Thursday 30 June 2011

The Unwelcome Guest?

When asked what I do for a living, on more than one occasion I've joked about earning my living from crime. Of course although in a sense it's literally true for many of us in the police, prison, court and probation services, not to mention the legal profession, it never was a funny joke. Even less so now that some of us will inevitably find ourselves doing something else next year when the cuts really start to bite.

I guess all of us in the criminal justice system have always had that thought lurking at the back of our mind that if we were really successful at what we were doing, we wouldn't have a job. We never give it much thought though as clearly nothing much seems to work and hence up till now there's never been a real danger that the mortgage wouldn't get paid. It doesn't stop us trying to be more effective of course and many a career has been built on introducing new initiatives, or just plain old re-inventing the wheel, depending on your view and place on the career ladder. 

Following on from casework theory, in recent times we have embraced the 'What Works' agenda, explored all the accredited programme routes via cognitive behavioural therapy and are currently discovering desistance theory and engagement strategies. Oh, whilst restoring a degree of autonomy and discretion to officers in how they supervise cases. It's been quite a party, but suddenly we seem to have a cheeky uninvited and possibly unwelcome guest. 

Mark Johnson, an ex-offender and former drug user is a regular contributor to The Guardian and recently officially launched his charity User Voice

Their Mission statement says:-

"Only offenders can stop re-offending. User Voice's mission is to engage those who have experience of the criminal justice system in bringing about its reform and to reduce offending.

User Voice is a charity led and delivered by ex-offenders. This gives us the unique ability to gain the trust of, access to and insight from people within the criminal justice system." 

Whilst many probation trusts have recently been pondering the whole issue of 'engagement' and how that might be achieved, Mark has some forthright views on the subject and some may feel they don't make for particularly comfortable reading. Although the Guardian article was mainly aimed at the prison service, I think the sentiment extends far wider.

"Anyone who thinks that the inevitable cuts that lie ahead mean the criminal justice system can carry on doing things the same old way is kidding themselves. We have to recognise that we're chucking too much money at interventions that don't deliver. They've been carefully crafted, and with the best of intentions, by the educated for people whom they can't begin to understand. The only way to stop wasting money is to engage, and I'm talking about real engagement, not superficial consultation, with the frontline users of services.

Participation at this level cannot be led by people who design or implement interventions. They should not create an agenda, nor can they attempt truly receptive dialogue, with the offenders who take part in their interventions. There is only one way to deep trawl for the truth, and that is by allowing offenders their own forums, facilitated by peers, many of whom will be ex-offenders. Anything else is consultation.

Engagement will save a fortune in the long run but doing it right is not a cheap option. It costs. We're talking partnerships, contracts and proper pay structures for respected work. My organisation is 90% staffed by ex-offenders and I believe one indicator of true engagement is the number of ex-offenders on the payroll (another is how high up the internal ladder they are allowed to climb)."

He goes on:-

"That's what scares some service providers. The provider who has devised, nursed and implemented an intervention for offenders seldom welcomes the offenders' scrutiny and honest appraisal. The provider wants the intervention to work, and he can usually manipulate figures to convince himself it does. It's hard for him to hear the voice of the offender saying it hasn't helped and should be modified or abandoned. At worst, such scrutiny could put the provider out of a job. He'll try to defend his intervention no matter how redundant it is. Only the bravest want people like us coming inside the jail or community and promising to deliver the truth.

We'll always remain the unwelcome guest at the criminal justice party. We stand for true engagement, we offer a scientific level of scrutiny, we're asking for power, we want to be paid for the work we do. And we believe that our participation in the process of government is the key to a lower crime rate and a more economic prison service. It will take years. But now we've launched, we're on our way."

It's funny but this got me thinking of the good old days again when we had a very active volunteer group and a flourishing day centre. I well remember the fascinating but interminable discussions in team meetings about how much control or supervision was needed. Some of us got really excited about the active involvement of clients and how it could only be beneficial; how we should just let things develop organically; how it would be great if clients could progress to become accredited volunteers themselves.

But that was all rather too much for management at the time as sadly the Service was already moving inexorably towards one of command and control from the top. Well you know what they say - things go in circles eventually - you've just got to wait long enough.  

Wednesday 29 June 2011

Trust Me - I'm a Probation Officer!

I've always felt that a bit of self-analysis is no bad thing. Indeed I would say it's an absolutely vital trait for any aspiring probation officer and it's certainly something we would wish to encourage many of our clients to embrace. Trying to understand why we do things is almost certainly a healthy pre-requisite for trying to understand why other people do things. Uncomfortable though it may sometimes be, in order to aid this process it can often be helpful to hear what others feel about us. In this context I have recently drawn readers attention to the Prisoners Families Views website which often contains worrying and uncomplimentary examples of probation involvement.

On the Prisoner Ben website there has been some wide-ranging and healthy discussion about various issues, including the role, responsibilities and effectiveness of probation. I have taken the liberty of quoting some comments and views from a recent post entitled 'World's Apart' in order to give a flavour of the discourse.        

"These guys give every indication of believing that they help us, supports us, try to get us out.

Prisoners believe that they are inept, dishonest and look for any excuse to keep us in."

"The word Probation officer is red rag to a bull to me. I have only ever met one decent one ........... I dare say there may be one or two well meaning ones, but on the whole, most of them have got my back up. It is like dealing with nethanderals, they are so terminally stupid, they can't even write acurate notes in your file. Which is a worry if your liberty depends on it. They are not to be trusted, anyone with any sense should just tell them what they want to hear. God help the poor people who could really use a helping hand when they get out. By the way, if anyone reading this thinks the problem is me, i would understand why you would think that, but no-one else on this earth has made my blood boil like my old probation officer. Prison staff, some good ones, some bad. like everywhere, (except probation, all with micky mouse degrees from some third rate college."

"Its the new generation probation officers, or, in my case social workers who I am more worried about. What they get taught in college these days especially psychology is closer to victim blaming than anything. They then come to the 'profession', maybe with huge financial debts due to the high cost of education or supported by their parents, but know little and want to do as they are told which is to put the blame squarely back onto those who they are supposed to be helping.

These days the gap between social workers (as I have more experience of them than prison staff or probation) is even bigger and from what I can gather, nobody is happy, not the 'clients' nor the staff. Only those reaping in the dollars from costs cuts and privatisation, they are the ones sporting big cheshire cat got the cream smiles, while we suffer."

Many would agree that much of this, whilst making for uncomfortable reading, is not particularly  surprising given the position we occupy in the criminal justice system. After all a prisoner is unlikely to agree or be happy with an officer making a negative recommendation for early release on Parole Licence. Or if recommending release, for suggesting conditions that might include hostel residence, exclusion zones, programme attendance or curfews. But even back in 'the good old days', public protection has always been part of the job when we were all social workers and 'helping' people. Being a probation officer never has been about winning a popularity contest with clients, but even I can see that things may have gone a bit too far.

