Sunday 26 February 2012

Good or Evil?

Regular readers will be aware that I watch a lot of tv - no rubbish you understand and most of it as a selfless act conducted as research for this blog. So it was in this vein that I recently watched a repeat from last September of an episode of Horizon, the long-running and distinguished BBC 2 science programme.

Entitled 'Are You Good or Evil?', it discussed the disturbing advances in science that were making it possible to identify a gene that basically dictated whether we were likely to be either 'good or bad'. Now this whole idea ought to be very worrying indeed to all right-minded people and probation officers in particular. It's pure Orwellian in my view.

All probation officers of my vintage will have covered in training that old chestnut neatly summed-up as 'nature or nurture?' as a way of helping to understand why people do certain things, and especially what might be politely-termed, very nasty things. In essence the argument boiled down to whether a person committed a crime because of their character and personality - they were basically 'a wrong 'un' - or whether it was because of their background and upbringing? For some reason a myth has persisted in some quarters that PO's are just about 'making excuses' for people and their behaviour in order to 'get them off' when their day in court arrives.

Of course this has always been a grossly simplistic distortion of what we're about. It ought to be self-evident that a person's reasons for doing anything are many and varied. Much more the case in terms of offending behaviour. We are not all able to exercise free will all the time and without reference to our surroundings or influences. A PO's job is to dig around and explain those factors and reasons, not to excuse them. Throughout my career I've found it useful to remain firmly on the fence and hedge my bets in terms of the argument.

So it was enormously re-assuring to discover that the scientific conclusion at the end of the programme was that, although it might be possible to identify a 'psychopathic' gene, it was environmental factors that largely decided if a person was going to cause murder or mayhem in later life. Phew! 

Not only is it sometimes great to have your personal beliefs re-inforced, a lot of world leaders, politicians and business tycoons can breathe easy knowing that their psychopathic personality type alone need not necessarily give the rest of us excellent reason to lock them up. Of course on the other hand such research does possibly lead the way for better diagnosis and assessment of people who have committed very serious and disturbing offences. I can't see it helping in either the detection or conviction of psychopathic offenders though.       

Friday 24 February 2012


The internet is a strange and wonderful place indeed. Whilst searching for inspiration, I came across a short video made last November about a phenomenon I was completely unaware of. This isn't particularly surprising I suppose because not living in London, I've never had cause to frequent the N 29 night bus service from Trafalgar Square to Enfield.

Like many bus routes in the Capital, until Mayor Boris Johnson banished them completely from last year, the route had been served by the unloved 'bendy bus'. Well it's not strictly true to say that everyone disliked them. It's become fairly well known that with rear entry doors, this type of bus was ideal for fare-dodging on an industrial scale. What I didn't know was their widespread use by the homeless during the night. According to one driver on this particularly popular route out to the leafy northern suburbs, he'd had up to 70 homeless and ticket-less nocturnal travellers on one trip. 

What an incredible indictment of present-day society when instead of providing proper facilities, we gently bounce the homeless around on a massively-subsidised bus ride through the capital from midnight to 5am. Literally flotsam, they look a sorry picture trying to catnap along the way. I wonder where they go now, as double-deckers serve the night routes and drivers cannot easily turn a blind eye anymore. 

The video can be viewed here.        

Wednesday 22 February 2012

Just Too Good to be True

I can't say I'm surprised to hear A4E in the news and fraud mentioned in the same sentence. I think we're all aware of the concept of something that just sounds too damn good to be true. You know the sort of thing, the telephone call out-of-the-blue informing you of a valuable prize waiting for you if you just ring this number, the investment with 'guaranteed' returns or even the free tickets to New York if you buy a vacuum cleaner. 

A4E, and other similar private government contractors, agree to take on some of the hardest and 'most difficult to place' people in terms of employability, in return for shed-loads of our money. In the process these private companies have become hugely successful in terms of dividends returned to their now very wealthy owners, and we're led to believe that along the way the seemingly impossible has happened. The previously unemployable have been found jobs. That's great isn't it? But how do they do it?

