Thursday 31 March 2011

What Do We Do With Billy?

The 'Billy' in question stars in a recent post by Inspector Gadjet. Although he lives on the Swamp Estate in Ruraltown, I certainly recognise him and so I suspect do most probation officers. We're not told how old he is, but he still seems to live at home with his mum and he is the father of a daughter. I'm sure he turned up recently in episode 7 of the BBC three fly-on-the-wall documentary series 'The Lock Up' filmed at Hull custody suite. He was the small irritating young guy going on about 'needing to get out to see his bairn'.

'Billy' has 100 previous convictions and has just been arrested on suspicion of nicking a minibus FFS. I don't know about you, but I put that kind of offence in the juvenile pain-in-the-backside sort of category. What on earth might the motive be? Perhaps he wanted to spare his legs walking home? He was no doubt bored and it was opportunistic. He's obviously not very sophisticated because DNA left at the scene eventually took the police to his mothers door. He cooperated fully and we are told even volunteered the location of the DVD player taken from the dashboard.

According to Inspector Gadjet's thesis 'Billy' should be locked up for very long periods of time basically for being a pain-in-the-backside. I have a degree of sympathy because I'm sure it was 'Billy' who had a go at breaking into my car last year. First he smashed a window to try and get the door open, then left a spot of blood behind whilst trying to bend the top of the door and get his hand inside. He eventually discovered that my make of car has dead-locked doors and even if he had got in, being a SAAB the gear stick is locked into reverse. All very inept, annoying and ultimately pointless. Hopefully his eventual arrest will serve to remind him that he's not a very successful car thief and he either needs to get better or pack it in.

Of course 'Billy'  is the product of his environment. He grew up in a community probably suffering second and third generation unemployment as all the unskilled jobs went ages ago. He will have failed at school and was probably excluded at about age 13, whereupon he started smoking and drinking cheap alcohol in earnest on the streets with all his similarly-excluded mates. Any youth provision will have closed ages ago and his drift into regular irritating crime and anti-social behaviour will have started. His offending history may well have been enhanced by being made subject of an ASBO and possibly even by elevation to PPO status where he would have been the beneficiary of a 'premium service'  that ensured even quicker arrest.
Thankfully this 'Billy' doesn't seem to have got onto heroin.

So, what are we to do with 'Billy'? Well fortunately evidence and experience shows that he will eventually grow out of it. Even he will finally discover that his behaviour is a pain-in-the-backside and the inevitable girlfriend will certainly remind him at regular intervals. Indeed in all likelihood it will be her who eventually succeeds in providing 'Billy' with the structure, supervision and boundaries that his life has needed all along. Hopefully she will re-inforce all the positive work that the YOT and probation service will be trying to undertake with 'Billy'. Of course what would be best of all is that this young man grew up in a society where all this could have been avoided in the first place. But that's a wee bit radical isn't it? 

Wednesday 30 March 2011

Who Do We Blame?

It was with complete dismay that I read in the Sunday Times and Daily Mail that Jon Venables, one of the two children convicted of abducting, torturing and murdering James Bulger, apparently had sexual intercourse with a female member of staff at his Secure Unit when aged 17 and the year before he was granted release on Life Licence. I must say I am very suspicious about this story surfacing at this particular moment given that, having been recalled to prison last year by his probation officer and subsequently convicted of downloading pornographic material from the internet, his case will no doubt be coming back before the Parole Board shortly.

I am dismayed at yet another convoluted twist in this very sorry saga of demonisation that was effectively institutionalised the moment that the trial judge allowed publication of the two 11 year-olds identities in the first place following conviction. Rather than certain parts of the press highlighting the appalling breach of trust and responsibility by the member of staff in question, I note that instead they have begun to call into question the basis on which the original Parole decision was made. Somehow it's being portrayed as if it was his fault that sex took place with a member of staff who should have been looking after him.

But then right from the beginning I have never been able to understand why the public couldn't grasp that the appalling and tragic murder of the toddler James Bulger was not so much about these two 'demonic' kids as it was about their background, upbringing and the wider environment in which they developed. Even at their tender age there was reported evidence of a sexual element to the offence which would be indicative of some inappropriate sexualisation. Even if one or other were suspected of showing signs of a personality disorder, I'm fairly sure that at their age a diagnosis would not have been possible or likely to have been reliable.

Naming both boys after conviction effectively condemned them and their families to lifelong assumed identities with the constant risk of discovery and consequent vilification and torment. Not surprisingly the stress is reported to have had a very negative effect on Jon Venables' emotional state and produced a deterioration in his mental health as a result. I note that in the past his solicitor has said that he 'doesn't think he can ever be free and cannot handle the outside world'.

The sad thing is that even as I write this I realise that it will in all probability attract some very negative comment, but it seems particularly dishonest not to make clear what my 'take' is on what remains a very high profile and emotive case. In trying to understand why people do certain things, it is often the past that provides much of the understanding. These two boys were just 10 year-old children when, for whatever reason, they did what they did.      

Tuesday 29 March 2011

March Against Cuts

Well it certainly wasn't a march where I was. Rather a very slow faltering meander that took nearly four hours to get from Charing Cross Station and back via a sight-seeing tour of the City. I never did get near to Hyde Park and eventually decided on a warm pint of Fullers London Pride at Trafalgar Square before the trek back to Wembley Stadium in order to find the coach. From my perspective the whole thing was a very happy and good-natured occasion and one that parents obviously felt quite safe to take young children to. In the noisy carnival atmosphere there was much banter pretty much all the way round and an almost complete absence of police on the entire Embankment stretch.

You couldn't help but feel that this was a very British sort of affair, despite one placard I saw exhorting us to 'March like Egyptians'. During the whole day I saw a lot of very bored police, a hell of a lot of rubbish and only the odd bit of anti-capitalist graffiti. Nevertheless, when it was possible to get a mobile connection, news began to filter through the crowd that Oxford Street was 'kicking off' and that Fortnums was 'being trashed'. However, now that I've had the chance to see this report and video on the Guardian website I have to say I'm concerned.

