Friday 29 June 2012

Snake Oil?

Throughout my career I've always had a great deal of respect for forensic and clinical psychologists. Although sometimes extra-ordinarily expensive in terms of report writing and like hens teeth in terms of community provision, they've always been worth their weight in gold in my experience. This has been especially so in relation to extremely damaged and/or dangerous offenders. As a result, I've always been an enthusiastic supporter of probation services employing their own, but cost has always been stated as a reason for precluding this option.

Unlike the Probation Service, there has been a considerable expansion of psychology provision within the Prison Service and I've previously made mention of the fact that most staff seem to be young female trainees. I've also become aware of the high degree of suspicion with which the psychology department seems to be held in by some inmates. Contributors to the prison magazine 'Inside Time' often make reference to 'snake oil' when discussing the topic.

Now ordinarily I would not be that surprised by some prisoners objecting to any process by which they are assessed, but until I read about it in the latest edition of 'Inside Time', I was not aware of a piece of research by Professor Jane Ireland of the University of Central Lancashire into the quality of psychology reports prepared in Family Law cases. Her findings are extremely worrying, including the fact that two thirds were found to be either 'poor' or 'very poor' and that one in five 'experts' were found to be inadequately qualified. Now although this research did not involve work in criminal cases, the article goes on to make several worrying observations that may well be highly relevant to the Criminal Justice System:-

A significant number of prisoners have remarked on how some of the Report findings echo the experience they are also having, at hearings of the Parole Board. Complaints range from wildly inaccurate risk assessment and psychology reports written by trainees, to occasions when offender management reports are written about prisoners whom the probation officer has never actually interviewed or even met.

Matters are not helped by current legislation that allows a person who is wholly unqualified in psychology to use the title ‘psychologist’. That unqualified people can and do refer to themselves as ‘psychologists’ can clearly lead to gross injustice for the family involved and cause confusion among the public, other concerned professions and the legal system generally. But unless these people openly transgress such boundaries, laws concerning misrepresentation of qualifications,
deception or fraud, they can continue to use the title legally and without hindrance.

Now  I'm probably as guilty as most in being a little sloppy in the use of professional titles and descriptions where psychologists are concerned. Over the years I've tended to use the term 'psychologist' on the basis that the person was indeed suitably qualified and regulated by some professional body. No doubt most have been, but I must admit it comes as very disturbing news that in effect anyone can call themselves a psychologist at the present time and Professor Ireland understandably feels that this situation requires urgent attention. This seems pretty obvious to me, not least because of the increasingly important role this discipline is gaining within the Criminal Justice System. The full report can be accessed here.

Thursday 28 June 2012

How Did he Do It?

Amongst senior managers reporting for work this morning at NOMS HQ there will be considerable discussion as to exactly how a 'dangerous' 64 year-old Cat B inmate could have 'escaped' from HMP Pentonville? Despite the fact that the inevitable enquiry has barely begun, the unpalatable truth is that he didn't escape at all. In my view, almost certainly somebody in uniform let him out.

As I write this, the story is effectively 'breaking news' and most media organisations haven't got much to say about it beyond the bare bones. In normal circumstances, unless there was access to priviledged information, the public would normally remain blissfully ignorant of any further details, however the case of John Massey is fascinating and was covered by an article in the Guardian earlier this year. 

Here we have a glimpse into the case of a man who has serious grievances with the 'system' and how it has treated him. He's probably not one of the easiest men to deal with and will no doubt feel he's done enough 'bird' to warrant release. He probably doesn't like taking part in groupwork that might help in assessing his risk category. He's probably disdainful of psychology and probation. I suspect he feels release should be on his terms, not that of the 'system'. He's probably not dangerous at all - just not particularly co-operative.

Reading the article confirms that he has a high degree of sympathy, not just from the Guardian, but Lord Ramsbotham no less, former HM Chief Inspector of Prisons. Experience tells me that he will have a significant degree of sympathy from some officers as well, particularly those that value the ability of a prisoner to 'keep a clean and tidy cell' and are 'respectful' to staff. All this is ok with determinate sentences, but not Life sentences where release is entirely discretional at the behest of the Parole Board and with decisions requiring evidence of risk reduction.

