply too much for me too deal with. I was quite depressed by this and mulled it over for most of the evening and indeed till I got back to the office in the morning.

A forensic examination of the file and a telephone call to another officer who had previously supervised the young man elucidated the astonishing statement 'well you know he's got a learning disability don't you?' Suddenly all became much clearer. Here was a young guy who was attempting to survive in a very big bad world by trying to hide his disability and just appearing to be more cool and laid back than most. He probably hadn't understood anything I had been discussing with him and I'd been so tense and thick that I hadn't spotted his disability.

A further reading of the file also made clear the nature of his offending. He was being regularly and cynically used by the local drug barons who knew all too well the nature of his disability and simply manipulated him into standing on the street corner to hand out bags of powder to anyone who approached with ten pounds.

Clearly this was not going to be a simple PSR after all. To cut a very long story short, I managed to convince the Court of the need for a full psychological assessment that concluded that this guy's disability effectively meant that he could be persuaded to do anything and he did not have the intellectual capacity to understand the possible consequences. It was one of the saddest reports I've ever read as it didn't take a lot of imagination to see what kind of future lay ahead for this guy, and indeed what kind of a life he had experienced to date being the 'patsy' to all and sundry in return for what he felt was friendship. 

It was immensely satisfying that on the day of eventual sentence the judge agreed to take verbal evidence from myself and a worker from a learning disability advocacy project. He not only resisted the prosecution application for an extended custodial sentence but instead imposed the maximum period of probation supervision of three years and endorsed a condition of residence at a probation hostel. All a very satisfying end to a challenging case I felt, but of course only the beginning of some very hard work for the officer who eventually got to supervise the order.

I'd really love to say that this story had a happy ending, but it doesn't. A sneaky look at CRAMS some time later showed that the guy had been excluded from the hostel for possession of cannabis, had returned to his old haunts and is currently serving that seven years we so successfully managed to avoid him getting. Clearly there's much to learn from this, not least how heartless and callous some criminally-inclined people are and what a devastating handicap a learning disability can be. It also begs the question as to how somebody can reach the age of 23, have a major learning disability and there be no definitive assessment and diagnosis until a probation officer requests one.      

Sunday 27 February 2011


Probation officers do come into contact with barristers on occasion, or possibly more correctly they used to in my experience. I have previously written about the fact that officers seem to rarely attend court nowadays which is a shame because it can make a difference for the client. Especially if you've been involved with them for a number of years it's quite likely that you will know more about them than anyone else in the court process, or possibly you've just had plenty of time to absorb the details of the case unlike the poor 'brief' starring in this new Tuesday evening drama series 'Silk' on BBC1.  

I've lost count of the number of times over the years that clients have reported only having met their barrister at court on the morning of the supposed trial, only to be informed that 'they haven't got a cat in hells chance' and it would definitely be in their best interests to plead guilty that day, especially as it's a lenient judge. Some go as far as to suggest what the judge is likely to hand down. This is pretty much what happens to the drug 'mule' in the opening episode of 'Silk' and the barristers lack of knowledge about the case is something I've certainly come across before. 

It's also true that changes of plea on the day means there is no probation report available and as in this instance, the judge often sees no purpose in adjourning for a report before moving to sentence. For some reason it seems to be assumed that a report is pointless as custody is inevitable, but further down the line this is invariably shown to be a mistake, for example when the offender denies responsibility and says 'I only pleaded guilty because my brief told me to.' This does nothing to assist with attempts at changing behaviour, attitudes or rehabilitation. Of course in this case a report would have given an opportunity for the judge to be informed of revelations not able to be used in mitigation by the defence barrister either because of inadequate instructions or due to sloppiness. I guess this will change with the growth in the use of Solicitor Advocates instead.  

Court scenes when portrayed on the small screen are notorious in my view for procedural inaccuracies and often don't ring true in my experience, but apart from some suspect exchanges with the judge before the jury is sworn-in on the aggravated burglary case, I think it seemed pretty believable. For some time I've felt that much of what goes on at Crown Court is viewed as a 'game' by many barristers and it remains to be seen if this somewhat cynical view will be reinforced by this series or not. I'm going to be very interested in what clients make of it.   

