Wednesday 31 August 2011

Anniversary Fever

I'm conscious that this piece of self-indulgence will shortly reach it's first anniversary and being somewhat sentimental, I can't let my impending enforced sojourn from the computer interfere with marking the occasion in some way.

It's been quite a journey of surprises, enlightenment and not infrequent laughs. I've been genuinely surprised by the amount of interest, especially from clients and I must admit I had never considered myself particularly well prepared for the role of 'agony aunt.' It's been a great relief not to have attracted so-called 'trolls' that seem to be the bain of so many blogs and I'm not being platitudinous in saying that feedback in the form of readers comments really does lift an authors spirits when it seems you might just be 'whistling in the dark.' Thankyou to everyone who took the trouble to comment.

This blog started out of my personal outrage and pent-up frustration about a vocation I care very much about. Probation as a concept or as a 'job' has never been particularly well understood and if my mission has been about anything, it's been about trying to convey the subtleties, skills and workings of a simple idea that's been around for well over a hundred years. But sadly too often I've found myself responding to it's systematic marginalisation and without mincing words, impending destruction. 

It's quite ironic really that at a time when our still fairly-new government is using rhetoric such as 'localism', the same government is doing its best to further centralise major aspects of the criminal justice system such as Magistrates Courts, Police and of course Probation. All this whilst imposing across-the-board cost savings and at the same time encouraging an explosion in prison numbers as a result of recent riots. A truly effective Probation Service is needed now more than ever.

A year on I wish I could say that I felt more optimistic about our future, but I can't. The recent Justice Select Committee report failed in my view to get to grips with OASys and it's fundamental negative effect on Probation. The Pre Sentence Report, an absolute cornerstone of our work, is all but dead, killed off by OASys and Probation Management no less and now seemingly with the full support of senior Judges. This is a recent quote from the Director of Operations of a large metropolitan service:-

"In respect of our work with courts, we are looking to shift the bulk of offender/defendant assessment from pre to post sentence........This approach has been endorsed by two senior Judges........We are currently in discussion about the relevance of this approach in the Magistrates Courts."  

So that's it then. No need for PSR's. I'm not sure there's much of a need for Probation any more. But maybe I'm just getting carried away with anniversary fever and the feeling will pass? All being well, I hope to be back in mid September.     

Monday 22 August 2011

What Price a PSR?

Regular readers will be aware that I have previously discussed at some length the disgraceful fall in standard of computer-generated Pre-Sentence Reports and have gone as far as to predict their complete demise. When the history comes to be written, I believe that the blame will be placed fairly and squarely at the door of OASys. It's been pretty much a self-inflicted double-whammy, not only making the production of a quality piece of work nigh on impossible, it's more than doubled the time it takes to prepare and hence doubled the cost.

Rather than admit that the whole thing has been a disaster, management ushered in the so-called Fast Delivery Report which had the handy aspect of avoiding the time-consuming OASys completely. They could be completed by non qualified staff and within a matter of an hour or so. But, according to Jonathan Ledger's NAPO blog, even this is being dispensed with by some courts in the rush to deliver speedy justice to some of the early riot defendants. Of the two young men sentenced at Chester Crown Court recently to four years each for Incitement on Facebook he says:-

"Word is that in this case the Court did not want either a standard or even a fast delivery report but merely an on the spot assessment of the impact of custody on the defendants by the Probation Service. I don't know how common this practice is becoming but it is a disgrace and runs against the state's duty to properly assess background and behaviour."

If correct, it seems my ominous prediction some time ago has come to fruition rather sooner than even I predicted. It will be very interesting indeed to see what the Appeal Court makes of this aspect of these two cases. According to press reports, Lord Justice Judge has cleared his diary in order to fast-track any appeals, so we should find out what the higher courts' view is pretty quickly. My feeling and hope is that the sidelining of proper probation PSR's in this somewhat unseemly rush to summary justice for the rioters will be scrutinised thoroughly by the Appeal Court and Judges reminded of their duty to commission full reports.  

As an aside, I notice that there are several urgent appeals on the Guardian website for qualified probation officers in London required immediately for court work.

Thursday 18 August 2011


I'm probably being a little presumptuous, but regular readers might have wondered why the silence of late, particularly given the vast quantity of comment and analysis that has been flowing on the airwaves and via the blogosphere in the wake of the riots. I haven't been away on holiday yet, but to be honest I've been having a long think.