From all the quotes above it's this one that seems to sum the issue up:-

"They are not to be trusted, anyone with any sense should just tell them what they want to hear."

Obviously there is only one way in which trust can be achieved and that is by earning it. I well remember many years ago and being the 'new boy' in the team, listening to my senior in supervision telling me that the best thing to do was not to listen to my colleagues, but go to him instead as he 'could be trusted.' I remember thinking 'not bloody likely mate - I decide if you can be trusted or not.' Similarly I wouldn't necessarily expect a client to trust me from day one, but rather it would be my aim to build trust and mutual respect as time went on, both when we agreed on things and hopefully when there were differences of opinion. 

A very long-term lifer of mine illustrates the issues raised in this quote perfectly. He has spent many years denying the index offence, whilst blaming his co-accused. I always made it plain that I didn't believe him and regularly reminded him that neither did the Jury or Appeal Court. He would regularly say to me 'just tell me what you want to hear.'  To which I would reply 'just tell me the truth.' He would say 'how will you know it's the truth?' and I would reply 'just try me.' This impasse has not assisted with his sentence progression.

I've seen this sentiment expressed quite a few times on various internet sites 'just tell the probation officer what they want to hear', seemingly in the naive belief that we can't tell fact from fiction or bullshit from sincerity. Trading insults is never attractive or useful but I can honestly say probation officers are not stupid. Indeed it could be argued that if there is any stupidity at all it is often evident on the other side of the desk because the one thing all our customers have in common is that they got caught.

All probation officers only want to hear the truth or honestly held opinions. Getting to the truth means reading the evidence, observing behaviour, listening carefully, investigating sources, questioning, challenging, assessing. It really is nonsense to think that our views or opinions can be swayed by simply 'telling us what we want to hear.'  It's nonsense for all sorts of reasons, not least because it should surprise no one that many people facing criminal proceedings quite often lie a lot. It's often an automatic default position - just watch a few real-life police programmes on tv if you don't believe me.

One of the real skills of a probation officer is to try and build trust with a client and get them to consider options other than this automatic default position. It often takes time, but in the end enables the officer to try and help them sort out their life. It means that court reports or parole reports can be written with real conviction on the part of the officer trying to make positive recommendations. It means that the officer's integrity has to be of the highest order and sometimes that officer will be faced with professional dilemma's that are not easily resolved.

Trust is a two-way street and has to be earned, but I believe remains the cornerstone of our work if we are to be helpful and effective.     

Thursday 23 June 2011

DV Knows No Bounds

An extra-ordinary saga has been running at Bradford Magistrates Court for some time and one which serves to shed a little more light on the often-hidden subject of domestic violence. The case is unusual in several respects, but most particularly because it finds the tables turned with a respected High Court judge as the defendant.

Following a trip away, Judge James Allen QC returned home hungry and became irritated when his wife was prevented from supplying any sustenance due to her pre-occupation with the 'daily help.' A row erupted during the course of which Melanie Allen, a Deputy Coroner for West Yorkshire, received certain injuries, including to the face. An eight-year-old child in the house at the time became so concerned that they dialled 999 and told police that 'he was trying to kill his wife.' 

The police arrived shortly after Mr Allen had left for his parents home and duly noted injuries to Mrs Allen's face. Mr Allen was subsequently arrested, interviewed and charged with common assault on his wife. The subsequent trial was heard by a District Judge who made it plain that she did not accept the evidence of both parties that the injuries had been self-inflicted and duly convicted Mr Allen.

Following what must have been an extremely interesting PSR process, the District Judge made Mr Allen the subject of a Community Order with a condition of supervision, warning him in the process that she expected full co-operation with the Probation Service as he was 'no longer the master, but rather the servant.' In addition she awarded costs against him of £5,000 for a 'dangerous and unpleasant attack' on his wife. 

Whilst confirming that domestic violence sadly occurs in all strata of society, this case also serves to illustrate a not untypical situation whereby the victim either seeks to alter, minimise or retract their evidence, thus making the job of the prosecution that much more difficult. In such cases it is also quite common for the perpetrator either to be in denial, or intent on significant minimisation. For these reasons attendance on a Domestic Violence groupwork programme would not be appropriate as acceptance of culpability is a pre-requisite.

Clearly the District Judge felt that in this case being sentenced to a period of some serious talking to by a probation officer might be beneficial. In terms of punishment, it would seem most unlikely that he can continue to sit in judgement of others. My sympathy goes out to whichever officer finds themselves having to supervise the case because I think they will certainly have to earn their salary. I don't think Mr Allen is likely to be the most unchallenging and co-operative of probationers. In my experience the middle classes are invariably more trouble.   

Wednesday 22 June 2011

So,What Now?

Ken Clarke has followed orders and executed his non u-turn with panache. The 50% guilty plea discount is now a dead duck, which leaves a hole in his departments budget that is not unadjacent to £130 million. Suddenly there's no mention of the 'secret' deal with the Treasury that supposedly would protect Ken's rear end if, for whatever reason, the reduction in prison numbers did not materialise.

The suspicion now is that virtually all the shortfall will have to be found from 'efficiency' savings elsewhere in the MoJ and the Prime Minister's singular failure to confirm the position regarding the Probation Service almost certainly means that significant cuts are round the corner. In a piece of exquisite timing, you can almost hear the vultures circling with this upbeat launch of the new Community Justice Partnership. Consisting of a consortium involving Nacro, Working Links and Sodexo, they intend to bid for a good chunk of the forthcoming contracts in the prison, probation or other services that will becoming available shortly.

"The Community Justice Partnership will harness the shared values and goals of each organisation to deliver a fresh and innovative approach, delivering at large scale and through new collaborations with the public sector. Beginning with Essex Probation Trust, the Community Justice Partnership will be joining forces with public sector bodies across England and Wales to help provide better services for less cost."

Of course the whole tenor and purpose of David Cameron's announcement on sentencing is to reassure the right wing that the government intends to 'be tough on crime.' So although announcing that Indeterminate Public Protection sentences would be phased out, apparently they will be replaced with more mandatory Life Sentences. This will seriously upset judges who, quite rightly, object to having their room for manoeuvre constrained.

Mr Cameron said that the government intended ending the practice of prisoners being released automatically at the half way point if they had committed rape or other violent crimes. This seems to indicate a return of the involvement by the Parole Board in such cases which should be beneficial, not least in encouraging participation in prison groupwork programmes and in reducing recall rates.

The suggested imposition of automatic prison sentences for offences involving threats with a knife, whilst sounding tough and reassuring to some, will indoubtedly lead to problems further down the line in terms of being able to define exactly what is meant by 'threatening' as opposed to mere possession. The suspicion is that this measure alone will result in significantly more short term prison sentences, when the aim has been the opposite of course. But then the whole charade only serves to illustrate yet again how criminal justice policy remains firmly trapped between the competing demands of either political or economic expediency, rather than any rational debate.   