Saturday 26 February 2011

More on PSR's

The starting point for virtually all our work with clients is at the stage of a request for a Pre Sentence Report from either the Magistrates or Crown Court. There will have either been a guilty plea or finding of guilt and before passing sentence the court feels that more information about the defendant would be appropriate. The days have long gone when we routinely prepared reports for Crown on not guilty pleas.

As I have previously bemoaned, the PSR situation has changed dramatically in recent years with the introduction of so called Fast Delivery Reports prepared by unqualified Probation Services Officers, together with the introduction of OASys which computer-generates reports from data input in the form of answers to questions. Nevertheless, the PSR or Standard Delivery Report as it is now termed, even in it's current debased format, is still a key part of the Criminal Justice System in ensuring fair outcomes and the laying of sound foundations for rehabilitation. 

At the PSR interview stage the probation officer will be gaining as much information about the person as possible, making assessments about the reasons for their offending, identifying areas where they might require guidance or practical assistance and begin to develop a plan of action in order to assist rehabilitation and hopefully an end to offending. All this in addition to being mindful of the requirement to address the need for punishment. To me this has always been one of the best bits of the job. Identifying what's wrong, what needs doing and how it can be sorted, all explained in about three pages of A4. If done properly, not only will the sentencing bench go along with it because it makes eminent sense, but it sets out neatly to any subsequent colleague who might pick up the case what needs doing and why.

As a result of skilfull and attentive interviewing, it's not unknown for significant issues to be picked up at this stage for the very first time. Two that spring immediately to mind are a history of sexual abuse or an unrecognised learning disability. In the case of the former understandably victims will have buried painful experiences very deep and disclosure may not surface until years later and when dysfunctional behaviours are played out in the form of some form of criminal activity. In the case of the latter, incredibly a significant number of people in my experience get to early adulthood without a learning disability being properly diagnosed. In both circumstances I feel it is important to bring the information to the attention of the court before sentence is passed, and sometimes with a request for a specialist report from a clinical psychologist. 

To be honest, even as I write this I realise that many colleagues are simply not prepared to stick their neck out at PSR stage and risk going back to the court either with a Nil Report or full report recommending further adjournment for a specialist report. I can understand why because the whole system is now geared up for speed and supposed efficiency, but I need to point out that it is only at this pre-sentence stage that a specialist report and diagnosis can be obtained. It is the only point at which funding is available and it will be appreciated that it is only when there has been a definitive diagnosis that appropriate treatment can be identified or even arranged as part of any plan for rehabilitation. 

I have often been told that cost is a factor. Clinical Psychology reports are not cheap and significantly more expensive than Psychiatric Reports. But is it not worth society spending the money at this stage in getting to really understand what lies behind a persons offending and identify a route for treatment, than paying much more further down the line in terms of more offending and costly incarceration? Research continually shows how many people are in prison with either mental health issues, learning disability or psychological damage. It's at the PSR stage that these can be identified by skilled probation officers and who sometimes request specialist reports as a result. Can I make a plea to sentencers for such rare suggestions to be heeded, as potentially they could be hugely beneficial to us all in the long term. Thanks. 

Thursday 24 February 2011

What's the Answer?

We know what the problem is. Communities up and down the country typically in de-industrialised areas that are suffering second and third generation structural unemployment as a result. Not surprisingly this has led to significant social problems such as drug and alcohol dependency, low academic achievement, anti-social behaviour and criminal activity.

Recent government reports confirm that a childs future is decided even before they set foot in a school, thus identifying that resources should be targetted at each child from a disadvantaged background as early as possible. However, in a period of financial constraint it remains to be seen if the coalition governments aspirations in this regard will be translated into effective delivery or not. I'm sure it's right, but not the whole answer and it will take time of course and will do nothing for the current 'lost' generation. It sort of reminds me of the idealism behind the introduction of the National Health Service and Welfare State post Second World War. We would now say it was naive to believe that 'free' medical care for everyone as part of the drive against the 'five great evils' would lead to a healthier nation and as a consequence lessening demands on the NHS. 