The shop doesn't appear to have been 'trashed' at all, but rather peacefully occupied and not apparently to the detriment of customers going about their business. Apart from being morally suspect of the police to be seen offering concern and safe passage to the trespassers, only to then 'kettle' and arrest them, it's a complete public relations disaster and hostage to fortune for the next sit-in. Quite rightly, why should anyone believe what the police say when senior officers decide to deliberately lie as part of a diffusion strategy. Common sense says that works just the once.  

Monday 28 March 2011

Professional Dilemma 4

Experience tells me that this series of 'professional dilemma's' often produces comment ranging from the incredulous to the broadly sympathetic, mixed with a degree of surprise as to exactly what sort of scenarios probation officers can find themselves involved in. Painful though it sometimes is, I nevertheless feel it's worthwhile doing in the interests of explaining a bit more to the general public exactly what the work can involve.

Although what follows happened some time ago, it continues to have an effect on me to this day. It was a seminal moment in my career and I've always regarded it as having been a metaphor for the society within which it occurred, up there with the likes of 'Cathy Come Home' or 'Boys From the Blackstuff' as social commentary. Whether something similar would or could happen today is a moot point because so much of the broad context within which it occurred has changed significantly, not least the degree to which the modern probation service has moved away from it's former social work-orientated ethos. Sadly, I'm not sure it would even register on our radar nowadays.

Lets call him John. When he arrived with us as a case at age 17 he was already severely damaged by society. He had been a troublesome, difficult and challenging child and as a result his parents felt they had no alternative to placing him in the care of the Local Authority. Now there's a misnomer if ever there was one 'in care'. Experience has amply demonstrated to me over the years just how damaging the 'care' system can be for many young people. To misquote Philip Larkin, if family's haven't done it already 'care' will. 'They f*ck you up they do'

Any probation officer will know only too well what harm can be caused by child abuse. As a result society has procedures for removing that child into 'care', but then often compounds the damage, but this time in the name of the State. It really shocked me when Martin Narey a year or two back came out publicly making a case for more kids to go into care when he was still director of Barnado's, saying that this was preferable. 

Anyway, it was obvious that John had been very badly affected by his time in several large children's homes and since leaving had been living a feral, nomadic existence. He had become addicted to glue and other solvents which made his moods and behaviour unpredictable. He was beginning to pose society a problem because of his rough sleeping and low level criminal activity. In those days it was inevitable and entirely appropriate that the probation service would become involved.

Despite his challenging behaviour and multitude of needs, John had an engaging personality that quickly made him a significant part of the life of the office. Remember these were the days of day centres and drop-in facilities for clients and being homeless, he made full use of what was available in a very constructive way. As the months rolled by we tried in vain to settle John in numerous hostels, shelters and housing projects, but always to no avail given his increasingly challenging and erratic behaviour. The team became convinced that only independent living accommodation with support was likely to be successful and I argued strongly for a referral to a clinical psychologist in order to try and get to the bottom of the trauma he was suspected of having experienced. 

I remember the day well. Real progress was being made. The housing department had finally been bullied into offering John a tatty flat and miraculously I had succeeded in getting him to the top of the list to see a psychologist. The first meeting had been a revelation to behold. Although extremely unorthodox, I was asked to be present throughout because sadly the female consultant felt scared of John. The next meeting was due, however a phone call from the Court Team informed me that he was in custody but likely to be bailed. Somewhat unusually the custody sergeant agreed to a request not to release him until I got to the station. 

John was pleased to see me and seemed his normal chatty self. It was only a ten minute walk back to the office and I explained that the next appointment with the psychologist was at 2pm, again a short walk away. All seemed well, until he suddenly insisted we went via the casualty department of the local hospital. He explained he had been there most of the night and until his unwanted presence had triggered his arrest. He would not be dissuaded from going to casualty and became quite agitated so I had no alternative but to tag along, whereupon the reason for the detour became obvious. Hidden behind some seats was a can of thinners which John proceeded to put in his pocket. Of course I made plain how very disappointed I was with his actions, but thinners is not an illegal substance, there was no evidence it had been stolen and I had no authority to remove it from him. 

Of course we were aware that John had been addicted to solvents for some time. As far as we knew he had never used the substance when at the day centre and certainly never within sight of any staff. I believed that the absolute priority of the day was to get John back to see the psychologist and the expert counselling that I knew he needed. Sadly he never made the appointment and was pronounced dead by 1.30pm. The subsequent post mortem found that he had died of heart failure as a result of the sustained abuse of solvents. He was just 19. Although the Coroner eventually recorded a verdict of Accidental Death, I have always felt that in the final analysis it was the State that had failed John. 

Sunday 27 March 2011

A Hard Case

As the news breaks that Kenneth Noye has lost his appeal against conviction in 2000 of the murder of a 21 year-old who supposedly 'cut him up' on a motorway slip road, spare a thought for the probation officer who has responsibility for the case. Noye was given a tariff of 'only' 16 years and therefore by my reckoning will be coming up for consideration of parole in about five years time. It may come as a surprise to many that all prisoners serving more than 12 months have an allocated home probation officer, or offender manager as we are supposed to call ourselves nowadays. But we really do have to work with everyone.

With such a high profile case there is much information in the public domain and I defy anyone who casts an eye over what is contained here not to get the hairs on the back of their neck standing on end. Nevertheless, I have absolutely no doubt that the case is very firmly in a  safe pair of hands and that, notwithstanding the shocking history and background, his case will be dealt with in an utterly professional manner as the possibility of parole approaches. It has to of course, because put yourself in the place of Parole Board members. Wouldn't you be looking for some extremely competent and comprehensive information when considering if he was safe to release?    

Saturday 26 March 2011

Why Don't We Recommend Custody?

Because basically 'probation' recommending custody is an oxymoron.

