Friday 11 November 2011

A Controversial Suggestion

It's now well over a year since I started writing in earnest about probation and I'm conscious that a degree of repetition may be creeping in. I guess this is an occupational hazard and maybe there is only so much to be said about what is in essence quite a simple concept. 

This post from 22nd October on the Justice of the Peace Blog has encouraged a return to the perrenial problem faced by all courts, that of the chronic alcohol or drug-addicted homeless offender.   

"They are generally 45 year old males who look to be at death’s door. They appear at the magistrates` court with NFA….no fixed abode……on shoplifting or public disorder offences and they invariably have a long record of previous. There is no sentencing outcome which is appropriate. They are often given a notional fine and immediately released the fine deemed having been paid by their having been in custody overnight."

The piece goes on to quote a case reported by 'This is Derbyshire' and concerning a serial homeless shoplifter whose only intention is to get back to prison as soon as possible because he simply cannot cope in the outside world. Reading the piece you can sense that the frustration and despair is clearly shared by the journalist:- 

"WHAT a dilemma for a judge or magistrates – what should they do with a crook whose only intent is being sent back to prison? Darren Newsome has eventually got his wish. The serial shoplifter had hoped for this outcome back in July, only to be disappointed, when he appeared in court charged with theft.
Undeterred, he went straight back to shoplifting in August, September and October – and now Recorder Christopher Donnellan has locked him up for 40 weeks.

"Thank you very much, sir," responded Newsome.

He makes no secret of the attraction of prison – he gets regular meals and a roof over his head without having to worry about how he is going to pay for that every day. But what alternative does a judge have in such circumstances? He can hardly leave him free to carry on in his merry, criminal way. Traders have to be protected."

"We have to recognise that some people just cannot cope with life outside the prison environment.
It is sad and they deserve some sympathy for that – but our law-makers need to explore the options for helping them minimise their reliance on this costly last resort."

Well of course this problem has been around for a very long time and in fact was the driving force behind the establishment of the probation service way back in 1907. It was recognised that a criminal justice system needed a welfare arm in order to try and deal with such problem cases, and eventually the early Christian pioneers became professionally qualified social workers. What was never properly understood however was the probation officers dual role encompassing welfare with public protection. Politicians of both parties subsequently decided that there was political advantage to be had in dropping the welfare role of the probation service completely, substituting it for punishment instead.

Now regular readers will be aware that there are still some officers around that are experienced and practiced in the old ways and find it very hard indeed to forget their welfare roots. Cases like the one described above are very familiar indeed to such officers and it is quite obvious that the problem has not gone away - it's just that the State seemingly has absolutely no method of dealing with it any more. The frustration of sentencers is palpable.
What on earth can be done?

I have made this suggestion before, but I think it's worth repeating. Make a Community Order with supervision. I say this not just because it will in all probability infuriate probation staff at all levels, I say it because I feel it is right and humane. We used to handle these cases and we can re-learn the skills required. Orders can be made on people who are homeless and permission of the probation service is not required. There is no other agency able to do this work and therefore I would remind sentencers that it is within their power to sentence how they see fit and it's up to the probation service to respond.    

Saturday 5 November 2011

Got to be Worth a Try

Any mention of RSA gets me thinking about school days and typing exams for the girls while us blokes were doing stuff like GCE 'O' level Technical Drawing. I've never really given much thought to the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce since, until today that is. Now with the strap line 'Ideas and actions for a 21st century enlightenment'  this august body, somewhat surprisingly, wants to build a prison?

I think most of us are familiar with the notion of think tanks writing reports and coming up with bright ideas as to how society can be improved. But here we have something altogether different - not just some novel ideas for improving the rehabilitative nature of prisons, but a plan to actually build or acquire one and operate it along very particular and different lines.

As far as I can see the hypothesis is one centred on full-time, social enterprise employment for all prisoners, with remuneration at not less than the statutory minimum wage. The prison would be located alongside what is termed a 'transition park' which would be home to many and varied social enterprises offering a range of employment opportunities, together with some temporary housing. The aim would be to involve prisoners in the management of the whole enterprise and incentivize them to remain offence free. It's being likened to a 'John Lewis' type shared-ownership ideal.

Having got up to speed with the RSA's track record with regard to initiatives like The Clink prison training kitchen and restaurant, together with drug projects and school curriculum development, they strike me as being a body who's time may well have come. They seem to me to be peculiarly well-placed to be able to offer something significantly better than just more private prisons run by mega corporations as envisaged by Ken Clarke. This is a story worth following and should give us all cause for hope. There is an article in today's Guardian.      

Friday 4 November 2011

The Good Old Days

Once again I'm grateful for readers contributions, like this from yesterday by Don:-

"I fear that you might also be looking back through rose tinted specs. Certainly I saw a lot of pretty poor practice alongside the good stuff. There were more ‘characters’ in the old days, but they sometimes took idiosyncratic to a level which had to be seen to be believed."