Funnily enough I think the answer might be connected to that much discussed, misunderstood and maligned Cameronian notion 'The Big Society.' Seeing as nobody seems to know what it means I might as well take a stab at an explanation. I think the answer we seek in doing something about our failing communities is as much about broadening peoples horizons as anything. Of course a degree of financial and physical security is important as indeed is basic numeracy and literacy, but I think what's really missing is exposure to a variety of positive experiences and opportunities that will stimulate a young person, broaden their horizons and help tease out their latent qualities. 

But hang on a minute, this is what schools are supposed to do isn't it? The trouble is they seem utterly fettered by the National Curriculum and other such bureaucratic nonsense that only serves to stifle innovation and flair. As a result the kids I'm talking about just give up at about age 13 and cause enough trouble to get permanently excluded. Of course there's no longer the escape route offered by scholarships to Grammar School for bright kids. What happened to the dynamic and innovative Detached Youth Service specifically designed to engage with disengaged kids? Went the same way as the buildings I suspect. In my town two centres built in the 1950's and 60's with donations from the public have been squandered by a disinterested Local Authority. There used to be boxing clubs, but of course they went as a result of political correctness as much as anything and good old fashioned church-based Scouting seems to have become the preserve of the middle classes only.

All these facilities and services and many more too numerous to mention used to provide avenues and opportunities for young people to learn and develop - to be inspired. Just two classic films spring to mind that serve to illustrate how positive experiences change lives, 'Kes' and 'Billy Elliot'. There are others like 'Brassed Off' or 'The Full Monty'' that demonstrate that in many ways it doesn't matter what the vehicle is, or for what age group - there just has to be something - an external stimulus that inspires and broadens horizons. But there has to be a structure and there has to be a catalyst, almost certainly a motivated individual or group. The trouble is for all sorts of reasons these people are few and far between and sadly getting less in my experience. Isn't the 'Big Society' about this sort of stuff? - (but due to bureaucratised as 'Community Champions' - yuck!)

Anyone who has watched any of the 'Secret Millionaire' programmes on channel 4 will know what I'm talking about. I find this to be genuinely gripping, potentially risky documentary-style tv at its best. Despite the gloomy picture I've painted, I'm always uplifted by the gems of voluntary groups and inspirational people that get discovered in each episode, doing fantastic work in disadvantaged communities, typically on a shoe-string. Just imagine what a bit of secure funding could achieve if harnessed to the whole 'Big Society' idea. 

I've just realised I haven't mentioned the probation service once. We used to be part of everything I've mentioned above because we used to be part of communities and used to be innovative. But now we just try and prevent re-offending from edge of town mega factories. It's a shame the 'Big Society' got invented too late for us.   


Tuesday 22 February 2011

Be Lucky

I've been a member of a small discussion forum for many years. We are a very strange idiosyncratic bunch of mostly mature academics who meet monthly to chew over absolutely any topic known to man. Being non-academic, I've never quite understood how I came to be recruited in the first place nor how I've stayed the course, but I think part of my role is to inject either a bit of healthy scepticism or humour at the appropriate time. Anyway the topic this month was 'coincidences and fate'.

As is quite usual we were straying well off the main thread after an hour or so and found ourselves discussing the notion of 'luck'. I remarked that probation clients were invariably unlucky in my experience. They never seemed to be lucky in anything including education, housing, health, relationships or employment. But even as I was speaking I realised that of course it really boils down to the accident of birth. In an ideal world one has to choose ones parents carefully. I'm pretty sure all the research supports the notion that being born in a disadvantaged environment means you are most unlikely to be lucky in life. 

All this came flooding back to me when a week later in the pub someone raised a recent news story about three young men in their early twenties who had been arrested and charged with the murder of another. The question posed was 'what could have led to a situation like that?'  Here are four young people whose lives have seemingly been comprehensively ruined - one is dead and the other three possibly destined to spend many of their best years degenerating behind bars - but why?