It never used to happen, but sadly I am aware it does increasingly nowadays and thus further serves to demonstrate the gulf between the old and new style officer. A colleague writing in connection to this issue on the Magistrates blog put the issue succinctly by stating "To propose custody is a failure on the part of the PO and the Service". I agree entirely and there are basically two reasons why we don't.

The first is to do with stating the blindingly-obvious. For example, when preparing a PSR for Crown Court on an armed robbery it would be unwise in my view to conclude with anything else other than an acknowledgment that "custody is clearly inevitable". Indeed I have written those or similar words many times myself. To do otherwise would make the author look ridiculous in the eyes of the court, but it is not the same as proposing custody. Can you imagine how a Crown Court judge would view a proposal for custody in such a case? I can assure you that they do not take kindly to being treated like grannies and told how to suck eggs. A judge knows perfectly well what powers are available and what the appropriate sentence is going to be. The process is considerably more subtle than that.

The second reason is more contentious but lies at the very core of what the job of a probation officer entails. It's basically where their training and experience comes into play in placing before the sentencers a soundly-reasoned argument for a particular course of action that will encompass a degree of punishment, but also a disposal that encourages rehabilitation. It is absolutely vital that the report tries to be measured and balanced, even in relation to the most seemingly 'lost' causes. Of course it's difficult and often a challenge, but that is precisely why society pays us to take on the hard cases as well as the easy ones. To put it bluntly, I have to say that in my view any report that reads as a counsel of despair, offers the court no positive options and concludes with a spirited plea for custody, says more about the author than it does about the defendant.

There was a time, not long ago, when such a report would not have passed 'gatekeeping' either by more experienced colleagues or by management. If nothing else, it shows signs of sloppy, lazy practice and a strong indication of the wrong mindset for this line of work. Regrettably I have to say I have come across this sort of thing when colleagues want 'shot' of a case for a period because someone is 'hard work'. Yes of course I know 'they were given a chance' last time and the time before, but for some people change proves much more difficult, for instance due to a drug addiction. It is completely unprofessional in my view to write such people off with a proposal for custody which we all know will invariably make matters worse.

As it happens there is a good example of what I'm talking about here in a report from 'This is Exeter' and highlighted by the Justice of the Peace blog. In this case the sentencing bench felt able to go along with the recommendations of an 'experienced' probation officer by suspending imprisonment on a 'prolific offender' and noted that the report 'did not write him off.'  In essence the issue is not one of semantics, but rather fundamental philosophy and attitude towards the job. 

As with all 'rules' there are exceptions. I have previously admitted to not just proposing custody in a certain case, but to effectively engineering it as well in the instance of a sex offender in denial. I have also prepared quite a few reports in cases where the client feels unable to cope with the demands of a community disposal and either requests or sometimes begs for a report that results in custody. In all such cases I have been 'upfront' with the court and ensure they are fully aware of the clients reasoning in making such a request. I still don't 'recommend' custody though, but rather acknowledge that there would appear to be limited scope for an alternative given the clients ambivalence or antipathy towards a community disposal. 

Friday 25 March 2011

Roger and Out!

I'm grateful to Jonathan Ledger's NAPO blog for providing the news here of yet another disgraceful example of a senior NOMS manager jumping ship in order to feather their own nest in the private sector. Roger Hill has announced that he is 'proud' to be taking up employment with Sodexo, a company that just happens to be in the process of bidding for probation services. I think I'm right in saying that as the former Director of the National Probation Service and current DOM, he was the only senior manager within NOMS  who came from a probation background at all. It will be interesting to see if his replacement will either be a career civil servant or former prison governor like all the rest.

With Phil Wheatley now ensconced at G4S and who of course are in the process of bidding for prison contracts, at what point is this process going to be called into question? Are we really to believe that these former public servants have not imparted commercially sensitive information to their new employers? Have they really been giving their public sector responsibilities 100% whilst at the same time sounding out opportunities with the opposition or responding to their advances? As Private Eye would say, we need to be told. I notice from the NAPO discussion forum that at least one colleague has brought the matter to the attention of their MP in the following terms

Thank you for all your support both in the House and elswhere for the
Probation Service.

I am prompted to write again to raise a major concern. As you will no
doubt be aware, Probation is now under the greatest threat to its'
existance in 100 years. Unpaid Work and Approved Premises are about to
be put out to tender - on a less than level playing field. This will
place two major areas of our work into the hands of private companies
who will, by their nature be motivated by profit, not the quality of
their work and will, in my opinion jeopardise public safety as a

Two high profile managers from NOMS HQ have recently left to join
private providers - Phil Weatley, formerly head of NOMS has gone to G4S
and within the last week, Roger Hill has joined Sodexo. Both these
organisations will be at the forefront of the privatisation agenda.

In my view, there is a clear conflict of interest in these
appointments. G4S and Sodexo will have an unfair competitive
advantage in the bidding processes which are about to start - with
inside knowledge brought by Messrs Hill and Weatley. Further, these
two individuals have been closely involved with the reorganisation of
this Service in recent years. It would be interesting to see if their
recent appointments had any influence on their decision making within
that process.

I would be grateful if you could raise this matter with Mr Blunt on the
behalf of myself and my colleagues, all of whom are extremely
concerned about our future in the Service and, indeed the future of the
Service as a whole."

It seems like a good idea to me to let MP's know.

Thursday 24 March 2011

The View from Down Under

I think history shows that in the scheme of things certain ideas have an uncanny habit of taking hold at the same time across national and cultural boundaries. Following on from the story I picked up about the failure of the so-called War on Drugs it's fascinating to see that exactly the same debate is going on in Australia. This article from the Western Australian quotes very similar sentiments being expressed by a former Supreme Court Judge no less in highlighting the utter failure of that countries drug policies. Of course Australia's policies are pretty much the same as our own here in the UK.