It's a basic fact of prison life that many of the officers come from very similar social backgrounds to the people they are locking up. Many read the same tabloid papers, share the same political views and often have common cause in vilifying certain prisoner groups such as sex offenders. Being secure, closed and secretive communities, prisons can easily develop some extremely unhealthy cultures that typically treat 'outsiders' with disdain. It is precisely because of this that seconded probation officers are routinely rotated in order to avoid them being completely subsumed by prison culture.

As with Mr Massey's previous 'escape' during transit to open conditions for heavens sake, I think it's safe to assume that his miraculous disappearance from Pentonville was not via a tunnel 'Shawshank Redemption' style, but rather some connivance by sympathetic officers. I might add that I had a very similar case and he 'escaped' too whilst on an 'escorted' visit. 

Wednesday 27 June 2012

Peers to the Rescue

I find it supremely ironic that after 100 years of complaining, the Liberals and irritating
leader Nick Clegg look to be dangerously close to getting their misguided way with the only bit of our Parliament that does anything useful. Without question the level of debate in the House of Lords is far superior to that provided by the shambles down the corridor in the Commons, and yet it's the Upper House that is going to be comprehensively reformed. If confirmation was needed as to what the people feel about our elected representatives, just have a glance at some of the comments from the public that resulted from a recent consultation exercise on the level of MP's remuneration.

Fortunately for us all, the Upper House has a considerable number of eminently sensible and experienced members within it, all as a result of patronage rather than election of course. Amongst them is the former HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, the ennobled Baron Ramsbotham. He has long been a staunch supporter of probation and has once more come to our aid in what might well turn out to be our darkest hour. Now that the consultation process has closed in relation to government plans for yet more widespread changes within the Service, including massive amounts of privatisation, the Noble Lord has delivered a scathing attack on the whole half-baked scheme, with significant support from other Peers across the political spectrum. 

The concept may not be fully understood by people beyond these shores, but in what passes for our type of democracy, yet again those of us who are of reasonable mind will have to rely on the unelected portion of our constitutional arrangements to deliver reasonable debate and effective opposition to this barmy government plan. 


Tuesday 26 June 2012

Seems Unreasonable to Me!

I heard about this case from a passing joking reference on the radio today. 'Burgler begs Judge to send him to prison because his probation appointments were too early in the morning.' It's the sort of story that's a gift during a slow news day, or indeed the well-catalogued 'silly season'. All the main papers seem to have covered it, no doubt as a result of a stroke of luck by a 'stringer' at Coventry Crown Court.

It would appear that 'lazy' and 'shameless' Kierran Batchelor had given up on his Community Order imposed for two domestic burglaries and stopped reporting. He is said to have turned down the Judges offer of a second chance, preferring instead to go to prison 'as a way of catching up on his sleep.' A cut-and-dried case of a feckless youth sticking two fingers up to the system it would seem - but hang on a minute, this guy was working and his shift pattern was 10pm to 6am. Despite this he was given 10am probation appointments. This seems entirely unreasonable to me and in my opinion he should have been reporting late afternoon instead. 

Obviously I don't know the full details, but on the limited information gleaned from the newspaper reports, it's the supervising officer who should be being pilloried, not the client. In my humble opinion a young man has needlessly gone to prison, not as a result of any new offences, but because of piss-poor practice. In all honesty a case like this takes my breath away. I can only contemplate as to the content of the Breach Report. What on earth was the Barrister doing to earn his or her money? Why didn't the Judge use some initiative and demand to speak to the Probation Court Duty Officer? Had I been the said CDO, there is no way I would have allowed this case to proceed without intervening. I thought this is what we got paid for, to be pro-active in court. 

One cannot but feel we're all in a handcart to hell.    

Life in Gartree

Last nights Channel 4 documentary 'Lifers' in HMP Gartree was fascinating for a whole host of reasons, not least the ability of the film maker to tackle such a vast and important topic without reference to probation once. Any unsuspecting member of the public could be excused for believing that probation has no role at all in the ongoing management of people serving life sentences in prison and that as one inmate put it 'it's psychology that pulls all the strings - if you don't agree with 'em you don't get out'. What bollocks.

Every single person serving a life sentence, even the man identified as having a 'whole life term' and thus will die behind bars, has an allocated external or home probation officer throughout their entire sentence. This arrangement continues following release and until such time as the Parole Board deem supervision is no longer required in relation to their Life Licence. In addition, every prison including and especially a lifer centre like Gartree has a probation department, but they were conspicuously absent in this film. 