I have no personal knowledge of this case and yet I feel I could make a stab at writing their Post Life Sentence reports without ever having met them. Of course this is extremely sad. They will have come from a small post industrialised town suffering significant second and third generation unemployment. They will never have worked and probably know very few who have. They will have 'left' school at 13 or 14 and will be used to spending much of their late waking hours hanging around aimlessly, smoking dope and drinking crap but cheap lager with each other. Their geographical horizons will be as narrow as it's possible to imagine, indeed their trip to Crown Court for trial may be the first time they will have travelled any considerable distance at all. But this will be nothing compared to their limited emotional, intellectual and spiritual horizons.

Of course none of this in any way excuses their behaviour in allegedly organising an assault leading to someones death over what will invariably turn out to have been a fairly trivial matter.  But for me it does serve yet again to act as a graphic reminder as to the huge disparity in peoples lives and experiences and how basically unfair that is. This is exactly why I thought agencies like the probation service were set up in the first place - to try and make a difference.   

Monday 21 February 2011

Blue Sky Thinking

In my presently depressed state of mind about the future of probation, I came across a reference to an organisation I've never heard of before called Blue Sky. They are a social enterprise company set up a few years ago basically to give real employment to offenders in the field of landscape maintenance. An excellent idea of course and a real boon for any hard pressed probation officer where they operate trying to get work for their clients in these straightened times.

Of course we've known for years the blindingly obvious fact that provision of employment can have a dramatic effect on a persons likelihood of reoffending. Given this and the coalition governments stated intention of contracting out state-funded services, I suppose it's not really that surprising that they are apparently one of David Camerons favourite charities and no doubt set to prosper as a result. I don't wish in any way to be churlish, but I find I can't help but reflect on certain ironies of the situation. Firstly that Blue Sky have benefitted significantly from money provided by the New Jobs Fund which of course is being scrapped by the new government who have consistently described it as 'inefficient and not cost-effective'

Secondly, that for every Blue Sky employee taken on to provide landscape services to a local authority, one full time pensionable employee will lose their job. Now I don't have a particular problem with such a policy, intended as it is to reduce costs, because at least offenders get a chance to do the work as opposed to the likes of Mitie or Capita. But we all need to understand what's happening and that it won't really save public money at all, but rather just shift it around under another heading like Redundancy Payments, Job Seekers Allowance, Family Tax Credits etc. etc. 

I notice that Blue Sky is one of 18 partner agencies involved in the London Probation Trusts PIANO initiative costing a staggering £7.2million over just short of two years. Despite the somewhat naff title, Providing Innovative And New Opportunities nevertheless is undoubtedly part of the way forward in trying to reduce reoffending rates. I just hope the government realises that it can't come cheap.    


Sunday 20 February 2011

A Different Viewpoint

I am grateful to The Justice of the Peace (Magistrates) Blog for stirring me out of my temporary silence by this piece about a recently reported case in Exeter. Before proceeding it is necessary to issue the usual health warning that commenting on cases without full knowledge is a risky business and is precisely why society must have confidence in its sentencers to do the right thing, because they alone are in possession of all the facts.

It is not unusual for a probation officer to be faced with preparing a PSR in respect of a new offence when the defendant is already subject of a Suspended Sentence Order. On the face of it and looked at from the PO's point of view it represents quite a challenge if the court is to be persuaded not to simply activate the suspended term of imprisonment and add a bit more in respect of the new offence. So, how would I approach this task? 

Firstly I would make the point that I feel it was a mistake to give the Magistrates Court the power to impose Suspended Sentences in the first place. This used to be restricted to the Crown Court only and as such in my view carried much greater weight when handed down. They were quite rare sentences and were often combined with Supervision Orders. It was not unusual for any breach to be reserved to the sentencing Judge who sometimes requested progress reports along the way. I guess what I am saying is that in essence the sentence has been somewhat devalued since it became more widely used. 

In this case we are not told if the new offence was similar to that for which the suspended sentence was made. This is relevant in my view and we are not told if there was a full PSR prepared or not. My assumption would be that there was and if so the author would have gone to some lengths to stress the change in personal circumstances. The issues of taking responsibility for the partners child, gaining employment and the impending arrival of a new baby would all be worthy of highlighting in my view.