Tuesday 21 June 2011

We Really Don't Know

I believe it's generally accepted that most types of crime have been falling in the UK over recent years with only sex offending appearing to buck the trend. The same has been noticed in the United States with a steady decline recorded over the last 20 years, but to everyone's surprise there has been a dramatic drop in the last 2 years. This is particularly surprising as it appears counter-intuitive at a time of economic recession and high unemployment.

In this article 10 possible reasons are put forward to try and explain what exactly is going on. They range from the rather nebulous concept of an 'Obama effect' to the proliferation of camera phones. It could be due to a reduction in the use of crack, smarter policing, crime mapping of hotspots, an increase in abortions, a reduction of lead in petrol, the baby boomers having grown up or kids all being inside watching video games.

Of course it could be because all the bad guys are already in prison.

"A sociologist at Tufts University, John Conklin, says a significant factor behind the fall in crime in the 1990s was the fact that more criminals were behind bars and therefore unable to offend. In his book Why Crime Rates Fell, he says sentencing was lenient in the 60s and 70s, when crime rose, and then more prisons were built and more offenders were imprisoned. But others question why crime has continued to fall recently when budget constraints have kept the prison population relatively flat."

So in reality we don't seem to know, which is a sobering thought because if that is the case, I'm pretty sure we don't really know what works in terms of rehabilitation either. 

Monday 20 June 2011

Drug Treatment Isn't Working

I've been saying it for ages and pretty well every Probation Officer has known it for ages too. Our one-size-fits-all approach to drug dependency by prescribing methadone isn't working. The utterly flawed case for this treatment method is comprehensively demolished in a recently published report by the right-wing think tank Centre for Policy Studies. The whole policy has been a disgraceful waste of time, money and effort and done nothing to reduce the problem - in fact it's almost certainly made the whole situation worse. 

During the period that the Labour government was imposing this strategy through the National Treatment Agency, they oversaw the disgraceful demise of almost all residential rehabilitation facilities, thus leaving prison as the only 'residential' drug treatment facility available. Of course this is nonsensical, both in terms of cost and the need to commit offences in order to get a prison 'rehab' bed. But sadly in prison there will invariably be little counselling and only prescribed methadone as an alternative to illegal drugs that are widely available. Despite this, many people find it a viable and preferential option and some do manage to detoxify or become 'stabalised' on a methadone script. 

In addition to ridiculing the accepted professional view that methadone prescribing works and is cost-effective, the report makes it clear that in their view the only answer is to work towards total drug abstinence. Whilst not cheap as it would involve the financing of new residential bedspaces, they make the point that if the outcomes are improved, it would be money well spent.

Whilst I agree fully with this view and have long-lamented the disappearance of residential treatment places, I think I need to sound a note of caution. This report is in danger of falling into the same trap of believing that there is only one answer to the drug problem and that it lies with total abstinence. Every person is different and their drug problem and attitude to substance misuse will differ. The solution therefore has to be tailored to that individual and it might involve the opposite option of prescribing heroin, rather than encouraging total abstinence. Understandably perhaps this gets no mention in a report advocating abstinence, but there is evidence that such a policy can work well for some people. It seems that in some instances heroin can be less addictive than methadone and ironically can be easier to withdraw from.   

This report is extremely important and timely in serving to highlight how the situation might well get worse due to impending changes being introduced by the coalition government. Whist the new government accepts that current policies are not working, their answer is to change the payment method to drug agencies rather than change the underlying policy. The report explains that 'Payment by Result' experiments will begin in October this year tailored to proxy outcomes such as housing or employment, but specifically excluding projects that wish to pursue an abstinence route. This is completely misguided and I agree entirely that such agencies ought to be included in PbR schemes with their payment linked to rewarding evidence of abstinence outcomes. That seems a sensible idea to me, rather than just rewarding the present methadone treatment industry differently.

Friday 17 June 2011

To Lie : Or Not to Lie?

A couple of recent contributions to the Prisoners Families Views blogsite about having to lie on CV's in order to get a job got me thinking. Of course this issue about whether to tell a potential employer the truth or not has been around for as long as I can remember. When I say truth, I don't just mean being a bit 'economical' by inflation, exaggeration or omission, I mean direct lies about criminal convictions or fictitious information to cover periods of imprisonment. I'm pretty sure I'm right in saying it is an offence in itself and certainly leaves the individual open to instant dismissal should the truth come out.

The argument seems to be that a person is left no choice because in an age of high unemployment, what employer is going to take the risk of taking on a person with a criminal record and possibly history of imprisonment? I have a degree of sympathy with this argument and would be the first to acknowledge that the whole employment landscape has changed beyond recognition over my lifetime. For instance, I can recall the halcyon days of full employment and seemingly endless opportunities for unskilled labour, apprenticeships, supernumerary posts and even dare I say, jobs paying 'cash-in-hand' only. A criminal record was certainly no bar to many of these positions and I well remember my father employing people straight from prison just on a phone call from the local probation officer.

But this was an age before managerialism and everything became bureaucratised. We didn't have CV's back then, just a simple application form that didn't even mention criminal convictions. Now we live in an environment of health and safety, CRB checks, litigation, employers liability insurance etc. The question will come up and therefore the issue cannot be avoided - to lie, or not to lie? It will be no great surprise to anyone that a Probation Officer's advice is almost certainly to tell the truth. Fortunately, as CV's have evolved, they have become much more about experiences, qualifications and expertise than just a list of dates and employment. The aim of a CV is to get to interview stage and have a strategy prepared in advance in order to discuss any offending history.

Now I can almost hear the cries of 'get real.' But before either giving up reading any further, or reaching for the comment box, bear a number of things in mind from a potential employers point of view. Firstly, there are many, many people out there in society who have criminal records and are now in settled employment. The person interviewing you may well have been in trouble with the law years before and minded to give someone a break, indeed just like the break they got. Secondly, there are many responsible and enlightened employers who realise that a person with a criminal history, but one who is well-motivated towards change, could well be just that loyal and hard-working employee they are looking for. Thirdly, potential employers will always be interested in candidates who give of themselves and demonstrate honesty. In the end an employer not only wants staff who do a good job, but also that are honest.

Over the years I've known many clients successfully gain employment, even including former prisoners subject to Life Licence. In my experience barriers to employment are much more likely to be because of issues such as illiteracy, attitude or presentation than criminal history. Serving long term prisoners gain employment all the time as part of resettlement plans through Open Prisons on day release. The scheme works because there is honesty between the individual and the local employer. Employers don't agree to take such people on out of a sense of civic responsibility or paternalism, although there may be elements of both. They do it because they know they are getting good, well motivated employees. 