Well in true private capital style the staff are 'incentivised' of course, or rather are target-driven. Fail to reach your target and your future with one of these companies is rather short-lived and you find yourself joining the queue of people you were trying desperately to help. Faced with some of the most 'unemployable' people imaginable through health, educational or environmental issues, I don't think it's too difficult to imagine a culture developing amongst staff where shall we say massaging some figures or adjusting some criteria or just plain fiddling might not become a priority, for self-preservation if nothing else.

The astonishing thing is that we've been here before. Remember the Training and Enterprise Councils set up by previous governments? They were established to try and deal with the same problem and were rewarded with lavish amounts of government money, supposedly based on success. A sort of precursor to the latest fad Payment by Results. The only trouble was that the books were being cooked, figures fiddled and the whole charade was eventually dismantled.

But isn't this sort of thing bound to happen when public services are replaced by private contractors? Another classic attempt at a quick and easy political fix for entrenched social policy failings.     

Tuesday 21 February 2012

Some Observations 10

When I recently took a trawl through the NAPO discussion forum, it was good to see that some of the former vibrancy had returned, having suffered badly from a massive 'redesign' last year. It's still not as good as it was though, but a decent debate has been raging as a result of someone asking about the pros and cons of a return to officers being able to use rather more discretion and judgement than more-recently qualified colleagues are used to. Apparently NAPO is re-writing their 'Good Practice Guide' with promises that it will provide some answers. It's funny in a way - that's exactly what I started out with in 1985 - a 'Good Practice Guide' and a copy of Jarvis of course.  

This is a big year for NAPO as it celebrates 100 years since foundation in 1912 and the conference at York in July promises to be especially interesting as our proud past is inevitably compared to our uncertain future.

Talking of which, I see from Jonathan Ledger's blog that the list of senior defections from NOMS to the private sector grows ever longer. Interserve are the latest company to benefit as they finalise their bids for operating the public sector prisons put out to tender by Ken Clarke. Call me naive, but I just don't understand how we're expected to believe that all these former public servants don't take with them privileged information that then enables the public sector to be outbid completely unfairly? But it's all so terribly British - Jonathan wonders if the people concerned are aware that the National Exec - well - jolly well groaned when they heard!

I haven't been watching 'Prisoners Wives' on BBC1 - you have to draw the line somewhere - but I can't help noticing that a post on the Prisoners Families Website voicing a differing view of some prisoners wives being anything other than victim, has generated quite a spat. If nothing else, it should serve to remind us all that 'pigeonholing' anyone is not at all helpful, especially in this line of work. By the way, it may surprise some to know that we used to run support groups for prisoners wives in the old days, and organise subsidised coaches to far-flung prisons. 

Monday 20 February 2012

A Bit More on Drugs

Well cannabis to be more specific. I'll be honest from the start and say that as a Probation Officer I've paid little attention to the subject, always having drawn a distinction between it and other potentially more dangerous mind-altering substances. I'm aware that cannabis strains have increased in strength over the years, but I've still never come across a case of anyone having been beaten sensless as a result of an assailant being high on the substance, unlike alcohol or crack cocaine of course.

On the contrary, I've been involved in several cases of cultivation for personal use which have been vigorously defended on the grounds of significant beneficial effect for serious medical conditions. I well remember one guy presenting the judge with a significant file of information, gleaned mostly from the internet, and which he agreed to read over the weekend before reluctantly imposing a two year Probation Order. 

As far as I'm aware, and I speak as someone who has never tried exotic herbal substances myself mainly because I don't smoke, the most harm that can be caused by the stuff is that meted out by the Criminal Justice System. Having said that, there are always exceptions and I am also aware of the risk posed by say skunk if used grossly to excess and the possible mental health effects such as paranoia. But surely all this has to be seen within the context of the utter mayhem caused on Friday and Saturday nights by alcohol, together with the horrors of people assaulting their bodies with dodgy needles, filled with dodgy substances and in dodgy circumstances?

I have never subscribed to the view that cannabis should be treated seriously by the
authorities because it is a so-called 'gateway' drug. I think it's a ludicrous argument, especially as heroin users are far more likely to have started on alcohol. The only real problem with cannabis in my view is that it's illegal. At some point a future government is going to have to grasp this nettle, de-criminalise the substance and put it on the same footing as tobacco. That way we might all be spared the damned flypasts by the Force helicopter on a regular basis looking for 'hot' roofspaces with their infra-red imaging cameras.