I know that politicians in all democracies are very scared of appearing to be 'soft on drugs' for fear of how that plays in the right wing press, but I take comfort from the fact there seems to be a decent head of steam building up internationally for a proper debate about the whole subject and that it just might be research-based rather than ideologically-led.

I must admit I had never heard of a charity called the Beckley Foundation before, but they were mentioned as working closely with the new Parliamentary Committee on drug policy reform and seem to be one of the prime movers behind the grandly-titled International Drug Policy Consortium. It turns out that the IDPC is part financed by the European Commission's Drug Prevention and Information Programme, so clearly there are growing signs across all borders that a change of direction is needed in relation to drug policy. There is a thorough resume of the last 40 years Drug War on their website here and some interesting information about Beckley here on wikipedia.

Sadly though it's obviously clearly business as usual as far as the UN Drugs Czar based in Vienna is concerned. The Western Australian reports

"The head of the United Nations' Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) called on Monday for more money and effort to stem a flow of illicit narcotics that earns druglords $320 billion (196 billion pounds) a year."

Oh dear.


Tuesday 22 March 2011

A Lifestyle Choice?

I notice that my recent piece on the failure of the war on drugs has generated quite a bit of traffic due to it being commented on by 'Bystander' here on the Magistrates Blog. What a shame then that the whole piece didn't get published due to the poor software on Blogger. Not for the first time have I discovered to my horror that all the carefully crafted text I've sweated hours over had not been 'saved' at all, but arbitrarily thrown away instead. It seems to happen when you import text and is very annoying to say the least. I now regret the decision to publish half finished, but I just couldn't face trying to do it all again, so apologies if the piece just seems to end mid flow. I'm afraid it does and I will try and make amends here.

The following comment over on the Magistrates blog particularly struck me

"Useage of drugs is not an illness it's a lifestyle choice and a bad one at that."

In response I would say that it may well be a lifestyle choice for the middle classes in good jobs or the professions. I've always suspected that heroin and cocaine use amongst the medical and legal profession is quite common and in fact featured in a recent episode of the BBC court drama 'Silk'. But such people never come our way because they don't have to commit crime in order to fund their useage. No doubt most lead normal well-balanced lives and their use of drugs probably goes completely unnoticed. Although their 'lifestyle choice' can be said to be under control, unproblematic and in all probability enjoyable, it is of course illegal. Apart from this, why is it such a bad choice as opposed to say alcohol? 

This brings me on to the rest of the drug-using population, many of whom are our customers. I would defy anyone to describe their wretched existence as a reflection of a 'lifestyle choice'. Some are driven to inject direct into their head because there is no viable vein left for the purpose. Often disabled by deep vein thrombosis, some with amputations, they have very short lifespans but seem to die almost completely unnoticed by wider society. They will have been held in a vice-like grip by the physical addiction for many years and regular efforts to 'come off' will have been thwarted by being constantly surrounded by other drug users. Such people have to 'deal' with each other in order to fund their own habit and therefore it's not in their interests if people stop 'using'.

I simply don't accept this group ever made a 'lifestyle choice' about using drugs. Typically they have grown up in a drug-riddled, broken society where 'choice' about anything is a completely alien concept. It would be far more relevant here to talk in terms of survival. To be honest I think 'choice' is just a middle class concept. It wasn't always like this though. In the early days of increasing heroin useage, I could refer clients to the Regional Drug Addiction Unit where there was in-patient and out-patient treatment available. Clients could make a meaningful choice about trying to get 'clean'. The facility was run by the NHS because quite rightly it was regarded as a health issue, just like all other addictions whether they be gambling, sex or alcohol. It was a huge mistake to steer drug addiction away from the health sector.      

Nowadays in the absence of residential detoxification beds, prison is often seen as the only way to try and kick the habit. It can be achieved with the right mindset, co-operative padmate and drug free wing, but most unusual given the widespread availability of drugs in virtually every jail. It is a sad truism that many prisoners have their first experience of drugs in prison. 

Now just in case there might be people out there who think more effort needs to be put into stopping drugs getting into prison, may I confirm that this is just as pointless as every other bit of the so-called 'war on drugs'. Let me just say that the vast sums of money that is to be made by staff and inmates smuggling drugs into prison easily ensures that any and every counter-measure that can be installed will be circumvented. As with all elements of the present illegal drug supply network, any cost benefit analysis easily makes the risk of apprehension worth taking.

It is sheer madness to think that throwing more resources at 'law enforcement' will work, not least because, guess why? The money to be made is so vast that even law enforcement officers are not immune to the temptations on offer. Like it or not, common sense will eventually prevail and Daily Mail readers will just have to get used to the idea.   

War on Drugs Lost!

It's almost official - it's all been a 50 year waste of time, the worldwide 'war on drugs'. According to this report in the Daily Telegraph, some seriously sensible people like the former heads of MI5, CPS and the BBC have come out in support of a new parliamentary committee calling for the decriminalisation of drugs. Ok maybe saying John Birt, former Director General of the BBC is 'sensible' might be going a bit too far, but even so it should be coming clear to all enlightened folk that our policy towards drugs has been an unmitigated disaster in every respect.

Despite all the huge law enforcement effort put into cracking the so-called drug cartels, availability has never been greater, along with potential illegal profits to be made. The whole damn charade, from small time drug busts to warships on the high seas has only succeeded in ensuring that the street price has been maintained and not slumped due to over-supply. Of course the same basic economic laws of supply and demand that keep capitalism supposedly running smoothly operate just as well in the unregulated and tax free world of international drug supply. In my mind all we've succeeded in doing is create the perfect conditions in which mega criminality can flourish. The price is kept stable and law enforcement just takes out the inept or unlucky, leaving the field open for the ruthless and skilled. Just look at what's happening in Mexico.

Lets all hope that the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Drug Policy Reform can have more success in influencing government policy than they have in choosing a snappy working title. Their chairman Baroness Meacher is quoted as saying 

 “Criminalising drug users has been an expensive catastrophe for individuals and communities. “In the UK the time has come for a review of our 1971 Misuse of Drugs Act. I call on our Government to heed the advice of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime that drug addiction should be recognised as a health problem and not punished.