Clearly imprisonment would be extremely detrimental in this situation and achieve absolutely nothing in terms of assisting rehabilitation, which after all is one of the key aims of the whole justice process. All probation officers know full well that finding a partner is often the turning point for many young offenders, as indeed is the normal maturing process. This young man was 19 and many in his situation simply stop offending around this age.

Of course the other aim of the process is punishment and in this case the offender was made subject of a curfew, 40 hours UPW, a compensation order and court costs all in addition to a further period of imprisonment suspended. I would like to think that this would have been broadly my recommendation in a PSR and I would have attended court in person to support it. Based on limited information, I think it was the right outcome and I'd hazard a guess it might indeed prove to be the turning point for this young man. For me it once more highlights the vital importance of full Pre Sentence Reports being prepared by qualified probation officers.

Tuesday 15 February 2011

Why the Silence?

Regular readers will have noticed a break in transmission for over a week and without prior warning. This has been due to a combination of factors. As is sometimes bound to happen, real life gets in the way, my store of prepared posts had been used up and there didn't seem to be anything I had a burning desire to say. I was also struck by a readers very complimentary remark that I should not feel compelled to post daily. Whoever it was, I thank them warmly for the observation, particularly as I was staggered to see from a recent wordcount that I've bashed out 93,000 since last August. 

Of course there is always a danger that I might not have anything further to say. All the pent up frustration and irritation seems to have been mostly dispelled and calmer resignation is possibly the best way to describe my current state of thinking. I somehow doubt this is the end though as I find writing to be so therapeutic and enjoyable. I think I'm cured of the self-imposed and illogical urge to post daily and intend to take a little longer to reflect a bit, recharge the batteries and generally review where I think I'm 'at' as they say. So again, I thank readers for their kind words of support and I fully intend to be back shortly.   


Sunday 6 February 2011

Good or Bad News?

It's a strange world we live in. When I posted a piece about my prescription for an improved probation service, I included this at number 2 of a list of priorities:-  

'There must be a move towards returning discretion and judgement to probation staff in how they manage cases. Basically we need to roll back on rigid standards and performance targets in order to encourage innovation once more.' 

What I didn't know was that at about the same time the probation minister Crispin Blunt had been speaking to the Criminal Justice Alliance and made a significant announcement about "Reduced targets to give frontline flexibility".

"I have often heard from frontline professionals that we need to make changes to our performance system, reducing the many targets that they have to meet and report on. I have been keen to address their concerns. I am therefore pleased to announce that we are able to reduce the number of targets for both prison and probation by around 40 per cent from 2011-12. These changes will allow frontline professionals to focus more of their time on key priorities, and allow them to respond to the challenges that face them locally."  

NOMS Chief Executive Michael Spurr said "This is a significant step towards a more outcome focused approach with more local flexibility for professionals to determine how best to allocate resources to achieve results."

To be fair I think this was trailed at the Scarborough NAPO AGM when Crispin was given the 'ironic' standing ovation, but now it seems it's definite and he is going to deliver. We can all breath a sigh of relief that at long last the government has seen the light and is going to start lifting the shackles of bureaucracy and allow us greater discretion. There is light at the end of the tunnel after all and things are going to get better. Possibly we could even claim a bit of a  victory for common sense even?

Unfortunately not I'm afraid. Just when it looked like we had been given reason to cheer up, realisation dawns that this is merely a prelude, a pre-condition even for significant parts of the service to be tendered out. It looks as if the big boys like SERCO and G4S have made it plain to government that all that performance target nonsense will have to be slimmed down in order for them to be interested in bidding for the work at all. This has all been the subject of some lively discussion on the re-vitalised NAPO discussion board and I would urge members and others even with an interest in the subject to take a look here.

Saturday 5 February 2011

The Lock Up

Anyone interested in knowing something about a significant group of clients that form much of the bread and butter work of the probation service in modern Britain would do well to tune into BBC 3 on Friday evenings over the next seven weeks. Apparently the production team spent 12 months filming for 'The Lock Up' in the custody suite of Humberside Police at Priory Street in Hull and have put together eight episodes of what I assume they would regard as 'the best bits'. 