What we did see was a glimpse of the psychology department which typically within HM Prison Service nowadays is almost exclusively staffed by young female trainees. There's nothing wrong with this per se, but I do often wonder why there never seem to be any young men, and what the hell do these trainees do when they qualify? They never seem to be taken on by HMP, no doubt because once they qualify they become far too expensive. In short I have had concerns about the experience and quality of psychology input within the prison system in recent years, relying heavily as it does on a seemingly endless supply of trainees. Dealing with such dangerous and often severely damaged individuals surely requires some very senior and well qualified staff?

To be blunt this brings me onto the notion, given weight by this film, that it's the psychology department that basically decides if people are fit to progress towards release or not. In reality it's the F75 Parole Reports prepared both by internal and external probation officers that carry significant weight with the Parole Board. You wouldn't know it, but almost certainly the external probation officer would have been present at the Oral Hearing and would have given evidence directly to the three Parole Board panel members and in support of their written report. 

It should be borne in mind that prisoners move around the prison system fairly frequently and thus the home probation officers involvement in a case will often represent a degree of continuity and thus expertise. The Lifer File gets ever bigger with the passage of time and accumulates numerous reports from each Establishment, but it's often only the home PO that can spot changes in an inmates demeanour, attitude or story that will assist in the making of accurate and fair assessments. In my experience this involvement over time makes the home PO the 'expert' on a case and thus able to argue effectively at sentence planning meetings from a position of authority. From an inmates point of view, this can either be viewed positively or negatively of course.

Which brings me on finally to the interesting choice of inmates who made up the bulk of the footage. Although eminently 'recognisable' to me in their various ways, they are far from being typical and I think it's important that viewers know this. In all my career I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of lifers that have displayed similar degrees of candour and openness in relation to their index offence. Much more common is denial, minimisation, justification, obfuscation and just plain cussedness. I guarantee a brief conversation with any of the officers at Gartree will confirm this. There will be whole wings of 'innocent' men and tackling this degree of denial is extremely wearing I can tell you. Sadly we never got a glimpse of that, far more 'normal 'side of things, from this film. But then 50 minutes to cover such a huge subject was a bit ambitious.           

Tuesday 19 June 2012

The Scheme of Things

I suspect I've always had a slightly different view of probation and how it fits into the scheme of things. Quite early on I came to view my job as someone paid by the state to try and apply sticking plaster to the consequences of failed social policies of one kind or another. I've always felt this view has more relevance than the one often heard from the political right that people just 'choose' crime. In effect  they say it's just all effectively a 'lifestyle' choice.  Nonsense in my view, and as a consequence I'm always alert to any evidence that might come along that could support my own particular viewpoint. It just so happens that in the last couple of days, just like buses, three have come along.

First off here's news of a Parliamentary Committee confirming just how bad Residential Care can be for young people. All my anecdotal evidence collected over many years confirmed this ages ago, which is why I was so surprised to hear Martin Narey, the former Chief Executive of Barnado's, say a couple of years ago that more kids should be taken into the care of the Local Authority. I suspect all probation officers can recite many instances of where someones life really started getting much worse as a result of being in a Children's Home. For far too long it's been a Cinderella service, typically poorly paid, under-resourced and sadly the preserve of the most in-experienced staff. 

Then there's another report into the failure by the NHS to provide proper treatment for patients with mental health problems. Again, boy don't we know that as probation officers! I wish I had a pound for every Pre-Sentence Report I've written over the years, identifying significant mental health issues that are connected with offending behaviour, require urgent medical attention, but knowing full-well that it will not be forthcoming. Sadly the Medical Profession has never felt itself bound by Court Orders which make treatment conditional. To be honest I've always felt that Forensic Services have been a Cinderella branch of the NHS not fully understood by commissioning managers. Maybe they feel it should be funded by the Justice Ministry as being somehow for the 'undeserving'. I particularly note with disgust that £400 million ear-marked for the 'talking therapies' has been otherwise appropriated in the absence of compulsion. So much for local accountability.