Sunday 19 February 2012


I can't help noticing that my mention of drugs the other day as having utterly changed the criminal justice landscape over my working life, generated quite a lot of comment. My most popular post ever was about the war on drugs having been lost, so I thought it might be an idea to add a bit more to the discussion. 

When I took up post in my small English town in 1985, heroin had yet to arrive. I found that most of my reports for court concerned offences that in some way were connected to alcohol misuse. Of course this legal, but potentially highly addictive mind and mood-altering substance, is so socially acceptable that its consumption is almost compulsory. This is despite there being loads of evidence to show that it's a dangerous substance, both in health terms and as a major ingredient in the commission of violent acts. If it was invented tomorrow, it would surely be illegal.

But of course despite being potentially dangerous, like many things in life, it's also very enjoyable and that's why I indulge regularly, along with many other people I know. What makes the difference is that despite being an addictive substance, alcohol can be enjoyed without it becoming an addiction. For the fortunate majority, they remain in control, not the other way round. Of course there is scope for any of us to possibly be deluding ourselves, but the key is whether or not a person finds that their life becomes adversely affected by a driving compulsionthe satisfaction of which takes priority over all else. I would normally assess someone as suffering from an addiction when their health is seriously affected and when they are unable to function normally in terms of shelter, nourishment, employment and relationships.  

Trying to supervise clients suffering from alcohol addiction and slowly killing themselves can be a harrowing experience. The same goes for heroin of course or any number of other illegal substances. But addictive behaviour can come in many forms and gambling, driving or sexual activity can all be just as potentially harmful or disabling and bring people into contact with the Probation Service through associated criminal activity. I have remained of the opinion that such behaviour should be viewed as a medical phenomenon and indeed back in the 1980's it used to be. In those days I was able to refer clients relatively easily to a Regional Addiction Unit that was based at an NHS hospital. In my experience it's not so much a case of an addictive substance, but rather a propensity towards an addictive behavioural trait.

In suggesting that society takes a radically different approach towards illegal substances, I'm basically wanting to highlight the utter futility of the present approach. Virtually no aspect of the current regime works, in fact much of it compounds the problem and is hugely expensive along the way. Even though politicians dare not talk much about the issue, tentative prescribing regimes within the NHS are beginning to prove what many of us have suspected for some time, namely that legal access to heroin can enable a person to live a normal life, either on a maintenance dose, or withdraw more easily if they so desire.

We've all known for years that the middle-classes can manage to keep a good job and hide their drug use because they have the means to fund the habit without recourse to acquisitive crime. In the absence of a chaotic lifestyle and criminal activity, there's also evidence to support the thesis that many can maintain a recreational level of consumption, similar to that of responsible alcohol users. 

So, just to be clear, certainly in relation to heroin and similar substances, I'm not advocating decriminalisation, but rather a return to the situation pre Misuse of Drugs Act when heroin could be prescribed and hence controlled by the medical profession. Alone it would not solve the drug problem entirely, but it would be an intelligent move in the right direction and help both those who have a problem addiction and those who might be termed to have a recreational need.

Saturday 18 February 2012

A Fundamental Question

Following on from the debate that resulted from Bystanders piece about the arrested Sun journalists, an absolutely key question has been asked about Probation Officers and their role within the Criminal Justice System. What are they for? Do they look after the interests of clients or that of wider society? Apparently, I'm precluded from answering that they do both! 

Over the months regular readers will be aware that I've tried to explain what Probation Officers do by means of a number of posts numbered 1 to 5. Fundamentally, a Probation Officers' job is to try and prevent offending. The journey we've been on from our Christian philanthropic roots through social work professionalism towards current law enforcement has been interesting to say the least. Our methods may have changed and adapted, but the key principle has remained the same, that of protecting the public from crime and the effects of crime.

Of course at this point I should mention that we are all members of the public, Police Officers, Judges, Magistrates and of course offenders. I think I can say without fear of contradiction that we have all been the victims of crime at some stage or other. It is therefore in the best interests of the whole of society that we try and reduce it. Incidentally, PO's are only too well aware of the supreme irony that dictates that is is our clients that often tend to suffer the most from criminal activity. They are more likely to have suffered sexual or physical abuse, be burgled more often or assaulted more frequently.