“We have the example of other countries to follow. The best is Portugal which has decriminalised drug use for 10 years. Portugal still has one of the lowest drug addiction rates in Europe, the trend of Young people's drug addiction is falling in Portugal against an upward trend in the surrounding countries, and the Portuguese prison population has fallen over time.”

Monday 21 March 2011

Best Of a Bad Job

'Best of a bad job'. Although not my words but that of fellow blogger 'Bystander' over on the Magistrates Blog and commenting on a recent piece in the Daily Telegraph, they still had an instant resonance. In many ways they very succinctly sum up the task that society has historically given to the Probation Service since it was acknowledged that custody was not the only answer to offending and in many cases could make matters worse. In essence what lies behind those five words is the following sentiment 

'here's someone who's life has been messed up for some reason or other - they are now causing society a problem - can you find out why, try and sort it and if not, well just keep trying until they either stop or die'.

Now I've been happy to draw a salary on that basis for many years, understanding fully that the reasons why people commit offences are complex and that 'sorting it' might take longer for some people than others. It has never, ever occurred to me though that some people were not worth 'bothering' with firstly because that's what I thought I was being paid to do and secondly because I remain convinced that it's the best way for society to deal with such people. I accept however that this concept might be easier to comprehend when every probation officer was required to have a sound grounding in social work. Not so anymore, hence Bystanders blog has attracted the following comment from a colleague relating to the issue of whether PO's should recommend custody in a Pre Sentence Report or not

"It's not a case of giving up. Many of the people we work with have no intention of stopping their offending, despite any 'interventions'. How can we, professionally and personally, propose a community sentence knowing full well that John/Jane Doe WILL re-offend!

That view does not sit well with me; nor I imagine the public who pay our wages".

I'm going to be deliberately provocative here and say that I think this sentiment displays a degree of what many in the profession would call 'distorted thinking'. None of us are blessed with crystal balls and can predict with 100% accuracy what any client is going to do. We could and indeed do make informed assessments as to what might happen, but I would venture to suggest that any officer expressing the above sentiments has the wrong mindset for this type of work. How else are you going to give your best shot in trying to help change that persons behaviour? Just shrugging your shoulders and saying 'I know he/she will offend again so I'll just recommend custody'  is not what the job's about and isn't sufficient to be drawing a salary in my view

I think what the public expects is for all probation officers to be straining every sinew in an effort to effect change in an offenders situation, behaviour and attitude. Yes of course it's difficult, but what sort of message does it send out to offenders if the officer feels there's no hope of their offending stopping? Of course from time to time an officer might need a break from a particularly difficult case or intransigent client, but that's the time to negotiate a transfer to a colleague for a fresh start. Admittedly our task in effecting change has not been made any easier in recent time by successive governments and their infernal meddling, but I think society is still paying us to make the best of a bad job, and not to give up and recommend custody for goodness sake.

Sunday 20 March 2011

Price of Everything : Value of Nothing 2

News reaches me of the closure of yet another probation office that has been serving its community for many years, namely that of Pontefract in West Yorkshire. One of the remarkable things about this particular closure is the relatively paltry sums due to be saved on an annual basis. According to the Trust Board minutes of 26th January, out of a total annual budget of £42.5 million, the savings are estimated to be £94,000 in a full year, but this figure will be considerably reduced to £74,000 due to 'staff excess travel costs.'  Of course staff who are directed to work at another location and who thereby incur increased costs are entitled to claim the difference for a period, usually three years.

So by my reckoning a whole community loses its probation facility for the equivalent cost of two senior managers at Head Office. Although 'arrangements had been put in place to deliver offender contact from a local partnership office', apparently some clients will have to undertake two-hour bus journeys to be able to report to the nearest office. For West Yorkshire this is particularly relevant of course because a recent Freedom of Information request by the Sun newspaper flushed out the fact that the bill for re-imbursing client bus fares is a staggering £276,500 per annum. According to the Tax Payers Alliance the Trust is quoted as saying  
We don’t sell bus passes to offenders, but a contribution towards the cost is requested. It is acknowledged that contributions are not received for every bus pass provided.
But our objective is to ensure there are no transport barriers preventing an offender complying with probation or court requirements. The trust supports the use of public transport.”

Now I want to make it clear that I fully support re-imbursing bus fares for clients who are either on state benefits or low incomes, but wouldn't it be better all round if their probation office was in their community? Can you imagne what the chances are of many of these people undertaking several bus journeys to report on time and on a regular basis? Many lead utterly chaotic lives and will inevitably face breach action as a direct result of probation office closures such as this. Exactly how is this designed to assist in keeping people out of prison?

Saturday 19 March 2011

Full Circle

I suspect I'm probably no different to most bloggers in that from time to time I'm curious to see how easy it is to locate my own blog from a 'google' search. I have no idea how it works, but imagine my surprise when recently, despite frantic efforts, I couldn't locate it at all. However, I did come across a lot of stuff that had passed me by on other peoples blogs, including this gem from the Bolton News of Jaunuary 18th and identified by the Justice of the Peace blog.

I had to read it twice to check that it wasn't a sort of April Fool spoof, but no it seems that 

"A special helpdesk has been set up at Bolton Magistrates Court to help criminals get back on the straight and narrow." The scheme is aimed at low-level offenders who sometimes “slip through the net” and then become involved in more serious crime. Legal adviser David Lawrence, who is spearheading the initiative, said: “When defendants are dealt with for sentence, other issues might come to light that the magistrates are not able to deal with. They might have problems with alcohol, drugs, housing or debt. The idea behind it is if we can try to get people some help, they might not become involved in criminal activity.”

