Thursday 22 September 2011

Amazing and Unique Opportunity!

I notice that the London Probation Trust has teamed up with UserVoice in order to set up four pilot Service User Councils as part of the Offender Engagement Project. On the face of it, a good idea worth trying, but I can't help thinking they've slightly over-egged the concept - 'amazing and unique' - especially as funding only seems to be in place till the end of the current financial year. I think there are a couple of dead giveaway signs of a degree of panic amongst senior managers. The blurb talks about 'issue-based groups' and the need for responses to be 'solution-focussed.' If I'm not mistaken code for 'the last thing we want to hear is a lot of carping about how crap the Service is.' But I am an old cynic.

In a funny way it reminds me of my confirmation year having gained my qualifications at University. In those days you served an appropriately labelled 'probationary year' during which support was provided in the form of a First Year Officers group. A great idea that worked well from the new practitioners point of view, but quietly dropped by management when they became suspicious of the potential problems caused by an organised element within the workforce. A familiar story eh?

This initiative by London gives me cause for another wry grin and that's to do with the seemingly interminable internal discussions about exactly what to call people. It would seem that the term 'offender' is well and truely buried, in favour of 'service-user.' At least this is preferable to being called a 'case' but I understand officers who stick resolutely to the traditional term 'client' will not be penalised. Thankfully it looks like the Service nationally is set to drop 'offender manager' in favour of - yes you guessed it - Probation Officer! Well I for one never used it so I can be slightly smug and say 'I told you so.' At least we will now be able to once more differentiate between Probation Services Officers and Probation Officers, although this will not be universally welcome I suspect.    

Wednesday 21 September 2011

Mixed Messages

As we all know, a week is a long time in politics and the fallout from the riots seem set to erode yet further many of the laudable aims embraced by Ken Clarke's 'Rehabilitation Revolution.'  First to go of course was the 50% reduction in sentence for a timely guilty plea. Then the riots served to focus attention on the whole business of granting bail pending conviction with a widespread suspicion that refusal to grant bail in over 60% of cases was being used as a punishment in itself and strictly not allowed.

Of course in many quarters - lets call them the usual suspects - this has met with warm approval, thus making tinkering with the operation of the bail system less likely. Ken had hoped to be able to restrict remands into custody as one part of his strategy to reduce the prison population, but getting that aspect through Parliament now looks doubtful. Now it seems that the Prime Minister is so concerned about the Daily Mail and Express that he feels it important that the 'Rehabilitation Revolution' becomes the 'Rehabilitation and Punishment Revolution.' The suspicion is that all kinds of extra punishment options might find there way into the bill, like benefit removal and housing eviction. How this will assist with rehabilitation I have absolutely no idea.

I've always had a great deal of respect for normally plain-speaking Ken Clarke. Lets be honest, any politician that incurs the wrath of the right-wing press can't be all bad in my book. The trouble is he absolutely detests the Probation Service and just like a disgruntled son-in-law who can't bring himself to talk about the mother-in-law, simply never mentions us. I listened to him again recently being interviewed on BBC 2's Newsnight and all he could bring himself to say somewhat tardily was 'there are some good probation and prison officers.' But that was in the same breath as his repeated desire to put all our work out to tender in the private sector. He normally fails to mention us at all which you can imagine does nothing for morale. Where is that White Knight coming to our aid when you need him?

Monday 19 September 2011

Attitudes to Crime

This weekend I found myself having an unusually long think. In this case it was triggered by the news that yet another burglar had been killed by a householder, but it'd been brewing all day. The Sunday Times had the astounding story of sheep rustling on its front page. Not the usual odd animal dragged into the back of a 4x4 in the dead of night, but an entire flock of 1,500 total value £100,000. This is becoming outright plundering of Britain's green and pleasant land and comes hard on the heels of the desecration of churches by lead thieves and routine stripping of northern streets of yorkstone paving. So many statues are being stolen that copies are having to be made in plastic and sadly not even war memorials appear to be sacrosanct anymore.   

Crime is the bread and butter world for probation officers of course and on a routine basis they have to try and make sense of the often tragic consequences of all kinds of human behaviour and depravity. We are always on a quest to answer the question 'why?' Sometimes it's easy, sometimes not, but at the same time we have to deal with our own feelings and attitudes as citizens and human beings.

I well remember this being brought home to me forcefully when still in training and on placement in a busy city probation office. Quite unexpectedly, one of my cases turned into a major child protection investigation with serious allegations of sexual abuse. Clearly this was taking matters out of the appropriate realm for a student and I sought urgent advice from my practice supervisor. Imagine my surprise then when he said 'oh don't bring that to me - I've got kids of my own.' I never did have much respect for the guy and that kinda put the tin hat on it. 