Thank goodness the rioting stopped, but the row between police and politicians about who should take the credit has been unseemly to say the least. The Criminal Justice System has sprung into action rather quicker than most felt it was capable of and I've certainly been amazed with the speed some committals to Crown Court have been effected, and weighed off indeed. The first cases dealt with at Manchester Crown Court, by the Recorder no less, clearly had the benefit of fast probation Pre Sentence Reports, but it seems most if not all were current clients with significant offending histories.

The two young men of previous good character and who received four years imprisonment at Chester Crown Court for Incitement has attracted much adverse comment as being far too harsh for what friends described as 'a prank or just having a laugh on Facebook'. I've been trying to decide what I might have put in their PSR's in terms of sentencing recommendations.

Firstly, had they related the 'having a laugh' line to me, they would have been on the receiving end of a lecture, a form of client engagement I haven't used much but which can still be appropriate at certain times. I'm not a lawyer, but I'm not sure any appeal will succeed significantly because of the context in which these two lads decided to 'have a laugh.'

Mayhem was breaking out in many parts of the country, some initiated by incitement via social networking media, and these two decide to 'copycat' with a geographic location, time and invitation to rampage. As a result it necessitated deployment of significant police resources at a time of emergency and when they might have been required at other locations urgently. It is not unlike the making of malicious phone calls to the fire service at a time of serious emergency. Not unlike the joke of 'having a bomb' on a plane at a time of heightened security, or shouting 'Fire!' in a crowded theatre even.

To me these and other examples such as stealing lifebelts or in the past vandalising phone boxes so they are not available for emergency use, all serve to underline the fact that every citizen has shared responsibilities as well as rights. It underlines that actions have consequences, some unintended but serious nevertheless. Normally society can get along relatively well when there is a clear majority of people acting responsibly, but when the balance tips as it did the other week, that is the context in which punishment has to be assessed.

Secondly, just because a riot did not result from this particular act of incitement, is not greatly significant in my view. As far as I know, the act of attempting arson endangering life can be treated as seriously as if arson resulted and lives were put at risk. Only lack of skill or good fortune might have averted a much worse situation, but if either intent or recklessness were present, the perpetrator would be likely to receive serious punishment. 

I think my report would have made a not-too-serious suggestion for Unpaid Work, but with an acknowledgement that if the Judge felt only imprisonment was appropriate, it could be suspended. I don't think this would have been an appropriate occasion in which to turn up at court in person in support of my report. In short, I don't think it would have been a full blown, fully articulated and argued plea for a community disposal, because of the context in which the offence had been committed. I notice that Inspector Gadjet is making much of the courts demonstrating that they can hand out 'decent sentences', but as I say, they have to be viewed in context. 

Perhaps I might not go as far as saying they got what they deserved, but I do say I'm not surprised. In relation to some of the first cases dealt with at Manchester Crown Court, the sentencing judges' full reasoning is well worth reading.          

Friday 12 August 2011

Beware Politicians

Having seemingly recovered from the ignominy of the expenses scandal and bruising from the universal aprobrium heaped upon them as a result, but emboldened by the facing down of Rupert Murdoch, politicians now seem hell bent on flexing their muscles. The recent pronouncements by prime minister David Cameron in the wake of the riots were clearly designed to sound tough and have played well both in Parliament and the country at large. But not everyone is happy with the tough rhetoric and indeed there are mutterings that our senior politicians having exceeded their authority.

A piece in yesterday's Guardian written by an experienced lay magistrate and popular blogger raises concerns over what appeared to be instructions by the prime minister as to how the courts should deal with those arrested and charged with riot-related offences. We all know that under our famously unwritten constitution the Judiciary are supposedly independent and historically don't take kindly to being pushed around by government. This is particularly true of the Lay Bench, as recently demonstrated here.

But it would be naive to think that as a result of the unprecedented public disorder and numbers arrested that the Criminal Justice System would just tick along as usual, but possibly at a slightly higher gear. Huge numbers of arrested people had to be shipped out of the capital to surrounding police custody suites and Magistrates Courts in several cities undertook all-night sittings. The thing is, unless I can be corrected, these all night courts have not been the preserve of Lay Benches, but rather exclusively District Judges. 

Ever since the few Stipendiary Magistrates were renamed and increased in number, there have been understandabe tensions between them and the Lay Bench. There was a widespread suspicion that it was all part of a grand plan to do away with unpaid, amateur justices, not withstanding their 700 year-old history, and replace them all with highly paid professional judges. Although this has been regularly denied and further recruitment slowed down, tensions still remain that all the interesting or difficult stuff get reserved to the DJ.