Yet again one has to be nothing but impressed by how professionally the custody staff deal with extremely challenging behaviour by some of the most damaged, intoxicated or drug-affected people you could imagine. These sort of programmes always leave me wondering about what was left out though either because it was so boring, although that seems unlikely from my limited experience of custody areas, or because people refused permission to show the footage. I mean surely some people must refuse to give permission when they are clear-headed and confronted with the tv images showing what a complete arse they've been? Do they really want their family and friends to see them acting like knobs? Or is it a rather clever piece of attempted behaviour-modification? A feed-back loop designed to shame people into change? It might work I suppose. 

I must admit that I found myself mentally running through the PSR I might be attempting to write for court in a couple of cases and speculating on likely elements in certain people's life histories. It's a sad fact that so many damaged people we see have similar features in their early developmental histories and I suspect many characters that are going to appear over the coming weeks will be no different.

So what are we to do with these people so that they stop causing society and themselves endless trouble and heartache? Well not give them Community Service I think. To put it bluntly, handing down such a disposal when someone is struggling with either a significant drug or alcohol problem makes no sense to me. Compliance is most unlikely and I wondered what on earth the FDR at court or full PSR had suggested? Surely they weren't sentenced without? 


Friday 4 February 2011

How Wonderfully Ironic

If nothing else our politicians have a brilliant sense of timing. In the very week that a report is published into how our Social Workers are unable to fulfill the vital function of protecting children because of bureaucracy, MP's are absolutely scathing about their own bureaucracy. I've just watched a few of them being interviewed on Channel 4 news saying they are outraged at having their time wasted by bureaucracy. Now it's not that often that I laugh out loud and shout at the television, but this is absolutely terrific news as far as I'm concerned. After all it's not that often that as a mere citizen you feel you can get 'one over' on our usually smug politicians and shout out loud 'I have absolutely no sympathy whatsoever!'  In fact I'm inclined to say 'welcome to the real world' - indeed the world you've created because you make the damned laws!

Just how long is it that police officers, probation officers, social workers, teachers - well the list goes on - have complained endlessly about bureaucracy? About how it is such a senseless waste of time and effort and how it saps our energy and makes us lose the will to live sometimes?  With impeccable timing Inspector Gadjet gives a graphic example of form filling in his recent post here. I suspect anyone in any profession could do similar. It gets us very angry, indeed just like a lot of MP's appear to be getting.

How sweet it is though coming after the Freedom of Information Act eventually turned round and bit them on the backside over expenses they had hoped to keep secret. They are even having to pay the near going-rate for food and drink in the Palace of Westminster long after subsidised canteens were removed from the rest of us. And now the final insult, they can't get their expenses because they have invented such a wonderfully bureaucratic payment  system. There's only 650 of them for goodness sake and paying expenses strikes me as a pretty straightforward process that would be familiar to all of us in paid public service. But they set up a new super-quango IPSA complete with plush Westminster offices, fat salaries, an impenetrable set of guidelines and lengthy application form, just to process their expenses. I think I heard running costs alone are £2.5million. 

I'm going to suggest that all our elected representatives should calm down and take a little time to reflect on this somewhat ironic situation. I want to hear the sound of humble pie being eaten. I want to hear them say sorry. I want to hear them promise to lift the bureaucracy that strangles all the rest of us on a daily basis. Only then am I prepared to be the least bit sympathetic to the sorry self-inflicted plight they currently find themselves in. I apologise for the rant, but I feel better already.  

Thursday 3 February 2011

A Big Mistake

I'm sure it will not come as any great surprise that many probation clients have serious financial problems. Despite the widespread misconception that a comfortable lifestyle can be enjoyed on benefit, the reality for many long term claimants is a steady downward spiral into debt. These are the people who have to resort to so-called 'doorstep lending' at astronomical rates of interest. By a cruel twist of the way consumerism works, it's a well established fact that virtually every basic necessity of life, from energy to food is proportionally more expensive for this group as well. Trying to budget sensibly on very limited fixed incomes is difficult at the best of times and many of our clients are not always the best of decision makers in the first place. 