It may surprise some people to know that there are companies that positively discriminate in favour of people with criminal histories and there are some that only employ ex-offenders. An example of the former is Timpson's, a well known high street chain of shoe repairers and photoshops and a new company Blue Sky is an example of the latter. Basically there are signs of a return to a much more enlightened attitude towards ex-offenders generally amongst employers. The fact is that they often make excellent employees. So, for all these reasons, I would say think very carefully before submitting that dodgy CV.  


Thursday 16 June 2011

Justice Affairs Committee 10

Thursday 7th June saw the Committee taking evidence from a further range of people, including John Thornhill Chairman of the Magistrates Association. I was particularly struck by this opening exchange:

Q556 Karl Turner: Thank you very much indeed, gentlemen. Very generally then, I wonder whether the Probation Service has changed over the last five or 10 years. It was initially established to provide a service to the magistrates’ court. Has that changed in any way?

John Thornhill: In terms of whether those services have changed, the changes are that there have been developments and improvements in those services. You refer in the document here to a reduction in custodial sentences over a particular period of time. I think that is partly due to the fact that a wider range of services have been provided for magistrates to impose community orders with attendant programmes. Also, the quality of reports and assistance that is now given in the courts has significantly developed over the years and it is now possible if we are lucky enough to have a probation officer in court-we are in Liverpool-to engage in a dialogue and debate with the probation officer, the defendant and defendant’s representative about what might be appropriate penalties, punishments or disposals that could be used in the courts. So, yes, we believe that the Probation Service has considerably improved in the last 10 years. It has changed its focus. It was social services at one time. It is no longer that. It is a deliverer of sentences and, overall, a very positive deliverer of sentences.

With the greatest respect to Mr Thornhill, I don't think this paints a fair representative picture. He refers to the quality of reports and assistance in court having been 'developed' over the years and being lucky enough to have a 'probation officer' in court. Well I think the trend in reports over the period has been one of steady decline, both in the quality of SDR's, the inexorable move towards inferior FDR's and the removal of Probation Officers and their replacement with less experienced and often unqualified Probation Services Officers. 

Later on he says:-

We talked about fast delivery reports. We welcome that. In my court, where we have probation in attendance, I can get a fast delivery report in one or two hours and deal with the offender. That is in the best interests of justice. But what about the court where the Probation Service is 30 or 40 miles away? What we need to do is look at how we can use the Probation Service effectively to get a fast delivery report, even if it means using modern technology via video links, so that the court can sentence expeditiously and in a proportionate way.

Of course there is a place for FDR's, but surely this was the time for the Chair of the Magistrates Association to flag up concern that NOMS have recently instructed Probation Trusts to make the FDR the standard pre-sentence report. Probation Officers are finding it increasingly difficult to justify to their managers the preparation of a full SDR, for which 7.5 hours is allowed, rather than an FDR, requiring only 2.5 hours maximum. There is growing evidence that officers who attempt to challenge the use of the cheaper and inferior report are being bullied and pressurised by managers. Unless this issue is brought up as a matter of urgency, SDR's will all but disappear and serious offences will be dealt with on the basis of a 'tick-box' FDR. 

Wednesday 15 June 2011

The Fairy Jobmother

I've previously said that in my experience very few clients ever set out with the positive intention of wanting to live a life without work. However they often find themselves in a self-fulfilling cycle of despair at ever being able to gain sustainable employment by virtue of a whole host of factors ranging from illiteracy to drug addiction. Having a criminal record and virtually no employment history just makes matters worse and at a time of rising unemployment and personal low self-esteem in the jargon means that they remain 'difficult to place.'

This is not a new phenomena and successive governments have tried to address the issue in various ways, the most useful in my view being the old job creation schemes introduced in the 70's and 80's. Indeed I benefited from one called STEP, the Short Term Employment Programme which by a convoluted route eventually resulted in my gaining a place at University as a mature student. Virtually no one is 'unemployable' in my view but again in the words of the new terminology, getting some people 'job ready' may take quite a bit of special effort.

The coalition government has decided to use rather more stick than carrot in an attempt to get as many people off state benefits and into employment as possible. Contracts have recently been awarded to a range of organisations who will deliver the new Work Programme and the Channel 4 tv series 'The Fairy Jobmother' follows Hayley Taylor a so-called job expert as she attempts to get small groups of long-term unemployed 'job ready' through a two week Job Club. 

I'd like to think that I'm a fairly easy-going sort of person, but I would find Hayley's particular approach to her work insufferable. I know many clients who would be tempted to smack her in the mouth in response to her particular style of patronisation. As if that wasn't bad enough, I can't help feeling that her particular brand of home-spun philosophy and 'mind games' could potentially be extremely damaging.

I've watched her in operation a few times during an earlier series and been shocked at the sheer ineptitude and insensitivity of her approach to often emotionally vulnerable people. She appears to delight in that old army training trick of first breaking people down and then when the tears flow, picking them all up. Despite most participants gaining employment, which is great, I think Hayley Taylor is dangerous and I take my hat off to the patience of the participants because I know I couldn't suffer her at any price. Oh, and she needs to lose those irritating neck scarves in my view.

Tuesday 14 June 2011

Dispatches from Bristol

The latest episode of Channel 4's 'Dispatches' screened on Monday 13th June and entitled 'The Thief Catchers' helped shed a bit more light on what dealing with chronic long term users of heroin was like when they're not a rich banker or wealthy bond trader. In order to feed their habit, each has to steal a small fortune on a regular basis either through shoplifting, street robbery or burglary. There is a general trend towards escalation in offending as their faces get well known to shopkeepers and they get moved on. Lying to all and sundry becomes automatic and consummate, even to friends and family in order to satisfy the constant craving for another fix.

In Bristol this type of offender comes within the remit of a Safer Community Partnership
initiative called IMPACT, but run in close co-operation with the local Drug Intervention Programme. The documentary served to illustrate just how the police have become key players in the whole 'offender management' business as a result of the last Labour governments 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime' policy. I know partnerships are a much vaunted thing nowadays, but it still struck me that PC Dave was just doing PO Declans job.

The film followed the fortunes of three long-term male drug users, each of whom had earned the title 'prolific offender.' I found this slightly confusing because I don't think IMPACT is a Prolific and other Priority Offender project (PPO), but there are so many acronyms in offending nowadays it might be. Such schemes are similarly made up of all relevant agencies and undertake to offer clients a so-called 'premium' service. The IMPACT initiative did seem to be run on similar lines as supported accommodation appeared to be on offer pretty quickly, as did drug treatment or 'rehab' as it was continually referred to. 