This is precisely how the Probation Service began over 100 years ago with the motivated middle classes in courts as Police Court Missionaries. The wheel has indeed turned a full 360 degrees and we are back where we started with volunteers doing the work of probation officers. What is remarkable about this story is that there is no mention of probation at all. It's as if we didn't exist and seems to be an initiative by Her Majesty's Court Service. I don't think there could be a better illustration of the journey this profession has been on from motivated amateur, through qualified prefessionalism, enlightened innovation, standardisation, managerialism, nationalisation, complete bureaucratisation and ultimately to dysfunctionality and irrelevance it would seem.

Up until three years ago when I was doing my stint as a Court Duty Officer, giving the sort of help and advice discussed in this article was just part and parcel of what I thought the job was about. The ushers knew where to find me and steered likely persons in my direction if I hadn't already noticed them. I know that resources are limited and PO's have been replaced with PSO's in court, but traditionally there was always a place for volunteers in the Probation Service. Unfortunately they were unceremoniously booted out by my management a few years back for reasons that have always remained unclear to me. Here we have a clear example that there's still a useful job to be done, but seemingly in spite of the Probation Service, not as part of it. What a sad state of affairs indeed.

Friday 18 March 2011

Why Did She do It?

I guess it's not that often that journalists get the chance to report on one of their own and it's hard not to spot a slight note of glee from this report in the Welwyn and Hatfield Times about their former colleague Emma Smiter. She has just been convicted at Basildon Crown Court of Perverting the Course of Justice and Misconduct in Public Office, both of course very serious offences that will inevitably lead to a significant custodial sentence.

One can only speculate as to why a young journalist would give up that line of work to become a Police Community Support Officer instead and then decide it was a brilliant source of information to pass on to a former colleague in a press agency. The stories duly turned up in national dailies such as the Sun and Mirror. Possibly she thought she was merely furthering her journalistic career, or got a buzz out of stealing a march on her former colleagues on the local rag, or just needed the money?

Initially charged with breaches of confidentiality, she subsequently went on to compound her misdemeanors by thwarting an earlier trial by falsifying blogs in an attempt to show that the information was already in the public domain. This person clearly has some attitude and thinking deficits that a probation officer will no doubt have to get to grips with at some point. Which brings me to the main point of this post. I notice that the judge has adjourned her case for a month in order that a probation Pre Sentence Report can be prepared. Now this would not normally be at all noteworthy, but as I have previously posted, it is sadly becoming all too frequent that judges are sentencing either without any report at all in custody cases, or adjourning overnight for a so-called Fast Delivery Report to be prepared by a Probation Services Officer.

From what I have gleaned from press reports of this case - and it is remarkable just how far and wide it has been reported (just try googling her name) - this is just the sort of case where a well researched and written PSR could begin to get to the bottom of this person's behaviour and inevitable problems. This is vital of course because it can influence heavily the sentence that is passed. Amongst things that set alarm bells ringing for me is that I notice she is the mother of a young daughter and felt it appropriate to tell the court that her father is a serving senior police officer in the Hertfordshire force. What on earth was the motive for that? I bet he's really pleased with that bit of information now widely in the public domain.

The point I'm making is just how important it is that the quality of full PSR's is maintained and not downgraded, dumbed down or worse circumvented. For whatever reason, this young 26 year-old woman has made a comprehensive attempt at screwing her life up and it's only the skills of the probation service that can help her sort it out in my view. She is not the usual sort of probation client, but in a way precisely because of that serves to make a stronger case for making absolutely sure that all convicted defendants at Crown Court have the benefit of a full and well prepared Standard Delivery Report by a qualified officer at time of sentence. This is why probation reports were invented in the first place, so why are we moving away from this once routine practice?   

Thursday 10 March 2011

Price of Everything : Value of Nothing

It seems like someone at The Sun has really got it in for the probation service in West Yorkshire. Why else would you be tempted to put in a Freedom of Information request in order to find out the annual expenditure on snacks for offenders attending accredited programme courses? Anyway it turns out that the answer is approaching £7,000.

Now many reasonable people would feel that such expenditure for a drink and a sandwich is entirely appropriate and only to be expected when attending any sort of course away from home or your usual location. As much as anything it's about showing care and concern for the participants. Here we are talking about a group of people who are not only attending involuntarily, but the expectation is that their thinking, attitudes and behaviour will be altered for the better due to their attendance.

I think it should be fairly obvious that in trying to get the full cooperation of a somewhat unwilling group is difficult at the best of times and involves some significant skills on the part of the staff. In my experience the informal chats between sessions of any groupwork course is often the most productive in terms of building relationships with the clients, which is of course the key to getting them to be receptive to the messages being delivered. It's all about setting a good example, or in the jargon demonstrating 'pro-social modelling' with a group who typically have great difficulties in this area.

Of course the expenditure on refreshments is entirely appropriate, but sadly probation management is so sensitive to attacks from the likes of The Sun and their supporters the Taxpayers Alliance that the budget has already been slashed it seems. That's going to make changing offenders thinking and attitudues that bit harder from now on. 

Wednesday 9 March 2011

A Rant

There's no use trying to pretend. I'm pretty depressed about probation and its future at the moment and such a frame of mind is simply not conducive to writing I fear. Maybe it has all been said and it's a lost cause. It's certainly a topic that gets precious few people blogging about when compared to say the law, police or courts even. I suspect my colleagues are so ground down by the relentless pressure of the job that there is precious little spare capacity to indulge in discussion. I notice that even the revived NAPO forum pages are not back to their former level of useage. Could it be apathy or like me just an overwhelming feeling that it's all gone wrong, but there seems to be no way of doing anything about it?

This job used to be so straightforward, simple even. You were paid by the State to 'help' people who had committed offences. The job was invented because good christian folk eventually realised that sending all miscreants to prison was a bit unfair and often pointless. The offences were committed because the offender had problems. Prison made the situation worse and the problems greater, so they went back in. The notion of offering philanthropic assistance was born. Simples. Ok it got institutionalised and professionalised and philanthropy became state-funded assistance, but the idea is pretty simple and understandable you would have thought. It's just as relevant a concept today as in 1911 or 1811 even. So why can't we as a society just let probation officers get on with it unhindered by the ever-increasing dead hand of government interference? 