So, if that's what Probation Officers are for, how do they do it? Well in essence this has never really changed much in that we have always been charged with two responsibilities, the discharge of which means that there is constant tension between the need to protect the public on the one hand, but at the same time having regard to the best interests of the client. In simple terms, in a lot of cases, the public can be protected and crime reduced if the underlying reasons for the criminal behaviour are dealt with. This might range from helping with practical things like food and shelter through to effecting a change in attitude by means of counselling or groupwork. The landscape is vast and because every individuals needs are unique, the possible solutions and interventions vary enormously. All this of course means that the job of a PO is quite demanding, but potentially enormously rewarding.

Now this might be termed as focusing on the 'welfare' aspect of the job as a means towards reducing crime and thus protection of the public. But there is another side, the so-called 'iron fist in the velvet glove'. Having qualified as a social worker at University and started applying for jobs as a Probation Officer, I am reminded of an SPO who said to me once 'we don't want a social worker - we want a Probation Officer!'  I knew even back then what he meant. A PO's job involves having to judge when a lengthy prison term is right, just and appropriate. When recall has to be instigated, when early release from a determinate sentence might not be appropriate and when it's simply too dangerous to consider releasing a lifer.

These and similar decisions are big responsibilities that affect people's lives and are never taken lightly. But they represent the other half of discharging our dual responsibilities and we still have to work with these people. No matter how heinous the crime, or unpleasant and difficult they are, we still have to try and take into account their best interests and work towards a change in attitude and a reduction in the risk they represent. If the risk is reduced the public are protected. If not, we carry on being part of the system that monitors, supervises or in some cases ensures continued incarceration. 

So, I hope the question is answered. We do indeed do both - look after the interests of clients and society at the same time!

Wednesday 15 February 2012

Punish Less : Understand More

Every now and then I come across a post on other blogs that particularly grabs my attention. In this instance it wasn't so much what the blogger said, as much as the resulting and mostly ill-tempered comment and discussion that got me thinking. On Sunday Bystander on the Magistrates Blog posted a piece entitled 'Biter is Bitten' which basically engaged in a bit of schadenfreude brought about by the arrest of five Sun journalists as part of the phone hacking scandal. Not particularly controversial I thought and a view with which I have some sympathy, but I was genuinely surprised by the passion and heat generated over sentencing policy and the state of the Criminal Justice System generally in the comments section.

At first I was keen to add a probation officers viewpoint, but to be honest the number of thorny issues raised were so great that I decided to reflect further and pen this post instead. To try and summarise, there was a view that the likes of The Sun and Daily Mail were merely voicing what ordinary people knew to be the truth about 'soft' judges and magistrates, who are just part of a liberal middle class elite and who feel they know better than ordinary folk about crime and punishment. The answer was obviously to lock more people up for longer and that in itself would be an effective deterrent. The tabloids were merely telling the truth and that was the reason they were hugely successful - unlike the quality dailies.

I'm sure I might have missed out some elements of the debate - but I think that's the gist. This sort of debate has raged over many years and unfortunately the probation viewpoint is either never voiced or hardly ever heard. This is a terrible shame and possibly connected to the fact that as a group we're pretty much publicity-shy, despite having been experts in the field for over a century. The absence of a clear voice and message has allowed successive governments of both political parties to seize the initiative and impose their half-baked populist sentencing ideas, the results of which of course we enjoy today.

It might be useful to look at crime through the analagy of health or indeed life itself. In effect it's all a game of chance, right from fertilisation of the egg through to the point at which our pre-determined genetic pre-disposition meets the effects of our lifestyle and death. We all know that choosing our parents carefully will in all probability be the single most important factor that determines our future prospects. Probation officers know only too well that the vast majority of their clients do not get a great start in life. That's a fact, but that's always been the case, so what's changed I hear you say? Drugs!   

Over my career I can say without a shadow of doubt that the whole criminal landscape has changed beyond recognition due to the widespread and unstoppable use of narcotics. A vast amount of acquisitive crime is committed today in order to fund these insatiable habits and this simply wasn't the case when I started out. Just as increasing prison sentence lengths have no effect on deterrence, no matter how sustained the war on drugs becomes it will have absolutely no effect on drug usage. The tabloids don't agree of course - because they seemingly know better and are merely reflecting the views of the public - and therefore no politician dares speak the truth that the whole thing is a costly and futile charade. We must admit that our current drug policy is a disaster and treat it instead as a health issue with legal prescribing.