"Although I essentially became a probation officer to try to help people, I always thought our over-riding duty was to the court, so I used to breach people who didn’t comply with their sentences. I had colleagues in the ‘good old days’ who either didn’t know how to do a breach, or couldn’t be bothered. I remember one colleague who proudly told me she had never breached a client. It didn’t surprise me that she had a lot of no shows!"

This is a fair accusation and those that know me would no doubt say I do indeed have a tendency to look back with fond memories. I recognise much of what you say, and I think it has to be addressed in order to help make sense of the situation we now find ourselves in. I'm a firm believer in history being able to inform the present and help guide us through the future.

The situation in the 1980's was very different. Probation was an alternative to a sentence and the client had to give their agreement. We were indeed officers of the Court, but charged with the responsibility of assisting the client live a crime-free life during the period that the Court had placed trust in them. In essence all that was required of the client was to remain offence free and merely report as required. I think it's true that seen in this light, breach action was only felt appropriate in exceptional circumstances, not least because probation was not a punishment as it is today of course.

Pretty much the officer had complete freedom to determine the level and frequency of reporting. I would say that this enabled time and effort to be put into those risky or difficult cases, rather than the ones that were doing ok, and for whom probation was working it's magic. Some people did not have to report that often. After all, probation literally means a period of time during which a person can demonstrate that they can be trusted to change their behaviour. The job was invented because it was recognised that some people would need help in achieving this aim, hence we were charged with 'advising assisting and befriending.' 

We had less serious cases in those days and our work was unashamedly welfare-orientated. We were the social work arm of the criminal justice system and thus we all had to be fully qualified social workers. 

In an age before managerialism was invented and when officers felt attracted to a job that gave the opportunity of 'helping people', it did indeed encourage characters to flourish. Of course there was bad practice, but I would argue this was more than compensated for by the very encouragement of that idiosyncratic behaviour. We are all human and this is a person-centred occupation - or should be. The good old days gave officers the freedom to be themselves and innovate. As in all jobs there was bad, but at the same time there were many exceptional and brilliant officers that inspired us newer recruits. 

Those of us who have been around for a long time can recall amazing initiatives and ground-breaking work undertaken by colleagues. Personally I could name at least three current well-established charities started by humble PO's in my small locality alone. This will have been replicated everywhere. We did research, we ran projects, we joined committees. Above all we got involved because we had passion and wanted to do things. Management, such as it was, encouraged this and facilitated innovation.

I could go on, but I think the point is made. I believe we have lost more than has been gained by recent and not-so-recent changes. Newer colleagues sadly never knew the freedoms we had and of course the process has been very painful for us old-timers. The need for a return to the kind of ethos I've described could not be greater in my view and I intend to highlight this in coming posts. 

Thanks for commenting!         

Thursday 3 November 2011

Pause for Thought

I have previously voiced what I think every blogger knows. Writing and getting things off your chest can be hugely enjoyable and therapeutic, but all of us need to know it's being read. Sending all this stuff out into the ether is all very well, but it's great when it triggers a response and every now and then a comment really makes you stop and think. Yesterday is a case in point and I hope the author will not mind me quoting their words:-

"As a fellow probation officer who shares your passion and genuine interest in those we work with I fully agree with your sentiment about supervision being a magical/mysterious process. That said, I am one of those who voluntarily moved away from the 'magic' of direct client contact into a management role - for what I thought were the right reasons! - To try to influence management structures/cultures for the good of the clients since our effectiveness in working with them happens to achieve what the paymasters require 'reduction in offending'."

"Surprisingly, what I've found is that in espousing the highest standards and expectations from others (staff) in the supervision of those we work with, I've often met with resistance and resentment from some officers who clearly don't share my passion for working with and engaging the client. I therefore sometimes (more often than I would wish) find myself in a strange place as a manager having to convince,influence and sometimes insist that clients are respected and treated fairly. As a manager/practitioner I really struggle with the fact that not all probation employees view working with clients as a 'privilege' and fully respect their position."

This is quite a reality check. It serves to confirm a truth that I've been trying to ignore - namely that the thoughts, ideas and concepts that I'm spending so much time recording here are possibly nothing more than an illusion. Perhaps they are indeed just a description of a bye-gone golden age of probation, penned by one of an ever-diminishing bunch of 'old-style' officers, and have no relevance for today's practitioners. You see I've noticed this change in attitude towards clients myself and been shocked by it.

There was a time when it would have been an absolute 'given' about clients being respected and treated fairly. Now we have a manager saying they have to 'insist' on it. No wonder the Prisoners Families Voices website is routinely full of negative comments regarding probation. I used to believe it was possibly the result of a move towards the use of more unqualified Probation Service's Officers, but I know full well that's not the complete answer. There has indeed been a monumental cultural shift within the probation service and it's not good. Us 'old-timers' are not going to be around for much longer and the Service is inexorably losing it's collective memory. To be honest there needs to be some sign that the message just might still have relevance before the memory fades completely.

I'll end with a final quote from the manager:-

"I suppose I want to illustrate that there are probably many people like me (in management positions) who went in voluntarily because they thought they could make a difference and were disillusioned by 'managerialism'. I am hanging on in there trying to make a difference often considering reverting back to practice because my energies seemed better spent then! What keeps me going is the passion I have for the work of probation, of effecting change at whatever level and my fundamental belief in fairness."