To some extent this is an understandable consequence of having paid Judges, but the suspicion now is that they have been influenced by political pronouncements over how to deal with rioters. Many being processed through recent all night sittings have been denied bail and there is just a tad of a suspicion that denial of bail might be being used as a punishment in itself. As 'Bystander' makes clear in his recent article, very naughty indeed. 

But it's not just worries about political influence on the judicial process, it's also surfaced in relation to the police. Sir Hugh Orde, president of the Association of Chief Police Officers has reacted angrily to the suggestion that it was the home secretary that ordered Chief Constables to cancel leave and flood cities with officers. He has stated what I think is the true constitutional position that she has no authority at all to order Chief Constables to do anything. I believe that the position, at the moment at least, is that Chief Constables hold their post as a direct Crown Appointment and as a result have complete authority to act as they, and they alone, see fit. Ok they can be censured, suspended, arrested or sacked even, but they cannot be ordered to do anything. Some might say a pedantic point, but I think we ought to think very carefully as a society what it will mean if we go further down the road of political influence over chief police officers, or judges even.       

Thursday 11 August 2011

Chickens return to Roost

One positive aspect of the recent public disorder and looting is that the whole issue of the underclass and disaffected youth is getting a thorough airing. Ok there is a degree of unhelpful heat being generated - I thought personified perfectly by Kelvin Mackenzie's astonishing outburst on Newsnight recently - but also a genuine thirst to try and understand how we've arrived at this particular point and more importantly what we can do about it. Pretty much it's the only topic of conversation in the pub and probably the Clapham omnibus too. 

The reasons are complex and there are certainly no quick fixes, despite what some emerging 'experts' have been saying in the media over recent days. What I'm clear about though is that the seeds of our present problems were sown some time ago and have coincided with the fundamental change in ethos and operation of the probation service. I always used to say to friends and interested parties that one great strength of the Service was that it was embedded in communities and had unrivalled knowledge concerning what was going on.

Probation officers always got to know pretty quickly what aspects of social policy were and were not working. The Service had the flexibility to respond to perceived need and gaps in service provision and innovation was actively encouraged by management. I used to think that a wise government listened to what we were saying and trusted us to respond in appropriate ways that addressed social problems that led to offending. I thought I knew what our role was as a specialist part of a broad Welfare State, dedicated to improving society and individual people's lives that had been damaged in a variety of ways. I thought I knew and clung resolutely to this concept for as long as possible as successive governments rode roughshod over my beloved career. 

Lets be clear about what happened. We allowed politicians to get involved. They hijacked the debate about various social issues and imposed upon us the usual 'quick fix' simplistic supposed answers to complex problems for political gain. Whether it was 'short sharp shocks' or ASBO's or any number of other failed 'sound bite' solutions, the fact is that politicians emasculated and disabled a fine public service with years of experience in tackling the root causes of the behaviour we are now experiencing. I have no doubt at all that we would not be in the position we are now if the Probation Service today had the same freedom of operation it had when I first joined over 25 years ago. We used to be an agent of change. Now we're just a victim of it. Damn you Jack Straw, Michael Howard and all your ilk!         

Tuesday 9 August 2011

London's Burning

Like many, I've been listening and watching the news and trying to make sense of what is happening and why? Does a probation officer have anything useful to say I wonder?

It's certainly true that colleagues will be writing many reports for court in the coming weeks and despite disparaging comments in some quarters, a lot of people are going to end up doing lengthy prison terms. As with the public disorder earlier this year in London, I suspect the repercussions of some 'moments of madness' will be devastating for some people previously of good character. Very strange things seem to happen when the normal balance of civil society breaks down. Remember those scenes a few years ago of ordinary-looking people plundering washed-up shipping containers on a normally deserted Devon coastline? 

I know it's not the same, but when the story comes to be told I think it will turn out that people from a variety of walks of life have been involved in wholesale looting. The people who started the disorder are a different matter. Almost certainly they will turn out to be the disaffected youth who have little invested in their neighbourhood, are the products of a failed education system and have scant hope or aspiration. If they haven't been arrested already, in the coming weeks their identity will be revealed either through cctv, forensic evidence or Blackberry message trail. What might be appropriate punishment for the younger-end participants will no doubt prove a moot point in the weeks to come. In a sense it's too late for them though. We really must try and ensure there isn't another similar generation coming up behind them.