Over my entire career I have never been aware that criminal behaviour is significantly affected by the deterrent effect of sentencing. What does affect behaviour is much more concerned with the chances of getting caught. Just with smokers not being affected by gruesome photos on cigarette packets, offenders feel confident that they will evade detection. Each feels that there is good reason to believe that justice will not catch up with them. It's the old theory of partial random re-inforcement. But I can hear some people saying at least the public gets a break whilst the offenders are off the streets. Yes that's true, but firstly it's costly, secondly we imprison more people than ever in our history and thirdly what use is it if offenders are returned to society more damaged and less able to cope than when they went in? In the end the only real chance of stopping criminal behaviour is to effect a change in attitude and that takes skill, time and effort.

In terms of sentencing, it always amazes me when routinely there are examples quoted in the media of 'soft' sentencing, without full knowledge of the case. Probation Officers have to be experts in sentencing because they are often charged with advising sentencers based upon detailed assessments of each offenders background, attitude and environment. This information is normally confidential for sound professional reasons and unfortunately can sometimes compound the public's perception of a sentence being 'soft'.

All I can say is that in my experience, having sometimes sweated blood and tears over some Pre-Sentence Reports, I have more often been disappointed at my recommendation being ignored by imposition of a harsher sentence, than one being imposed that was more lenient. In such cases there will invariably have been factors that the public would not have been privvy to, that had a direct effect on offending behaviour and that could have been addressed more constructively.  

Now the cynics will say that just shows that Probation Officers always 'down tariff' rather than 'up tariff' offenders. There did indeed used to be some truth in thinking that, but even so it ignores the fact that when we were rather more closely associated with sentencers than we are today, we had to maintain their confidence. So called 'concordance' rates were monitored enthusiastically both by individual officers and management and was the source of some pride. Somewhat ironically nowadays there is evidence to suggest that more-recently trained officers have a tendency to 'up tariff' offenders which I find a sad indictment on the changes imposed upon us over the last 10 to 15 years. In essence my message would be that the need to punish rather less and understand more has never been greater. I can't help but notice that that goes counter to current political thinking though.



Friday 10 February 2012

What Does a Probation Officer Do? 5


From the first day I set foot in a Probation Office whilst on placement from University, it was blindingly obvious to me that the vast majority of clients that would come my way needed help of some sort. I was never in any doubt that the State would be paying my wages so as to try and make amends either for various social policy failings, the effects of developmental hurdles or environmental traumas. Yes a criminal act had set the ball rolling and thus fate had delivered them to my office door, but almost without exception there was something that had gone wrong in their life that had contributed to criminal activity. Fix that and we might be on the way to reducing the likelihood of repetition.

All probation officers know that many clients present with some very familiar sounding life histories. Often the products of broken homes, many have spent periods in the care of the Local Authority. Significant numbers have suffered abuse of some sort, their education has been disrupted and developmental problems go undiagnosed. They form unhelpful friendships with criminally experienced peers and are introduced to alcohol and drugs. Failure and exclusion from school leads to unemployability, relationship breakdown, homelessness and finally prison. I still defy anyone to give me intelligent reasons why a qualified social worker practising as a probation officer is not a key part of the appropriate answer to this depressing scenario.

If this is the raw material, I think most people would agree that it might take a little more than a 'jolly good talking to', a spell of Unpaid Work or even a period in custody in order for them to see the error of their ways and stop offending. They need some basic things sorting, like a proper diagnosis for a learning disability, some counselling for past abuse, or help filling in forms. They need somewhere to live, help with literacy or some treatment for alcohol or drug dependency. They might need a doctor or dentist.

The list is long and the job remit vast. In the end though in my experience it's often only the PO who can see the whole picture and start trying to fix things. And I don't mean a bit of 'signposting'. It has to be action, like contacting the appropriate agency and arranging for a GP to be allocated. Like badgering the Local Authority or Health Authority to carry out the appropriate assessments. Like talking to housing providers in order to 'sell' your client to them. Like arguing the toss with the Benefits Agency to sort out why no money has arrived. It also means responding. Doing the home visit at a time of crisis. Visit the jail, or the hospital or hostel. Keep in touch, telephone and write letters. Advocate on their behalf and ferry them and their chattles about when felt appropriate.