As with many of us, I've been the victim of a burglary and experienced the outrage of someone violating my private space, my home. Equally the mindless vandalism of my car. I suspect my initial reactions were not much different to most people, but that's without knowing the story behind the actions. Burglary of an occupied house is pretty unusual in my experience. Even more so if there is a confrontation. On Sunday I found myself contemplating what I would do in such a situation and it's not a particularly comfortable process. I think it highly likely that my 'fight or flight' response would be violent. In mulling it over, I concluded there can't really be any other explanation for a normally non-violent person keeping Dads old truncheon hanging behind the door.


Saturday 17 September 2011

What's in a Word?

The ramifications of the riots continue and I can't help noticing how many politicians have been talking about making those convicted of riot-related offences do certain things, like meet the victims. No doubt mindful of up-coming elections and criticism of his slow return from holiday, Mayor of London Boris Johnson was quite quick off the mark in telling Justice Secretary Ken Clarke that rioters should be made to repair the damage and meet the victims. Poor side-lined Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said much the same thing in a speech emphasising that those convicted had to be made to face up to the consequences of their actions by meeting the victims. 

Now the concept of perpetrators of crimes meeting their victims has been around for a long time and pioneered by the Probation Service. Experiments in this area of work have variously gone under the name of Mediation, Reparation and more recently Restorative Justice. The idea has broad political support and the coalition government signalled early on their intention to encourage its development, dependent on resources of course. It has always been an important part of Ken Clarkes so-called 'Rehabilitation Revolution', so it shouldn't be surprising that the Prisons and Probation Minister Crispin Blunt recently announced some funding for a register of Restorative Justice Practitioners. He said:-

'Restorative Justice is a unique process that helps to repair the damage caused by crime as well as helping to stop offenders committing further crimes. It demands criminals take an active role in acknowledging the harm they have caused, as well as making amends.   'If we are to better tackle the rate of criminals who reoffend, and so bring down crime, we are clear that we must have robust programmes of both punishment and reform available to our courts.

'Making criminals see for themselves the consequences of their actions, as well as undertake tough punishments, can be an effective part of this; and crucially, this gives victims a say in how offenders make amends.'

What caught my eye was the tenor of the statement and choice of the word 'demands' coupled with 'making'. So here we have yet another politician talking tough in the wake of the riots and this time a government minister with departmental responsibility. The trouble is that the sentiments being expressed, involving as they clearly do that of implied compulsion, are completely counter to my understanding of the concept that underpins the restorative justice process. 

For it to be effective in its twin aims of encouraging the perpetrator to face up to the consequences of their actions and trying to heal the pain caused to the victim, it has to be a voluntary process on the part of both parties. Not only does it have to be voluntarily entered into, the whole thing has to be very carefully and sensitively arranged and moderated so as to avoid the possibility of it making a bad situation worse. It is definitely not something to be entered into lightly and it won't be suitable in anything like all cases, but where it is deemed appropriate and entered into with good faith, it has the capacity to change lives and help heal tremendous hurt. 

So, politicians please note. This is not a magic silver bullet solution to be imposed upon unwilling or unprepared convicted rioters. It is however a very potent process to be undertaken in carefully selected instances and administered by trained professionals.     

Friday 16 September 2011

Stating the Obvious

Although often ridiculed - remember the 'quiet man speaks out' speech? - I've never-the-less had an increasing degree of respect for the short-lived previous Tory party leader Iain Duncan Smith, now Employment and Pensions minister. I was particularly struck by his sadly limited involvement in one of those reality tv shows masquerading as documentary/social commentary when the producers think it would be fun to mix the social classes up and see what happens. 

Along with several other Tory, Liberal and Labour party MP's, they were visited upon residents of an awful estate tower block for a few weeks in order to see 'how the other half lives.' Even though Iains involvement was curtailed because his wife was very ill, he was much more able to adapt and empathise with his temporary hosts than his colleagues. The Lib Dem guy almost had a nervous breakdown trying to come to terms with the sheer awfulness of the surroundings and the attitudes of his hosts and the pompous MP for Grimsby Austin Mitchell insisted on a minder. Only Iain seemed perfectly at ease and I remember thinking if it was because of his military background or just breeding - that very old-fashioned self-assuredness that comes with being a One Nation Tory grandee?

Anyway, it definitely seems that the tv producers time wasn't wasted in their experiment of placing legislators eyeball to eyeball with some serious social issues. This is what Iain said very recently in an article for The Times and widely quoted elsewhere:-

"Too many people have remained unaware of the true nature of life on some of our estates. This was because we had ghettoised many of these problems, keeping them out of sight of the middle-class majority. Occasionally some terrible event would make it on to our front pages, but because they were small in number people were able to turn away from the problem. But last month the inner city finally came to call and the country was shocked by what it saw." He went on to say "it was not possible to arrest our way out of the riots, and a social response was needed." 