Finally there is the news that nearly 7 million people in this country 'are just one bill away from disaster'. Yet again all probation officers will know just how precarious many of our clients financial situations are. Many exist from week to week by means of complicated informal borrowing arrangements involving friends and family. Having absolutely no access to any savings, as a consequence disaster is a common occurrence. This situation has not been helped since a decision was taken some years back to stop probation officers having access to the wonderfully named 'Befriending Fund.' Typically this money could be dispensed pretty much at will by officers, and up to £10 without management authorisation. These mostly small sums often provided food and shelter in emergencies and I'm sure helped to avert all manner of bigger problems for society. But, as with so much discretion, it was swept away in the name of probation becoming a punishment service and we are where we now are.

I firmly believe that all these recent examples show how offending and the work of the probation service fit into the wider context of society and quite often in my view demonstrate failings in social policy. It is completely unjust to blame us for not bringing down re-offending rates when many of the causes of criminal behaviour are not being addressed and we are not being given access to the tools necessary to do our job.   

Friday 15 June 2012

Dinosaurs Clash!

Every blogger loves to be read and in my experience comments are avidly welcomed. Sometimes a contribution is received that is particularly challenging and hence in my view deserving of some extra careful consideration in response. A case in point concerns, as it happens, my most widely read post, somewhat provocatively entitled 'Punish Less : Understand More'. The issues raised by Brontosauras are so varied and fundamental that I'd like to address them individually and by way of a dedicated post. Those who wish to follow the argument might like to read the original post here.

I am sorry but your views epitomise almost everything that is wrong with our criminal justice system, including the Probation Service. In another post you lament the days when Probation were effectively Social Workers. 100 years of experience counts for little if you are wrong. Government changed the role of Probation officers because they didn't want them to be Social Workers.

On the contrary,100 years of experience may well indicate that we got it right. In fact I'd go so far as to say that Probation was one of the few bits of the Criminal Justice System that worked well, that is up until the government decided to change our role and before the present headlong rush into privatisation. The problem is that our work has always been difficult to explain, tailored as it should be to an individuals behaviour and needs. Each client should have a personalised approach designed to challenge particular behavioural traits and rectify impediments that might inhibit a crime-free future.

Unfortunately nowadays this type of provision is regarded as novel and expensive. Probation was encouraged down the groupwork 'treatment' route to limited effect because  of course offenders are not amenable to being 'processed' as generic entities. There is a huge range of offending and each requires an individually-tailored 'intervention' by well trained and qualified staff. Only yesterday HM Chief Inspector of Probation bemoaned the inappropriate and frequent use of standalone curfews for leading to widespread breach. As punishment goes it's supposedly cheap, but lacking any attention to underlying issues, often totally ineffective. There are no 'cheap fixes' to these issues and the magic bullet will continue to elude successive governments until such time as there is recognition that underlying issues have to be addressed, be they drug and alcohol treatment, education, housing, training, employment or counselling to name but some.
As I have explained previously, just because Probation Officers were trained as Social Workers, did not mean that they only ever concerned themselves with an offenders welfare issues. This is a gross distortion of the truth and demonstrates a profound failure to understand the role and responsibilities of a Probation Officer. Irrespective of what type of training we received, there has always been a concomitant responsibility to protect the public and reduce crime. For some it might be difficult to comprehend that both functions can be successfully undertaken at the same time, but it can and only now is it being fully appreciated that changing our role was a serious mistake on the part of ill-informed politicians wishing to curry favour with the Electorate.  

I understand all the social welfare issues that many offenders have. Co-ordinating that assistance and support is important but so are consequences. There are no consequences in our justice system. I have seen young probation officers told to fuck off by their charges. No breach. They don't know what to do about it.

Well first off I'd have to say that a client swearing at an officer says more to me about the officer than the client. It says that they have almost certainly misjudged a situation and need to take urgent action to recover it. I've been wracking my brains and that of colleagues. I'm sure I must have been sworn at over the years, but none of us could remember, it not really being worthy of note. People under a great deal of stress might well say all kinds of things, but I think it would normally be treated as being similar to what a child might say. It's laughable to suggest that it's breachable behaviour on it's own. There would have to be evidence of a continued failure to co-operate in order to trigger a return to court.

Now threats to kill is a different matter. I can recall at least two instances, neither of which resulted in prosecution because in the final analysis I did not feel they were likely to be carried out, but they did have consequences. In one case the client was 'sectioned' under the Mental Health Act and in the other the child was still removed into the Care of the Local Authority, but supervision of the client was transferred to another officer.      