All this inevitably means that for offenders trying to change their behaviour, help and advice about debt problems is essential. All probation officers try to offer sound advice on a whole host of issues, but in my experience the local Citizens Advice Bureau has proved an absolutely vital service to clients over the years. Able to offer free support and expert guidance not just in relation to finances, but also many other issues such as housing, benefit and employment problems, I cannot believe that any government would allow its funding to be jeopardised. But, hard on the heels of the news that core funding for debt advisers has been cancelled, with CAB having to make many redundant, we now hear that Local Authorities intend to reduce their funding as well. Incredibly it looks as if all the bureau's in Birmingham will close for instance.

We all know that savings have to be made somewhere, but decimating the CAB service, staffed as it is mainly by volunteers, seems to fly in the face of all common sense. It will hit the poorest hardest; demand for their service is likely to increase; it will do nothing to aid the rehabilitation of offenders with debt problems and of course sends out entirely the wrong signal in relation to the governments aspiration for a 'Big Society.'

Wednesday 2 February 2011

More Questions than Answers 3

Here's yet another batch of questions and issues thrown up by people on internet search engines and who eventually end up on this blog. I try to weed out enquires that are clearly relating to jurisdictions other than England and Wales.  I have no knowledge as to how probation might operate in other countries, including Scotland and Northern Ireland.

One of the big surprises since blogging has been the number of questions from clients and friends and family of clients.

How much custody could I get for 6 breaches of probation?

I am assuming that the breaches are failed appointments, although it seems a high number to prosecute on. Assuming there are guilty pleas, custody is not automatic for breach. It will really depend on the explanation. It is always worth telling the supervising officer as much information as possible because it should all be discussed in the breach report prepared for court. In essence custody is really only likely if a client decides to deliberately ignore the court order or has 'given up' for some reason. If they are so consumed by a desire to 'self destruct' then an alternative to custody is made very difficult or impossible. Some clients do reach the point where they would rather go to prison and come out with a 'clean slate'.

What assessments do probation officers give?

Probation officers are used to making assessments all the time and in relation to many different issues and questions. An important example concerns risk. Is this person a risk? How high a risk? A risk of what and to whom? Are they at risk of suicide or self harm? Other examples might be about reading or writing, or the ability to make decisions, or take responsibility. If they are in prison the assessment might be about possible Home Leave, or a Town Visit, whether escorted or unescorted? Whether someone is safe and ready for possible release from prison on Parole Licence? Really much of the job of a probation officer is about making assessments. 

What can defence do about negative PSR?

A very good question indeed. It really does depend on the quality of the report and in particular the explanation as to why it will be perceived as 'negative.' In order to be any use a PSR has to be 'balanced.' It can't all be negative in my view although sadly during my time as a Court Duty Officer I did see some that had nothing positive to say about someone. Solicitors can and do now criticise reports in open court and I'm embarrassed to say often with good reason. If the sentencing bench are unhappy as well, in extreme cases they can request a fresh report, or possibly some enquiries to be made on the day by the probation CDO. In the end a PSR is only offering advice and the sentencing bench are free to completely ignore it.

Is it hard to be a probation officer?

It didn't used to be in my view. Stressful yes and intellectually challenging, but the current demands of the computer, micro-management and bureaucracy all conspire to make it virtually impossible I'm afraid without affecting an officers health significantly. On the other hand it is still potentially one of the most rewarding jobs I know of.

Probation officers involved in assaults

In my entire career I have only ever heard of one officer that was held hostage for a period in a prison and that was over 20 years ago. I have never heard of an officer being assaulted. Threatened yes, but not assaulted.

Does probation usually go full term?

Another very good question. The answer is that any order can be discharged early for good progress on application to the Supervising Court, but not normally until at least the half way point. This is very good practice and reinforces the message that changed or good behaviour will be rewarded. Management are very keen on early discharges so that the hapless officer can get another difficult case in its place. However, for the officers sanity it's always a sensible idea to keep some 'good news' cases just ticking along.