Unfortunately the makers of the film never told us exactly what sort of drug treatment the three guys received. My guess is that it would have been methadone replacement and I don't call this 'being in rehab'. The trouble is that definitions have changed as proper residential drug rehab beds have become like hens teeth. A place in a hostel and community prescribing through DIP I guess now counts as 'rehab, but as Shaun's case in particular demonstrates, changing entrenched attitudes and long-term addictions is a mighty uphill struggle and failure is routine. Well it is when we insist on not using alternatives like prescribing heroin. I suspect Shaun wouldn't have felt quite the need to blow his entire Community Care grant of £2,000 on street gear if he could get a script.

Actually Shaun highlighted how the whole person and all their needs have to be addressed in order to try and effect change. His arm-slashing whilst in prison was not so much a mental health issue as an emotional issue, but this is often misunderstood as the recent 'Strangeways' documentaries showed on ITV. 

Overall a useful insight I suppose into just how difficult and depressing the whole subject of drug-abuse is. I did chuckle at one point early on though when we saw a typical new-looking probation officer, or probation services officer, walk into the interview room with several large ring binders, one of which looking suspiciously like an OASys manual. We watched her telling the guy that she wanted him to do a victim empathy test and place various offences in order of seriousness. Unfortunately we didn't hear how she dealt with his reasoning that maybe murder was quite understandable in certain circumstances and possession of a firearm wasn't that serious.      

Friday 10 June 2011

Some Observations 6

Whilst all the right-wing press were celebrating the news that Ken Clarke had been forced to undertake a u-turn on sentencing discounts for guilty pleas, more considered commentators were left wondering how the planned savings of £130million could be delivered from the prisons budget. After all in Kens overall sentencing and rehabilitation reform plans, the lions share of savings were due to be as a result of this measure alone. It may still survive for offences other than rape or other violent acts, but apparently the Prime Minister is now keen on the idea being ditched altogether. 

But far from being all-washed up, Ken Clarke is a wily operator who sensed there might be problems way back last year in the fraught discussions with the Chancellor.  As a result of some clever negotiation he secured a special deal whereby the Treasury agreed to fund any shortfall, should he be unable to reduce the prison population for any reason. No doubt he reminded his boss of this when he went into no10 for a chat on Wednesday. 

Today is the day start of the governments flagship new Work Programme that's designed to get some of the most entrenched unemployed back to work. This group are featured fairly regularly on Inspector Gadjets blogsite and of course many are well known to the Probation Service. Depending on your point of view, it could be seen as an admirable attempt at tackling an enduring problem, pretty much created by an earlier Conservative government intent on massaging the unemployment figures by pushing people onto Sickness Benefit. Or it could be viewed as an opportunity for the private sector to rake in up to £3billion over the 7 year life of the contracts. 

Under the Payment by Results method of rewarding contractors, a considerable 'price' is now attached to this 'difficult to place' group and can amount to a staggering £14,000 if they remain in a job for between 6 months and 2 years. With potential rewards like that available to the likes of Serco or G4S, no wonder there was keen competition for the contracts. Whilst there might be a temptation to 'cherry pick' easy cases, no doubt some interesting thinking has been going on as to how the difficult group can be incentivised to keep any job. That's where the big money is. Wouldn't it be novel if the person got a big chunk of that sort of dosh on offer?

We wait to see, but meanwhile it should be a sobering thought for Probation Officers that the stick for non-compliance is considerable with Benefits withdrawn for 13 weeks on a first failure and 26 weeks on a second. Sanctions like that can't fail to have a potential knock-on effect for possible criminal activity, which of course will be self-defeating in terms of another government policy of reducing crime and custodial sentences. 

Finally, with all the depressing stuff about how some families and clients view probation, it's good to see at least one positive story  has surfaced on the Prisoners Families Views website.

(I'm off for a few days so there will be a break in transmission until early next week) 


Thursday 9 June 2011

Probation : A Tarnished Brand?

Anyone who's been following this blog will know I've been getting increasingly concerned about how probation is coming to be perceived by many of our clients. Of course probation officers have always had to deal with a certain degree of complaint from clients either when we fail to deliver something or we have to exercise our public protection role. But generally speaking, under the ethos of 'advise, assist and befriend' most officers enjoyed good, supportive and constructive working relationships with their clients. There was a general understanding of our role and our place within the criminal justice system. They even used to understand when sometimes we had to recall them.

Well for anyone who might feel in need of confirmation as to exactly where our standing is currently, I suggest more than a casual glance at this brilliant website 'Prisoners Families Voices.' It makes for very uncomfortable reading, but sadly rings true in many respects and makes my heart absolutely sink. I hope the organisers of the site will not mind me quoting from several recent posts in order to give a flavour for the depth of feelings.

"My partner is on licence and he asked for another probation officer. At first they refused, but we really had to push things because the previous probation officer wasn't assisting him with anything. If these people call themselves, 'offender managers' then that job does not just entail sitting behind a desk and saying ' see you next week' on an appointment, otherwise, what really is the point of probation officers going to prison and supposedly doing resettlement plans? My partner was supposed to have one of these plans but it's been a load of rubbish. He came out of prison with loads of paperwork and goes to probation for a 5 minute check in? What's the point?"

"I would like to reply to Anon-e-mouse please. My partner too was put in to a probation hostel and he is now back in prison on recall. He used to ring me up of a night and he let me listen to the 'goings' on in there. It was disgusting. My partner was doing well in prison and went on a TC wing to address his drug use issues. I have no criminal record or even any Police warnings, yet probation thought it was best that he went in to one of their so called rehabilitation hostels to settle in to the community. That lasted 3 weeks because he could not cope anymore in there. He rang probation, I rang probation and all they kept saying was, " just try and stick with it." So what's the score with probation? Do they refuse to listen to their clients and family members? In read a post on your blog the other day where a family member said that her partner wasn't appealing his recall because he would rather not have any dealing with probation on release. My partner decided the same thing because it really is just not worth the hassle dealing with those morons!

"It's an easy procedure. There's no crime involved. All you have to do is, walk out of a probation hostel, commonly known as a crack den, go and sleep somewhere decent for the night away from the piss heads and junkies who are causing havoc, and hey presto! You're on your way to the local Cat B prison on a sweat box. Simples! The last probation hostel I went to was in, Accrington, in Lancashire. Looks great on their website, but what a dive! They ran these rehabilitation programmes. Ex offenders in the age range of between 30-40, did group sessions such as playing word games, catching Frisbee's, and feeding ducks. You don't believe me? I swear down it's true! I'm not sure whether they played Hopscotch, but saying we are talking about the UK Probation Service, I wouldn't put it past them."

Ignoring for one moment the merits of all, some, or none of the complaints, the point that this website brings home forcefully is that the Probation Service gave up long ago involving families in our work. I well remember when I joined we had a families support group in the office and assisted in organising subsidised coaches to visit far-flung prisons. We did home visits as a routine part of our work and there were concepts called Kindred Social Work and Family Therapy. Anyone remember that? 