On what evidence do you state that sentencing has no effect on deterrence? Utter rot.

I don't think I ever said that. Of course it has some effect, but it must be remembered that some sentencing, such as to imprisonment, has significant negative side effects and I wanted to highlight the need to address the underlying issues that led to the offending in the first place. In the end this is the only really effective way of encouraging a change in offending behaviour. Punishment alone, in my experience, is only likely to work in a minority of instances. I repeat - getting caught is much more likely to have an effect than the sentence itself.   

You then claim that the chances of getting caught has most effect on crime. How? When offenders are caught there is no effective consequences for persistent offenders including deterrent sentencing and no effective rehabilitation.

What a wonderfully sweeping statement that I fear is borne more of prejudice than insight. Getting caught is somewhat akin to gambling behaviour. In the case of the former, being arrested could be construed as just bad luck as in many instances the offender will know full well that other offences have gone undetected, and in the latter, losing is also just 'bad luck' because they had an earlier win. It's all effectively a gamble, but unfortunately partial re-enforcement can be a powerful driver for repeat behaviour. Our job is to try and counter these disjointed and misguided thought processes by various means, not least because as professionals we know only too well that further down the line consequences will follow. Driving Over the Prescribed Limit or Driving Whilst Disqualified will mean crippling insurance premiums. Indecent Exposure will mean no employment with children. Theft will mean you can't get that job in a bank. 

In truth, trying to measure 'effective rehabilitation' is difficult and probably one reason why it is so hard for us to get our message across. An absence of further convictions might not mean there has been no further offending. It might just be that they haven't been caught. If it's difficult to measure, it's also difficult to deliver. Getting a sex offender to accept their offending, possibly deal with their own abuse, change distorted thinking built up over time and effect sustainable alternative behaviour, could take years of an officer's time. Ever longer prison sentences on their own are unlikely to alter behaviour, but rather provide an environment for the consolidation of distorted criminal views. Given that we can't lock everyone up for ever, it should be obvious which approach is more likely to have a positive effect, even if it can't be measured accurately. Anecdotally, I know it works. 

It has become fashionable to say that high reconviction rates prove that Probation hasn't been working and therefore requires comprehensive 'reform'. This is to completely miss the point by punishing the doctor without dealing with the disease. Over the last 30 years it has been our absurd drug policy that has fostered and failed to deal with the explosion in drug-related crime. Of course the Probation Service has had to try and cope, but it is a losing uphill battle when we don't have access to treatment models that are effective and have to rely instead on discredited methadone prescribing. Reconviction rates would plummet if we returned to other options such as controlled heroin prescribing as in other countries.        

It is impossible to do anything but gloss over the arguments here. I strongly recommend you read a book by David Fraser, a former senior probation officer. It is called A Land Fit For Criminals. He has woken up and understands the justice system for the complete sham it is. 

I agree that the arguments are complex and the solutions considerably nuanced and is one reason for this blog. I was not aware of the book by David Fraser, but have been doing some research and unearthed some reviews. I have to say that Mr Fraser does not come over as someone who was ever really a conducive candidate for his chosen profession and of course his elevation to SPO would have meant that he was well removed from client contact, possibly for much of his career. He took part in the BBC Radio 4 programme 'The Moral Maze' following the riots last year, but did not acquit himself well in my view. I could shell out 20 quid and buy a copy of the book, but I don't feel inclined to make the investment in something I know I will find highly irritating. Yes of course it leaves me wide open to criticism as someone not willing to open their mind to conflicting evidence, but as it says on the tin, it's my blog and my experience tells me something very different.       

Monday 11 June 2012

We Used to do That!

Once again government attention turns to the issue of 'problem' families. The riots last year have ensured that 'something' has to be done. The numbers have been crunched and it's become accepted wisdom that the problem lies with 120,000 families that include about 320,000 children. Typically they are the long-term unemployed, live in poor housing and have health problems including drug and alcohol addictions.The cost to the tax payer is said to be a staggering £9billion. 