The whole business has come as a nasty shock and a brutal reminder that basically our policing model in mainland UK is based on mutual consent. For most of the time it works reasonably well and as a society we're not really used to regular mass civil unrest. As a consequence we're probably not adequately geared up for it. By that I don't mean water cannon in strategic store and fleets of armoured vehicles. I suspect it's much more prosaic like an experienced police command structure not on leave (it is August after all) and a certain amount of disbelief that things would 'kick-off' so spectacularly, and all over the place.

Somewhat unfashionably I suspect for a probation officer, I do think there is something in the observation that we now have a police service rather than a police force and possibly current command is simply not confident or experienced enough in dealing with this situation assertively. I suspect the police are collectively suffering from a degree of loss of self-esteem. They are certainly mightily pissed off with government over attacks on their terms and conditions, but the rub as always is that in times of crisis or trouble, we really need them. It would not be that surprising if there might be just a tad of bad feeling in the ranks and a less than gungho attitude in dealing with the present troubles. Having said that, I'm sure that when the chips are down and the Queens Peace is threatened, the significance of having sworn an oath will not be lost on the rank and file.

Society has a funny habit of throwing up new challenges unforeseen by the forces of law and order, and government for that matter. Remember the amazing organisational aspects of the fuel blockade in 2000 when an astonished prime minister visiting Hull had to be told to 'leave for London immediately as fuel supplies could not be guaranteed anywhere.' I seem to recall it was as a result of this whole debacle that the Civil Contingencies Act amongst other things provided for the temporary suspension of mobile phone networks on police or government instruction. I wonder if Blackberries will work tonight with a reported 16,000 police officers on London's streets, many having been drafted in from surrounding counties? 

One thing I'm pretty clear about. The case for the routine arming of the police will recede further into the distance. Can you imagine how bad things could get with police officers in riot situations and with adrenaline pumping, being able to resist the urge to draw and use their weapons. It simply doesn't bear thinking about. However, a chastened government might now begin to review just how appropriate it really is to be reducing front-line police numbers with the London Olympics just around the corner. It's been plain sailing up till now for next summer, but I bet there will be some urgent phone calls from the International Organising Committee over the next week or so. 


Thursday 4 August 2011

Have We Been Wasting Our Time?

It has come as some surprise to many that throwing an imitation custard pie can result in a prison sentence, but such can be the outcome of our sentencing system here in the UK. Admittedly the offence did take place in the Mother of Parliaments, before an international audience of millions and the victim was a defenceless 80 year-old billionaire media mogul.

As a consequence, the perpetrator found himself appearing before one of the most senior remunerated JP's in the land at Westminster Magistrates Court - it just doesn't have the same ring as Bow Street does it? Interestingly, it's reported that the District Judge announced that she was minded to award a community sentence before adjourning three days for a Pre-Sentence Report. One can only speculate on the content and quality of this report as it subsequently resulted in a prison term instead.

Now I have previously written about my concerns regarding the quality of PSR's and that many are now being prepared by unqualified Probation Service's Officers. Even more worrying is the edict from the National Offender Management Service that far too many full PSR's are being written, thus posing a costly and unnecessary burden upon the Probation Service. Again, I have written at length that the reason for this is due to the fact that full PSR's have to be written through OASys and as a result preparation time has escalated to 7.5 hours. 

This situation led to the widespread introduction of Fast Delivery Reports a few years ago which do not have OASys involvement and can be routinely prepared by PSO's. Well things have now moved on apace because NOMS now insist that all PSR's are written in FDR format, unless there are exceptional reasons to warrant the preparation of a costly full report that requires a three week adjournment. The distinction between FDR and SDR has been removed, thus everything is now termed a PSR even if prepared 'on the back of an envelope' in an hour.

I had not realised until quite recently that all probation budgets have been reduced since last year in order to reflect the fact that far fewer full reports will be prepared from now on. The whole 'dumbing-down' of the PSR as a vital part of our Criminal Justice System is an astonishingly retrograde step that again seems to have gone unnoticed by the recent Justice Affairs Committee report. But then I do begin to wonder whether we've been wasting our time over the years because sentencers don't seem to have noticed the steady decline in PSR quality. I take the deafening silence, especially from the Crown Court, to indicate satisfaction. Or may be as some of us suspected, only the final paragraph ever got read?