Of course I've now strayed into begging the inevitable question 'so did it used to work then?' The answer is exactly the same as the answer to that other ridiculous question 'so does prison work?'  The answer to both is 'yes and no' and for a whole host of reasons. Even during the halcyon days of the Welfare State, government agencies, probation included, were never able to ensure that all citizens had decent housing, a good education, appropriate health care, adequate training and full time employment. But when it was left alone by government, probation did absolute wonders in addressing many of these deficits by constantly innovating and developing new services.

Of course doing something about these fundamental deficits still lies behind Ken Clarke's plans for a 'Rehabilitation Revolution.' It should be self evident that the likelihood of offending will reduce if a persons circumstances improve. It goes right back to the Victorian pioneers and philanthropists. The irony is that the Justice Secretary feels he has to seek the innovation and new ideas from outside the Probation Service because we were robbed of that ability when  nationalised by the last Labour government, having been already steered away from advising, assisting and befriending by an earlier Conservative government. We're strangled by targets and bureaucracy and barely have time to see clients. It really was a mistake guys. I started out depressed and now I'm angry. Oh dear.

Monday 7 March 2011

Breathtaking Hypocrisy

The news that the Prison Officers Association are seeking judicial review of the process by which the Ministry of Justice is tendering the operation of a further four prisons should serve to focus attention on Phil Wheatley, the recently departed head of NOMS. It seems that the POA are alleging somewhat understandably that the tendering process is hardly fair when G4S are likely to have benefited from Mr Wheatley's inside knowledge of the Prison Service. 

It raised quite a few eyebrows when news broke of Mr Wheatley's acceptance of a lucrative contract with G4S shortly after he handed in his notice at NOMS, but of course this sort of thing seems to be the way of a capitalist world. Why else would G4S employ him? I howled in sheer amazement when it was announced that the reason for scrapping plans to privatise the Air/Sea Rescue Service was that there was a suspicion that a former MOD employee may have given one of the bidders some inside information, OMG!  Until then I'd never even thought that just possibly someone could make a bob or two on the Stock Market by having a bit of inside information, FFS. 

The thing is it's the sheer hypocrisy of the man that gets me. When he was at NOMS he is quoted as saying  "Private prison operators have brought little innovation to the management of custody and that the gains, such as they are, have come from using fewer staff, paying lower wages and providing less employment protection for staff."

Obviously he doesn't think this now because he's a highly paid consultant to a private prison operator. To be honest, I'm used to this from politicians, but from a previously fairly highly regarded public servant I find it inexcusable. How does he sleep at night?

Saturday 5 March 2011

Jamie's Dream School

I have to say that I normally find Jamie Oliver and his 'mockney' accent and 'cheeky chappie' style very irritating, but his latest venture on Channel 4 about trying to stimulate a group of young school failures is absolutely fascinating. It was only recently that I wrote something about our disadvantaged communities having very little to broaden the horizons of young people and who typically give up on state education around the age of 13. Here we see a group of 20 supposed school failures taking part in a social experiment in order to see how they will react to some of the 'best' teachers that money can buy.

Now this sort of venture for enthusiastic amateurs can be potentially dangerous territory as demonstrated by Monty Don's efforts a couple of years ago in trying to rehabilitate young offenders by introducing them to gardening and horticulture. Although I didn't watch the series, I understand it caused poor old Monty much stress and heartache, probably through a degree of naivety and dearth of sound expert advice. Such experiments are worth doing though and are in the best spirit and tradition of probation of old.

Although I'm a very keen supporter of any social experiments that can shed light on a better understanding of human behaviour in its myriad forms, I always worry about the role of the tv production people who of course have an eye on being able to produce gripping footage. Experience says that will invariably involve conflict in some shape or other because they assume anything else will not be of sufficient interest. I seem to recall that 'Big Brother' started out as an interesting social experiment but quickly developed into a crazy freak show at the behest of the production company.

I'm assuming that it was with this in mind that the producer of 'Jamie's Dream School' thought it would be really interesting to invite that irritating and arrogant tosser David Starkey to teach them history. Even though we've only seen one episode, the result was entirely predictable and as much about the class divide as anything. Starkey was completely unable to admit he was wrong in calling a pupil fat and offer an apology. To a lesser degree the same goes for Lord Winston who just seemed to get great delight in shocking the kids by taking a circular saw to a dead pig. Maybe this is the real message of the series though. No matter how brilliant you are at any subject, it counts for nothing if you don't have the ability to relate to challenging kids. I predict Rolf Harris is likely to have more success in this regard than say the likes of Alastair Campbell.

The funny thing is that this group don't strike me as that challenging at all when compared to the group I had in mind when discussing the issue of deprived communities and young people in them needing to be inspired. Happily this sparky group don't strike me as being obvious candidates for heroin or cheap lager consumed on street corners. Now trying to work with that group would be a real challenge and make for some gripping tv I think.

Friday 4 March 2011

What Are the Police For?

A stupid question on the face of it, but one that Theresa May the Home Secretary is clear about according to her recent speech. She stated that they have only one objective and that is to reduce crime. But I'm having trouble reconciling this with a recent article in the Guardian about a 'brilliant' new way of treating criminal behaviour being developed at Cambridge University by Prof Lawrence Sherman and the former chief of the National Policing Improvement Agency.

Professor Sherman has developed the notion of a Crime Harm Index based on statistical data that would mean all arrested persons would be classified by computer and designated either as red, yellow or green according to the assessment of risk they pose. If a person's crime was judged to have little or no harm attached to it, say like shoplifting, then the police would simply not bother prosecuting at all.