Wednesday 2 November 2011

What Does a Probation Officer Do? 4


Hopefully all your hard work in garnering as much information as possible about the client, making a sound assessment and convincing the court of the soundness of the reasoning will ultimately lead to the making of an order. In an ideal world, having done all the donkey work, formed the basis for establishing a good working relationship and become the expert on the case, you should become the supervising officer. This scenario certainly describes my experience, understanding and philosophy. Indeed it could be said to be just plain obvious and commonsense, but sadly for all sorts of reasons no longer holds true in anything other than the most serious of cases. 

Anyway, supervision is what a probation officer is expected to do whether the case is inherited or seen through from the beginning. Supposedly the process was made easier by the introduction of OASys which handily incorporated a supervision plan section within it's all-embracing remit. It sounds a useful and helpful facility, but believe me it isn't and in my experience only serves to frustrate the author in being able to get on and complete the report by forcing often arbitrary selections from a 'pick and mix' menu.  Unfortunately the cunningly-designed software will not allow it's omission. I'll be honest and say I've never expended much time and effort on this section, given that it never seems capable of being able to express in plain English what I really think the aims of supervision should be. 

Unfortunately the word 'supervision' has become somewhat of a large stick with which to beat the Probation Service. In the midst of widespread ignorance about what we do, politicians over recent years have encouraged the public to develop completely unrealistic expectations of our power and remit in relation to 'supervising' clients. Of course the media has played its part in encouraging the notion that if someone is being 'supervised' we must know what they are doing 24/7. As a consequence, any further offending must, by definition, be a failure on our part. Why? Because they're on supervision and we should have prevented it. Ludicrous, grossly unfair, never has been the case and never can be of course, when typically a client might only be seen once a week for an hour max. 

That being said, supervision as I understand it remains at the core of what probation is all about. The key to it having an effect or not is almost entirely down to the quality of the relationship between officer and client. This alone should ensure that appointments are kept without the constant threat of having to impose sanctions or ultimate breach action. If the reporting session is felt to be useful and constructive by the client, attendance in my experience will not be a great problem. That is not to say that sessions are always necessarily easy and friendly. Difficult things have to be discussed and attitudes and behaviour challenged, but this is all down to the skill of the officer in deciding how and when to approach such matters. The client must feel they can trust you and that you're being fair with them, even when telling them something they do not want to hear. It's not about friendship, but rather mutual respect.

That small word 'supervision' can embrace just about any and every facet of human experience. The session can go in any direction and take a variety of forms. They can be incredibly difficult and emotional or easy and chatty. Each time in effect it's a blank sheet of paper on which the officer can write, or attempt to write, anything. Sometimes it's about listening, or counselling,  advising or sympathising. Sometimes challenging, interrogating, checking, or admonishing. But the aim is always the same, to encourage and support positive changes. 

Without doubt it's the most interesting bit of the job and I've never understood why some officers voluntarily move away from it, say into management. I can say it's still what makes this a brilliant vocation and an utter privilege to be given the opportunity of sharing other peoples lives. It's a process that can and does change lives. It's the true essence of probation's magical, but mysterious process.   

Tuesday 1 November 2011

On the Run

The other night I found myself watching an episode of ITV's new investigative reporting programme 'Exposure' on i-player. Entitled 'On the Run' it was about the number of people who are subject to arrest warrants at any given time, either as a result of skipping bail, absconding from prison or disappearing whilst on licence.

I'll be honest and say I approached this self-imposed task with some trepidation because I'm not sure there's a huge story here, but actually ended up being quite enthused. Of course the vast majority are eventually brought to justice by being arrested for further offences and identified by DNA. But I think, quite unintentionally, the producers of this programme have just invented a whole new twist on a very familiar TV genre. The hypothesis of the programme was that there are countless thousands of dangerous people out there, the subject of unexecuted warrants and therefore escaping justice. Freedom of Information requests flushed out some seemingly alarming figures, but the star of the show, a former detective turned reporter, decided to illustrate the problem by trying to hunt down three fugitives from justice on camera.

We learned that in order to try and evade justice, two had jumped bail and left the country and a third had simply gone to ground having decided that the terms of his licence were too onerous. There was some half-hearted attempt at name changes, and cheekily two fugitives were continuing to openly use Facebook, with one taunting the police. I found it equally informative and hilarious that concerted efforts to snare them by means of 'honey traps' proved mightily difficult given their lackadaisical attitude to life, but the process was easily as enthralling as many of the now tired-looking police chase programmes we are so familiar with. 

So there we have it. A whole new idea for a show. There is an endless pool of gripping TV out there to be tapped into and it will be doing a useful public service at the same time. A sort of cross between 'Crimewatch', 'Rogue Traders' and 'Police, Camera, Action.' But with the police stretched and unable to put a great deal of time into trying to execute all the warrants outstanding at any given time, why not go a little further and follow the North American model by putting a bounty on their head? Another example of the big society - the public can monitor live security cctv via the internet, so could they be induced to get a little more actively involved I wonder?