All this has been cast aside under the guise of it no longer being part of our core work. We are no longer social workers. It's not about welfare it's all about risk isn't it? But just look at the effect all this is having. What's the point and what can we hope to achieve if we can't bring clients and their families along with us?   

Wednesday 8 June 2011

What Price a Discount?

Much as I admire the eloquence of Inspector Gadjet, recognise much of the malaise that he describes and have sympathy for the situation that the police find themselves in, he really does annoy me sometimes. There's no point in pretending he doesn't and I'm sure he chuckles at causing liberal-thinkers to see red, but it's the sheer nonsense he comes out with sometimes that gets me. Take this for instance recently:-

"Even if the Courts in this country were not the softest most accommodating and gullible in the developed world (which they are)........."

Admittedly this was in the context of discussing domestic violence and the recent tragic double murder in Essex, but he regularly has a pop at the Courts and plays that popular right-wing tabloid press game of ridiculing sentencing decisions without full knowledge of the case. If we have the 'softest most accommodating and gullible courts in the developed world' how come we have the largest prison population per capita of virtually any European or developed country? 

Of course America imprisons far more people, but even over there they are urgently trying to dig themselves out of the vast hole that a policy of mass incarceration has created. It not only costs a fortune, but very little if any rehabilitation is undertaken in prison. I think I read somewhere that 500,000 inmates are due for release annually over coming years and re-offending rates show, as over here, that prison doesn't work. 

Although the assertions of the Police Inspector are sometimes nonsense, it plays well in certain quarters and especially amongst the back benches of the Conservative Party. As expected, partly due to Ken Clarkes recent bout of failing to choose his words carefully, it looks like his mostly well-thought out sentencing and rehabilitation plans could be scuppered because the Prime Minister is getting ear ache from the right-wingers in his party. 

I've never been sure about the policy of increasing the discount for guilty pleas to 50% from 33%, but I do know that if this aspect is dropped, the lions share of intended savings in the Ministry of Justice budget will evaporate. If that happens, where on earth might alternative savings be made? I think Mr Cameron might just decide to face down the right-wingers, have the courage of his convictions and take sentencing policy out of the political arms race where it's been lodged for far too long.  

Tuesday 7 June 2011

A Breath of Fresh Air

A week or two ago the House of Commons Justice Affairs Committee decided to have a day out and went to the seaside. They chose to go to Brighton because Surrey and Sussex Probation Trust were selected some time ago to trial an exciting new probation concept - the idea of giving probation officers discretion and judgement in how they supervised clients. If it wasn't so serious it would be funny. Anyway, the so-called 'Professional Judgement Project' has proved a resounding success and the Chief Executive Sonia Crozier could hardly control her excitement:-

Q493 Sir Alan Beith: There is a balance to be struck between professional standards, professional judgement, professional autonomy, and the setting of externally determined standards, the bounds of which have changed. Are you comfortable with the way that has gone or is going?

Sonia Crozier: In respect to some of the changes that have been made to Probation National Standards?

Sir Alan Beith: Yes.

Sonia Crozier: We’re absolutely delighted. Surrey and Sussex Probation Trust has been the host area for the national pilot, so we were asked in May of last year to develop a framework whereby we would give our probation officers and probation staff more freedom in terms of how they would make decisions around how they would manage individual offenders. Rather than following a one-size-fits-all model, they were given the autonomy back to ask, "How do I want to spend my time? What’s going to have the best impact in terms of the offenders I’m charged to supervise?"

What we have learned over the year of running what has been called the "Professional Judgement Project" is that the probation staff feel more in control. They feel they have been given the right to apply common sense in terms of how resources are allocated, and they can also be more responsive to the offenders, so if people’s circumstances change, they can either up the contact because it seems clear that more contact is required or they can make a sensible decision to reduce contact if in fact there is clear evidence that progress is being made. It has been absolutely welcomed and endorsed, and it has now informed the implementation of the revised National Standards that were released on 1 April this year.

The Trust Chairman John Steele enthusiastically backed his Chief Executive up:-

It might be interesting at this point to ask John Steele, Board Chair from Surrey and Sussex, to give his view, because clearly boards will be holding that responsibility in terms of the safety issues as well.

John Steele: Thank you. Just to add a slightly different perspective on that, clearly it is a concern when you go into new territory. I sat on the programme board, in fact, for the project, and it was interesting to see the journey, and there were anxieties among some staff about letting go, but we helped them through that. We helped them through that with a number of techniques, one of which was to ensure that they record what they do, and actually, they haven’t been used to having to record what they do. They had to tick the box. Now they have to write down what their thought process was, and that has been a learning exercise. Sonia knows it better than I do, but one of the things that some different probation officers have said is that the nature of supervision changes. The nature of what makes a good probation officer has changed. It used to be the person who ticked all the boxes and got everything in on time. Now you’re looking for slightly different skills and a slightly different approach.

It has been a very interesting and exciting journey, and I’m sure, as Sonia says, other trusts will pick this up in a way that is appropriate to them and that maintains public safety, and they won’t all adopt exactly the same approach or exactly the same freedoms. It will depend on where they are in this journey, but it was a really exciting journey and I think this is definitely the way forward. I would far rather have fewer really well-qualified professionals using their judgement than large numbers of staff. You really do need professionals to exercise that judgement.

I think this bit is really interesting:-

"The nature of what makes a good probation officer has changed. It used to be the person who ticked all the boxes and got everything in on time. Now you’re looking for slightly different skills and a slightly different approach."

Oh and this bit:-

"I would far rather have fewer really well-qualified professionals using their judgement than large numbers of staff. You really do need professionals to exercise that judgement."

Oh music to my ears! Now get OASys sorted please!  

(The entire uncorrected evidence can be viewed here.) 

Monday 6 June 2011

More on OASys

In a sense I feel I should apologise for mentioning OASys yet again, however in view of it's all-embracing hold on probation practice and the fact that the public and members of the House of Commons Justice Affairs Committee appear to know little about it, I feel I can't let it rest just yet.

I'm grateful to all those who have taken the trouble to comment on one particular aspect of OASys discussed recently, namely the so-called 'pull-through' Standard Delivery Report which is generated from OASys. The responses tend to confirm that feelings are mixed and can be defined along generational lines. This was certainly the view of Jonathan Ledger the NAPO General Secretary when he gave evidence to the Justice Affairs Committee and probably indicates a degree of heated debate within the Union on the topic.

For me personally, leaving aside for a moment issues as to the effectiveness and utility of the system, what has really amazed me is the lack of knowledge, or willingness to discuss OASys timings. Just how much time does it take up and how long does it take to fill in? As this exchange with Robin Wilkinson, the Director of Human Resources at NOMS shows, the Committee would like to know as well:-    

Q202 Mr Buckland: The problem is-and this might well be what my colleague Anna Soubry is going to ask-that OASys tends to categorise risk as an objective thing, whereas we all know that it is very subjective and depends on the context of each different offender. There are a myriad of different contexts within which that risk needs to be managed. It comes down to discretion really, doesn’t it, rather than processes?