Cannot use computer due to probation

This may be a reference to either a condition attached to a Licence or Community Order on the advice of the Probation Officer and due to the nature of the offending.

Does anybody else get nervous seeing their probation officer?

I'd be interested to hear answers to this one. Certainly in my experience some people can be annoyed, stressed, fearful, confused or worried.

How do I change probation officer?

A request to change a supervising officer should be put in writing to their line manager, normally the Senior Probation Officer or Team Leader. The manager may well wish to arrange a meeting in order to discuss the reasons for requesting a change and in order to help them decide if the reasons are justified. If a client is not happy with the decision the matter can be taken further to a more senior manager, or through the official complaints procedure.

How serious is probation?

A person can be made subject to probation supervision for all sorts of offences ranging from theft to exceptionally manslaughter and for any period up to three years. It is the offence or offences that would really determine how 'serious' the sentence would be regarded.  

Can probation officer come to work?

Generally speaking there would normally be no reason to visit a clients workplace. Having said that it just might be necessary for example to check on details particularly in relation to certain types of employment that would be precluded due to the type of offending.

Probation and impact on job

There should be no impact on employment at all. Many clients are employed whilst under supervision and the probation service would not normally have need to speak to an employer. There are always exceptions however and one might be in relation to the protection of children. Certain types of offence would prevent an offender working in certain locations or positions where children were present.

Can't make it to probation appointments because of my job

Well in my experience probation officers can be very flexible about reporting requirements around employment, for example by making appointments in the evening. The important thing is to keep the officer informed. If employment involves working away from home, that is more difficult especially since the old tried and tested solution of requesting another office to 'caretake' has been discontinued. If reporting really is impossible, there is no alternative but a return to court for discharge on the grounds of impracticality. This will mean being re-sentenced though. 

Tuesday 1 February 2011

My Prescription

Some weeks ago I wrote a particularly bleak piece outlining 10 reasons why I felt probation was 'finished'. It attracted a couple of comments basically agreeing the hypothesis, but also a challenge to come up with an alternative prescription for an improved service. In all honesty I'd rather be optimistic and constructive so in that spirit, here is my personal prescription for a new look Probation Service able to make the most of suggestions contained in the recent government Green Paper.

  1. In a period of government spending reductions, it's vital that each Trust re-evaluates the allocation of resources with possibly a reduction in accredited programme provision in favour of more individual casework. With hindsight too much was invested in the former at the expense of the latter.
  2. There must be a move towards returning discretion and judgement to probation staff in how they manage cases. Basically we need to roll back on rigid standards and performance targets in order to encourage innovation once more. 
  3. The probation unions need to come up with a sensible response to the idea of Payment by Results beyond mere condemnation.
  4. Each Probation Trust needs to actively review any office closure plans and re balance resources between Head Office and field teams. There is a general feeling that Head Office bureaucracy has mushroomed at the very time the service has all but retreated from the communities we are supposed to be serving.
  5. A slimmed down NOMS must establish a clear and distinct Probation identity and in particular a national champion or spokesperson for the Service. There is a distinct difference, ethos and role between probation and the prison service and this must be acknowledged.
  6. There is an urgent need to seek a simpler replacement for the unwieldy and ineffective OASys offender assessment programme. It is simply not fit for purpose and counter-productive in being able to deliver quality assessments.
  7. We need to halt the current trend of replacing SDR's with FDR's, especially at Crown Court. It is vital to re-establish the full Standard Delivery Report as a professional sentencing document prepared by qualified probation officers. 
  8. The role boundaries and responsibilities between Probation Services Officers and Probation Officers is becoming increasingly blurred and there is an urgent need to clarify which tasks are appropriate for each grade.
  9. It is vital that each Probation Trust enters into strategic partnerships with third sector groups in order to bid for work that the MoJ insists must be tendered out.
  10. At a time of budgetary restraints, the whole Service needs to recruit, train and utilise a significant number of volunteers and in particular try to re-engage those disillusioned colleagues who retired early. 
What have I missed? Any other ideas out there?