I know some of this is now regarded as unnecessary or unprofessional even, but it's always worked for me. It reminds me of one of my very first clients when still a student. He was a young disaffected black guy sent away to YOI for the first time. His mother had no means of visiting so I offered to take her considerable bulk in my compact Morris Traveller and combine the excursion with a joint interview. I learnt so much about her and the families problems on the way and to this day I remain touched by the young lads genuine appreciation in return. 

Basically I think the job means delivering for your client, making their life a bit more satisfactory and along the way help to understand what's gone wrong or repair past damage. In this way you help build a constructive relationship that means they just might listen more carefully when the time comes to give some words of advice or strident warnings even.   

Despite all the changes over the last 30 years, I remain committed to the social work approach to probation. It was a mistake to make us famously a Law Enforcement Agency, but politicians feel it sounds good to the public and hence we have the current mantra of 'understand less and punish more'. It's rubbish of course and just see where it's got us. I believe that social work will continue to be re-discovered by more recently qualified colleagues and if necessary will be quietly undertaken subversively.  

Just as a point of information, I think this concludes the occasional series 'What Does a Probation Officer Do?

Wednesday 8 February 2012

Call the Midwife

Yes I know I should get out more and stop watching so much tv, but I'm a real sucker for period dramas, and particularly if they are set in the 50's and 60's. It's not so much the fanciful story lines of the likes of 'Heartbeat' and 'The Royal' that attract me, as the sheer nostalgic 'high' they provide with the attention to period detail. So it was in this vein that I set out to watch the new Sunday evening offering from BBC1 'Call the Midwife'. 

I thought it might be a little different, having been based upon the real-life memoirs of a midwife starting out on her career in London's East End and during the early formative years of the National Health Service. Conscious that on occasion I have been accused of looking back at the past through rose-tinted glasses, I was reassured to read a complimentary review of the drama in the Sunday Times by social historian David Kynaston no less. It was certainly his view that this particular portrayal was realistic and true-to-life, and I think I have to agree. 

Even though I'm not old enough to have many personal memories of the period, much chimes with anecdotal stories I've heard. In fact it's fascinating to reflect that my own mother established a life-long friendship with the midwife that saw me into the world. Of course these were the heady days of the NHS when the Nation was still coming to terms with the novelty of 'free' health care and it's worth reminding ourselves every now and then just what A Wonderful Thing it is, whatever our American cousins may think. It was also pre Seebhom Report and before social work had established itself as a distinctive discipline and function of the State. This drama very neatly spans the period of transition from what might be termed well-meaning charitable endeavour to that of vocational professionalism.

What really strikes me about this portrayal is that the nurses, whether part of the Holy Order or not, are basically making things up as they go along and responding to situations intuitively. Ok they have undergone training in relation to pre and post natal care in the community, but they are also inventing social work as they follow their 'calling' or vocation. Current practitioners in the social care field cannot but marvel at the almost complete absence of management, bureaucracy, policies, procedures and risk assessments. These were the days of a 'can do' approach to every aspect of the work and the only boundaries were those that were self-imposed by each individual as they simply did what they felt was appropriate in each case.

This certainly chimes with my early days post qualification as a social worker and newly-appointed Probation Officer in a small field office. I well remember very experienced officers describing how they often worked long into the evening going from door-to-door visiting clients in their homes. The officers were clearly a trusted part of the community and it was not unusual to discuss things with the whole family, stay for tea, exchange Christmas cards and even attend weddings, Christenings and funerals. Despite my inexperience, I also felt empowered to do whatever I felt appropriate in each of my cases. Team meetings made decisions by democratic means and often out-voted the Senior Probation Officer - a sort of 'first' amongst equals in those days!  But of course things were changing and eventually the bloody computer arrived.  

It would be futile and I'm not trying to pretend that everything was better back in the old days, but I find this drama a powerful reminder of just what we've lost along the way towards today's modern professional practitioners. I suppose there couldn't be a starker illustration than that provided by yet another new BBC 1 tv programme, 'Protecting our Children' where a social worker conducts a home visit accompanied by two security guards for FFS!