Robin Wilkinson: I think the OASys process is a good process that provides really good, solid, information to enable and support probation officers in making the judgments they have to make, so I think we shouldn’t look to throw away the strength of that in any way, shape or form. I think it is a good part of the process to be worked at-to be validated. But it cannot be viewed in isolation. All of the factors that you mention, I think, are very, very important. It is about using the information that OASys gives you as a starting point, to be able then to provide the input that a professional probation officer does.

Q203 Mr Buckland: But how much time does it take to put together the OASys matrix-the graphs that those of us that have seen PSRs know about? How long does it take? Is the bulk of the work on the case being spent doing OASys rather than directly engaging with the offender and their family?

Robin Wilkinson: I couldn't give you a view on that. I can certainly aim to provide that information if you would like me to do so.

Mr Buckland: Yes, please.

What I find astonishing is that such a significant change in probation practice as the introduction of OASys should go ahead seemingly without full knowledge as to the consequeces in terms of man-hours required to operate it. Here is the Director of Human Resources at NOMS no less admitting that even eight or more years since it's full introduction, he either cannot or will not give an answer to such a basic question about OASys.

I cannot think of another responsible organisation that would commit itself to such a radical change to working practices without first having quantified the likely effects in terms of resources required in order to implement it. Equally, wouldn't you think that with so much water having passed under the bridge NOMS might be able to establish some causal link between its introduction and high workloads, stress and sickness absence, low morale and staff retention?

Saturday 4 June 2011

Too Risky?

Eric Allinson the prisons correspondent of the Guardian wrote an interesting piece for the paper way back in 2007 on a new project being set up at that time called Gate Mate. An initiative by The Princes Trust in partnership with other organisations such as Clinks, the article explained that:-

"Former prisoners are to be appointed to every probation service in England and Wales in a bid to cut the number of young offenders who return to crime after a spell in prison.

The scheme, which builds on an initiative by the Prince of Wales, aims to break the cycle of reoffending by young people.

Following a summit at Clarence House at which Prince Charles met 25 ex-offenders, ministers are working with the Prince's Trust and the probation service to set up a network of former inmates to act as key advisers to the 42 local probation services.

The meeting was called after the trust received hundreds of letters from former prisoners who said that without the help of the charity they would have been back in jail.

Only one of the 25 ex-prisoners at the summit said they had been met by anyone on leaving jail.
Under the new scheme, former prisoners will be appointed as "gate mates", offering one-to-one support to newly released offenders.

One of the first is Mark Johnson, who has been appointed to the probation service in Dorset. Seven years ago, Mr Johnson was a drug addict living on the streets, until he turned to the trust for help.

He now visits young offenders in prison, and said he is overwhelmed by their response to the proposed gate mate scheme."

This sounds like a brilliant idea and I notice that some four years later the GateMate website says:-

"GateMate is striving for the voluntary and community sector to provide a national mentoring service for young adults (aged 18-24) leaving prison."

So what happened to:-

"Former prisoners are to be appointed to every probation service in England and Wales in a bid to cut the number of young offenders who return to crime after a spell in prison."

Possibly the answer lies with the Probation Service having become so bound up with the issue of 'risk' that they've simply decided to steer clear of the thorny issue of allowing ex-offenders to become volunteers. I recall this always was an issue in the past when my own Service had a thriving volunteer organisation, but then summarily decided to dump the whole volunteering thing as not being effective or worthwhile.

I remember thinking at the time how shortsighted and out of step this was with developing ideas on the benefits and synergies of ex-offenders being able to help other offenders. But this requires the taking of some calculated risks. Of course there was a time when the Probation Service would have been in the vanguard of such exciting and innovative developments, but not any more it seems, weighed down as we have been by proscriptive NOMS control and increasing prison philosophy. 

Having said this, I'm aware that several Trusts are experimenting with mentoring projects, but this seems to be on the basis of partnerships with other organisations, rather than via the route of direct volunteer accreditation. I can't help feeling another missed opportunity.

Friday 3 June 2011

Some Observations 5

In yet another example of how common sense might at last triumph, the grandly-titled Global Commission on Drug Policy has issued a report making it plain that the 'war on drugs' is completely pointless and that as a matter of urgency the problem needs a more imaginative response. This is a high-powered outfit consisting of some extremely influential former world leaders including Kofi Annan, former UN Secretary-General, George Shultz former US Secretary of State and George Popandreou, former President of Greece. Their report can be found here.

I guess it was no coincidence that publication was on the same day that a group of celebrities published an open letter to the Prime Minister urging drug decriminalisation. Sadly though this was swiftly condemned as 'naive' by the usual suspects, thus once more demonstrating how any debate on drug policy in this country quickly becomes reduced to a very low level of sophistication. 

For those interested in knowing how the Ministry of Justice's flagship Payment by Results scheme at HMP Peterborough is progressing, I would suggest they have a look at this first report by the independant research team. Amongst other things, they confirm that allocating payment to the right agency for any improved outcome might be a bit tricky. It will be appreciated that a great deal is riding on this experiment whereby rehabilitation of offenders will be paid for on a results basis funded through Social Impact Bonds. It's a world's first and the government hopes it will be the next 'big idea', I suppose a bit like the Public Private Initiative. Or maybe not given the developing realisation of the true costs associated with that particular wheeze.

In fact this is not a good time to be championing the involvement of the private sector in public services with the news about Southern Cross. I seem to remember it was a Tory government that decided that Local Authorities were very expensive and inefficient at running care homes for the elderly. Much better to allow the private sector to do it more cheaply. As a result in little over 20 years only 3% of residential care is now provided by councils and we're faced with the largest private provider, Southern Cross with a staggering 750 homes, going bust. Why? Because of that other financial innovation, the Private Equity Investor. They bought the lot, sold the real estate and then sold the company making a £billion in the process. I think that's called asset stripping, or a good investment depending on your view, but obviously not care for the elderly. 

It's been pointed out to me that Sadiq Khan, the Labour Party spokesperson on Criminal Justice has set up a committee of enquiry consisting of some of the great and good, but conspicuously there is no probation representation. 

Finally, something seems to have gone wrong with the appointment of the new Chief Inspector of Probation. According to Jonathan Ledger of NAPO, Diana Fulbrook is no longer the preferred candidate following her recent appearance in front of the Justice Affairs Committee. I wonder if they were as underwhelmed by her performance as I was?   