In picking up on this, Inspector Gadjet quite rightly reminds us that frontline services like the police have known all this for ages and he has blogged eloquently and vividly on the topic. But probation has known too. I well remember paying a visit to an office on the 'frontline' in Liverpool over 20 years ago and being truely shocked. There it was, standing all alone in the middle of the desolate vandalised remains of a grand post war housing experiment, a single storey temporary-looking building covered in razor wire, barred plastic windows, steel doors and all thoroughly decorated with graffiti. Heroin had already got a strangle-hold here and I remember thinking 'God, I wonder how long we've got down our way?'

But of course that was 20 years ago. I don't know for certain, but I bet that office has long gone. As I have previously lamented, probation has been retreating from such 'frontline' locations for years and now typically reside in edge-of-town megga-sized 'service delivery units' pretty well isolated from the communities they supposedly are meant to serve.

Iain has a good track record in terms of thoughtfulness on social issues and of course prior to the last election was the author of the report into child development, stressing the need to address the first signs of neglect and poor parenting as soon as possible so as to save greater heartache and cost to society later on. It's just unfortunate that he now finds himself part of a government unwilling or unable to make the necessary investment. But at least he's an enlightened voice I feel and on the face of it, an unlikely bedfellow of Inspector Gadjet's. I can't help but notice that Gadjet did not quote that bit about 'not being able to arrest our way out of the riots'. But there again, I suppose we're all guilty of some selective quoting when it suits us.  


Tuesday 13 September 2011

Back to Work

Yes going away is great - but so is the coming home and to a surprise surge in readers due to a recent plug by the American Association of Probation and Parole Officers. You are all most welcome. I have to say I spent a couple of very interesting days with colleagues in New York some years ago, including a fascinating morning observing a lower court in Manhattan. Of course there are many differences between our respective criminal justice systems, but lots of similarities too. 

Whilst away, I couldn't help but hear several snippets of news, one of which made me utter expletives in an uncontrolled manner. Has prime minister David Cameron taken leave of his senses bringing in the dreadful Louise Casey to advise on the aftermath of the recent riots? Yes the self-same person plucked from obscurity by Tony Blair to advise firstly on homelessness "stop soup runs - it only encourages it", then to champion the utterly failed Anti Social Behaviour Order that criminalised whole swathes of people, going on to spearhead the so-called 'respect' agenda and subsequently gaining promotion from Gordon Brown to Victim Commissioner. One can only hope that she's there for window dressing and wiser counsel will prevail in coming up with sensible lessons to be learnt from the recent civil disorder.

I notice that much is being made of the fact that 75% of those appearing in court as a result of the riots have an offending history, thus providing proof of the failure of our criminal justice system. I don't think it does any such thing and it certainly is no great surprise. If anything, it's the other 25% with no previous that should be of concern and serve to remind us that lurking just beneath the surface of our supposedly civilised society there are some very unpleasant forces capable of release when normal controls become absent. I hate to say it, but I did predict both this aspect and that harsh sentencing would result.

The discussions continue as to whether the sentences being passed are justified or not and the prison population breaks historic records each week. I can't help but feel echoes from history, whether that of the Luddites, the Suffragettes or Miners even. Some might say that they were very different examples of civil unrest, borne of social changes, inequalities or perceived grievances. Surely this was 'just' criminal activity by 'feral' youth? Hang on a minute - a group sidelined by social change, victims of an unequal society and harbouring grievances......

As a footnote and because I love history and believe it always informs our present situation, citizens of London particularly might like to reflect on why so many of their old or not-so-old police stations have flights of steps up to them? Clearly not very access-friendly in the current age of the Disability Discrimination Act, but a design feature conceived many years ago just in case the unruly masses ever revolted and decided to attack the forces of Law and Order in the shape of the local police station. Much easier to repel people coming up a set of stairs. That actually happened at several stations during the recent disturbances. It's also worth noting that fire stations were attacked and crews threatened and prevented from attending major fires during the riots. 

As I go to press, the Metropolitan Police are absorbing what the new Commissioner will bring to the party and with the London Olympics just around the corner, we must all hope his are indeed a safe pair of hands. The appointment of acting Commissioner Hogan-Howe was no great surprise with Sir Hugh Orde effectively ruling himself out by being far too gobby for government's liking and lets be honest, bringing in an American, no matter how illustrious, was never really a possibility was it? After all, he would never have been able to accept the knighthood that goes with the job.