The governments answer seems to be to have a 'whip round' of departments and the resulting paltry £448million will be used to 'incentivise' eligible Local Authorities to tackle this group. If they are successful in reducing truancy, police call-outs and anti-social behaviour, they will get more money. Apparently the government feels that a co-ordinated approach by involved agencies would be a good idea in order to offer such troubled families a 'helping hand'.

One of the things I find astonishing about this new initiative is the fact that historically dealing with this very group used to be a primary function of the Probation Service. After all, we were the professionally qualified social service specifically set up within the Criminal Justice System, and empowered with a wide remit to tackle many of the issues associated with 'problem families'. So what happened I hear you ask? Well the politicians got involved of course and as always felt they knew better, stripping us of our social welfare role and making us primarily concerned with punishment alone.

It's always difficult to prove cause and effect in social policy areas, but it can't have helped that during the period that we were being 'transformed', society began to wake up to a growing problem with these so-called 'problem families'. It's also worth pointing out the irony that during this period it was Local Authorities themselves that were allowed to contribute towards the stored-up problems we now face. I well remember the utter intransigence of my local Housing Authority towards any assistance for families that they regarded as 'undeserving.'

In my experience, the local council was the problem both in terms of housing allocation, housing management, social services and education provision. A huge chunk of my time was taken up with advocating on behalf of clients with councils who basically felt the answer to everything was to ASBO them and get them over the county boundary, Elizabethan Poor Law style. Well, I'm clear that the effects of this disastrous New Labour policy is now coming home to roost. The sad thing is that we no longer have that professional social work agency within the Criminal Justice System to deal with it.       


Friday 8 June 2012


It looks like Home Secretary Theresa May has decided to seek revenge for the way the Police Federation treated her at their annual conference earlier in the year. In a deliberately provocative move, she has announced that her preferred candidate for HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary will not be a police officer, but for the first time ever a civilian and a lawyer to boot. 

This is akin to declaring war on the police, especially as the person chosen is none other than former rail regulator Tom Winsor, the recent author of two highly controversial reports into police reforms. You will recall that one result of Mr Winsor's recommendations was to bring thousands of off-duty police officers onto the streets of London last month in protest.

Added to their deep animosity towards the impending demise of Police Authorities and their replacement with elected Crime and Police Commissioners, together with the advance of contracted-out services, the police must feel boxed into a corner. Unable to strike due to legislation introduced following the 1926 General Strike, we may yet see a motion passed by the Federation demanding that the Act be repealed.

Of course this is only a preferred candidate so far and will have to be ratified by the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee. This may not just be a formality as the preferred candidate for HM Chief Inspector of Probation discovered when the Justice Affairs Committee declined to endorse her appointment recently.

Although not entirely unexpected due to obvious government irritation with the Police Service generally, and not assisted by the fall out from the on-going Murdoch scandal, it nevertheless marks a dangerous escalation in tension, especially as the security nightmare of the London Olympics looms. In a country famously 'policed by consent' (only two arrests on Monday with 1 million people in The Mall) I can't help feeling this is a very dangerous path for the government to be treading, and an example of the worst kind of 'gesture' politics.         

Saturday 2 June 2012

A Question of Balance

I have previously written concerning twitter and how the medium is being relentlessly exploited by corporate bodies for the dissemination of 'good news' stories. It's now felt to be the perfect medium to use if you wish to engage with a young audience, and it seems probation is proving to be no exception in this regard. Full of relentlessly upbeat stuff, these corporate tweets could easily influence the young and impressionable.   

Just by way of balance, I thought I might draw a little attention to the harsh reality as reported by the Hampshire and Isle of Wight branch of NAPO. They have recently conducted a staff survey on the issue of work-related stress and although I'm not at all surprised by the findings, others might be. Significant numbers of staff reported symptoms such as depression and sleeplessness due to work levels, deadlines and unsympathetic management. I strongly believe that similar results would flow if the exercise were repeated in other Trusts. 

I'm trying to think what the response from management will be in this modern surreal world of newspeak? Surely not the standard 'ah, that survey was conducted some time ago - changes have been made and things have improved - much has been done, but there's a lot more to do'. It's about 140 characters, so just about tweetable.

Once more I seem to have slipped quietly back into deeply cynical, grumpy mode. Fortunately for me an antidote is at hand. It's a Bank Holiday and seeing as I'm a product of the Elizabethan Age, I'm off to London to celebrate. Cheers!