Thursday 2 June 2011

Generation Gap

Every now and then a particular post creates a bit more interest than most and my recent piece on OASys entitled 'Rubbish in - Rubbish out' is just such an example. I was particularly struck by the following comment from a relatively newly-qualified officer:-
"I agree with your points about the formulaic and prescriptive nature of OASys and how this can hugely impact on the quality of reports. I too feel that the system could be much improved. I remember reading an article during my training, in which it was argued that OASys far too readily reduces the individual to little more than the sum of sections 1-13. This is an idea that has really stuck with me, and one I am mindful of when proofing my reports.

However, the general tone of this entry makes me rather uncomfortable. The implication is that anyone who does not re-write their reports entirely, once 'generated', is doing a bad job and can't possibly submit a decent piece of work. Are you saying then, that all officers who have qualified in the past decade or so (and whom will have learnt to write their reports in this way) are doing a poor job?

The suggestion makes me feel a little indignant. Yes, I think we would benefit from a partial return to SIR style assessment. Yes, I think that OASys allows for incoherent and illogical reports – if the author doesn’t take the time to thoroughly proof-read and revise them. What I don’t agree with is the insinuation that, in making use of OASys to structure my PSR, I will only ever achieve a shoddy end product. Clearly some staff will have a greater capacity for report writing, larger vocabularies and more distinctive style; a poor report cannot be blamed on OASys alone. As for failing any creative writing test – when did a degree in language and literature become a prerequisite for the job?

I put a lot of time and effort into ensuring that my reports are as good as they can be, given the obvious time constraints. It’s fairly disheartening to hear that more experienced colleagues have such little regard for the work of more recently qualified officers."

For me this really does sum up the problem. Newer officers have only ever known a probation world utterly dictated by proscribed practice through OASys and National Standards. Older colleagues have the benefit, or disbenefit depending on the view taken, of having known the sun-lit uplands of pretty much unfettered professional discretion and judgement. It should not be that surprising that the two worlds sit uneasily alongside each other and I have previously described how trying to adjust drove me to several periods of extended sick leave due to stress.

Remember too that at the same time us older colleagues had to adjust to a change in ethos of the Service, away from its social work roots, to that of a Law Enforcement Agency. Training and recruitment moved from degree and CQSW courses at academic institutions, to NVQ and degree in-house training and distance learning. So what I'm trying to say in this blog should be seen in this context. I have also been hugely indignant and disheartened, both for myself and newer colleagues. 

In my view the author of the above has every right to feel indignant, but hopefully with the situation rather than the commentator. It has never been my intention to cause offence, but there is a generational issue in relation to OASys. Indeed Jonathan Ledger the NAPO General Secretary recently highlighted this during his evidence to the Justice Affairs Committee. Basically he said that opinion was divided on OASys depending on when people joined the Service. But I think there is reason to believe that newer colleagues are becoming increasingly disillusioned with current practice and are asking searching questions of older colleagues as to how things used to be done.

This trend is likely to increase, especially with the recent abandonment of the incredibly proscribed National Standards. As with older colleagues who have had to adjust to structural change, newer colleagues are finding this development unsettling as they are encouraged to use a greater degree of discretion and judgement - a situation they feel justifiably unprepared for.  

So, where does this leave OASys, particularly in relation to it being a rational and effective method of 'writing' court reports? It's barmy of course and as the author of the piece above confirms, the finished result is down to how much editing, tweaking, revision and proofing of the 'generated' text is thought to be necessary. I have previously said that by the way OASys is structured, the end result is likely to be focused on problems and issues, rather than strengths and positives and therefore not really likely to give a 'balanced' picture. I don't think that the proscribed format allows for a three-dimensional view of the offender or a passionate and well-argued case for a particular course of action. This has to be added later.

But why should it be like this? You wouldn't write an essay like this, would you? This is an unbelievably time-consuming, bureaucratic and clunky method of achieving something that then needs a whole lot more work on. In all honesty, wouldn't it be a brilliant idea to start with a blank sheet of paper, four basic headings and just write the damned thing? You know, like an essay? 

Wednesday 1 June 2011

End of the Road for SDR

Following on from my recent post about the dreadful OASys-generated Standard Delivery Reports, I now feel I need to say something about their impending demise, almost certainly to be replaced at Magistrates Courts by Fast Delivery Reports. 

It's all to do with resources of course and the need to save money. Due to the imposition of OASys, the allocation of time for preparing a full SDR is 7.5 hours. But instead of admitting that OASys is completely unwieldy and far too time-consuming, the alternative option being rolled out is a reduction in the numbers being written instead. With no need for OASys, the time allocation for an FDR is only 1.5 hours.

Coming hard on the heels of a NOMS instruction to increase the number of FDR's to 70%, some Probation Trusts are already moving towards eliminating SDR's from the Magistrates Courts completely. The only exceptions might be for serious domestic violence or mental health cases, but management would like to see these done on FDR's as well. Incredibly FDR's are increasingly being used for serious offences at Crown Court and a recent instruction from NOMS - PI/05/11 - states that the FDR will become the 'standard' document. 

This is nothing short of scandalous and will have the effect of 'dumbing down' the service that Probation provides to courts. It will be appreciated that comparing the two is like comparing a Rolls Royce with a Fiat Punto. It's almost as if there is some sort of collective amnesia as to what a probation report is for and what a good one should look like. 

Throughout the history of the Probation Service one of the key aspects of the job has been to provide sentencers with an alternative and balanced view of the defendant. The nature of our adversarial Criminal Justice System necessarily results in the Court being presented with somewhat biased and slanted information from the prosecution and defence respectively. The role of the Probation Officer has, in the words of the recently retired Chief Inspector of Probation, to supply a three-dimensional view of a person in what is essentially a two-dimensional process. 

In my view this cannot ever be achieved satisfactorily and for the benefit of all concerned if the resulting probation report merely rehearses the information the Court has already heard and runs through the various sentencing options available with some comment as to the likely outcome. This is typically all that is on offer with an FDR and becoming increasingly so with OASys-generated SDR's.

For a probation report to be of any real use to sentencers it must paint a three-dimensional picture of the individual. It will be balanced, rounded, nuanced and help sentencers to really understand the person being discussed, their background, why their life has taken the direction that it has, try and explain their actions, hopes, aspirations, strengths and weaknesses. Above all, anyone reading such a report should have no doubt what the issues are and what the author feels would be the best course of action that both satisfies punishment and encourages rehabilitation.

Essentially, by the time the reader reaches the penultimate paragraph, they should have in mind where the argument is heading and as a consequence the final paragraph should hold no great surprises and only rarely a pick-and-mix menu of options. In my view it should be a cogent, well-argued and sometimes passionate explanation for a particular outcome that forms the basis for a sentencer to decide if it makes sense or not. Conversely it should help a sentencer to crystallise the reasons why they disagree. 

My real worry is that OASys-generated SDR's and 'tick-box' FDR's have in effect destroyed the real usefulness of probation reports, de-skilled officers in the process and damaged the cause of effective sentencing in the process.