"Those not prosecuted (green and yellow) would be referred to an offender management team of trained police and partner agencies with a range of interventions at their disposal including treatment for drugs or mental illness, curfews, restorative justice, and close monitoring by the police with the omnipresent threat of prosecution if necessary."

I simply do not understand this and especially the bit about 'omnipresent threat of prosecution if necessary.'  If you haven't been prosecuted for a crime, exactly on what basis do you have to co-operate with an 'offender management team?' Anyway, the police are very excited about the whole idea and feel that in a period of constrained public spending the system has the tantalising possibility of delivering "an irresistible trinity: cutting prison numbers by 50%-70%, saving money and keeping the public safer."  Apparently 14 police forces have expressed an interest in trialling the scheme and experiments are due to start soon. I've written about this previously and voiced concerns. What do other people make of it?   

Thursday 3 March 2011

Russian Roulette

The news of three deaths in East Lancashire at different locations, but within an hour of each other due to suspected drug overdoses, serves yet again to highlight the absurdity of current drug policies. Every time a heroin user injects they have absolutely no idea what the substance might be, what its strength is and what it might be 'cut' with. It's a game of 'russian roulette' every time. How come we've found a method of reducing harm from the dangers of using dirty needles by instigating needle exchange schemes, but this form of dicing with instant death remains?

Surely as a civilised society, if we are serious about reducing harm, rather than shrugging our shoulders and saying something like 'well they knew the risks' shouldn't we be finding a method of guaranteeing the quality of the substance to be used? Common sense says there's only one way to do that and that is prescribe it in the first place. There have been controlled prescribing experiments in recent time here in the UK with positive results, so why are we not seeing this reflected in government policy?    

Wednesday 2 March 2011

A Risky Strategy

Whilst officially the Probation Chiefs Association remain silent, I notice that the Probation Association have recently been making pleas for help from both the government and the 'third sector.' In what I think might be a bit of a high risk strategy they have appealed to the government to consider reducing the vast burden of regulation, monitoring and bureaucracy that has been imposed on Probation Trusts in recent years.

Their report 'Hitting the Target, Missing the Point' serves to graphically illustrate a common problem throughout public sector organisations, namely the shear weight of time-consuming micro control nonsense that was so dear to the heart of the last Labour governments control freak philosophy. In doing this I guess they think they are pushing at an open door in view of the much vaunted intention of the new government in wishing to lift the bureaucratic burden from public sector organisations. 

This initiative would seem to go hand in hand with the Offender Engagement Programme currently being rolled out to some Trusts by NOMS. "Moving from a high level of prescription and input-driven mandatory standards, towards a more flexible and outcome focused framework."  It sounds absolutely great and exactly what probation officers have wanted, namely a return to having some discretion in how they deal with clients. However, as has been pointed out recently on the NAPO discussion pages, this sort of relaxation in regulatory regime is exactly what commercial bidders for probation contracts have been looking and lobbying the government for. Now we have the Trusts making a similar plea for lighter regulatory control, an absolute gift for the private sector I'd say.

In another possibly more considered move, the Probation Association obviously feel it's time to start making overtures towards the third sector in the hope they can strengthen the case for hanging on to work in readiness for the impending bidding war. Their Chief Executive recently addressed a Social Enterprise conference specifically in order to make a pitch at not-for-profit organisations as being an excellent fit with Probation Trusts in terms of ethos. She suggested it might be mutually beneficial to be in partnership rather than competition in a big bad world of circling commercial predators. Unfortunately it seems that it's already too late in terms of Unpaid Work as the government have reportedly decided that only commercial firms are left in the running for these contracts.    

Tuesday 1 March 2011

Missing the Point?

Responses to the governments Green Paper on reducing reoffending are beginning to emerge and the most interesting by far is this report published by the CentreForum liberal think tank. If you're a probation employee worried about what might happen to your job, a senior manager in a 'third sector' organisation thinking of bidding for some of our work, or just someone who can't get their head around all this Payment by Results stuff, I would urge you to read this report.

Unlike that from the Confederation of British Industry that basically says the government ought to hurry up and just hand the work over to big business - oh and without any of the irritatingly expensive pension liabilities - this is a pretty good analysis of the opportunities, but also trials and tribulations that lie ahead if the government goes down the PbR route to any great extent. I think it sets out in pretty clear language what the key issues are, observed from what I feel is a reasonably neutral and dispassionate standpoint. To be honest I'm less depressed as a result of seeing in black and white what the considerable pitfalls are and that the whole thing might just prove far to risky for small players and far too expensive to entice the big boys.

Apparently the problem lies with a lack of information so that capitalist forces can accurately assess their exposure to the risk that they might not make the return of about 20% that they would require. It seems that the 2 million completed OASys assessments (yes well done everybody) could offer the opportunity of putting a 'price' on each offender, but there is some doubt being cast on their accuracy, omg. In fact, according to this reports author, it might just prove to be the equivalent of taking a punt on the 2.30 at Haydock - a huge gamble that runs the risk that a provider either goes bust or makes obscene profits. Apparently the public might get concerned about either of these outcomes.

I have to say I found the report a hugely refreshing read. Written as it is by a political economist rather than a probation academic, it's both free of the usual in-house pseudo tech speak whilst at the same time describing our work in plain terms that possibly only an outsider could use. It states the blindingly obvious that clients typically suffer from multiple problems that just might make a Payment by Result system difficult, especially in relation to intractable problems like drug and alcohol abuse. In fact a payment by activity method might be preferable for this and similar groups of offenders. It discusses the inherent danger of contractors being tempted to do a bit of charmingly termed 'creaming and parking' or what we might call 'cherry picking' and that clients might have to be subject to 'segmentation' - yuck. 

Apart from having to get used to a whole new lexicon, this report reminds me that probation could be doing all this for clients now if only we had adequate access to training, jobs, treatment, counselling and accommodation for our clients. There wouldn't be a need to invent a complicated new payment method at all,  just fund some provision. But I guess I'm missing the point again.