Monday 23 July 2012

Protecting the Public

Knowing when and where not to tell the truth is a vital part of growing up and maturing into a responsible citizen. It's all a question of balance, degree and appropriateness and we can all think of examples when some gloss on the truth would have been rather more welcome. However, no matter how gruesome or unsettling, probation officers are always on a mission to try and tease out the truth as a first step towards understanding the motivation for certain types of behaviour and before trying to get that person to change it. 

This has always been particularly important where sex offenders are concerned because there is always a high degree of denial present. Over the years much of my time and effort has gone into making it possible for this often difficult and damaged group to talk openly about their desires and offending patterns, primarily as a way of forming a basis for work that will prevent further offending and the creation of more victims when they return to the community.

Accredited Sex Offender Treatment Programmes are now run widely throughout the prison system and in the community by Probation Trusts. Much has been achieved in terms of monitoring by both probation and the police as part of the Sex Offender Registration system, but I suppose it was always just a matter of time before some bright spark decided to use Lie Detector tests as a means of 'beefing up' the monitoring process. Trials have been running for some time in East and West Midlands probation areas with supposedly 'good' results, good enough indeed for the politicians to grab hold of the idea and decide to roll it out in England and Wales for the 750 most serious cases.

Now this raises a whole host of issues for me, not least the ethics of it. It strikes me as yet another step down the 'law enforcement' route and to be honest a procedure that probation officers should not be involved in. I really can't see how an officer can one minute be trying to get a client's confidence and trust, and the next be administering a polygraph test? Then there's the whole issue of whether it works or not? This evidence seems to cast doubts. 

I think there's a much better way of protecting the public and it's an idea from Canada called Circles of Support and Accountability. It's long been recognised that sex offenders are often highly isolated when returned back into the community and this does nothing to help prevent a return to offending thoughts and behaviours. The ethos of this government-initiated charity sees each sex offender, the 'core' member, become part of a circle of volunteers, assisted for as long as is felt necessary by appropriate professionals. These circles are formed as soon as possible, ideally whilst the person is in prison, and can continue for many years and long past mandatory sex offender registration. Dame Helen Reeves, the former Chief Executive of Victim Support, describes the vision thus:-

"High risk sex offenders do not make the most welcome neighbours but this organisation recognises that committed, responsible support is the best way of ensuring the safety of local residents and the prevention of further crime. The fact that the supporters volunteer for this task provides a powerful message to the offenders that their previous crimes are acknowledged but that other people are willing to support their efforts for a better future." 

I understand that the reconviction rates for core members is astonishingly low, both for sex and offending generally, with any worrying signs of a return to pre-offending behaviours dealt with speedily through recall or similar action. In essence a scheme that works, is cost-effective and enables both core member and volunteer alike to feel valued.    

Just by way of illustrating the very different approaches described here, I was reminded of an interesting statistic recently. In the UK compliance with Sex Offender Registration is more than 97%, whereas in some US states it's as low as 38%. The reason is that over here offenders are not required to put a sign on their house or car advertising their status. I think it's worth investing in a nuanced approach like Circles rather than a very blunt instrument such as polygraph machines.             

Friday 20 July 2012

Charity Ends Where Exactly?

I notice that NACRO have commented on the recently published research by Civitas and which I mentioned in passing last week. In essence the research seems to be saying that increasing the length of prison sentences for burglary and fraud reduces offending. In contradicting this, or at least saying that it should have a large health warning attached, NACRO state that "in their experience a slightly longer sentence just means a slightly longer delay in reoffending." 

I have to say that I always treat research findings a tad cautiously, especially when trotted out in a political context, and this view was confirmed recently when an eminent professor confided that 'inconvenient' research had a habit of not getting published if the commissioner so decided. I must be more naive than I thought because I find this really worrying and not at all in tune with my clearly idealistic view of academia being concerned only with 'the truth'. 

Anyway, the article goes on to rehearse all the arguments as to why prison terms, especially short sentences, are frequently damaging and do nothing to rehabilitate offenders, in stark contrast to the improved outcomes from community-based options. The author states categorically that "our sole focus as a charity is to reduce crime and reduce the number of victims of crime." Now that is extremely laudable and not at all surprising as a mission statement for a charity founded as the National Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders. 

My problem with this is that I seem to recall that in NACRO's submission to the recent probation review, they pretty much make a case to be allowed to provide probation services themselves, and it was only in 2008 that they were part of a direct bid to run a couple of prisons. In deciding on a name for the organisation, I don't think it was ever in the founders minds that it might be taken literally as to mean the running of prisons or probation services directly, after all that wouldn't be charitable, would it?

I must confess I've had my doubts about NACRO for some time (The Dog that Doesn't Bark), because they used to have a distinguished record for campaigning, but I've only fairly recently come to realise that Frances Crooke of the Howard League for Penal Reform no less has similar concerns. It would seem that she fair put the cat amongst the pigeons by bringing the issue to the attention of the Charity Commission, which by all accounts lost her several friends amongst the charity world, Catch 22 and Turning Point included. 

Without doubt in this crazy world of successive governments trying to build a 'market' within the Criminal Justice System, some very strange and worrying things are happening. Again Francis Crooke points to the habit of charities appearing as 'bid candy' as part of the big players wider aspirations in the CJS carve-up, and some being left supplying free services in order to help the bottom line of 'transglobal bandits' like G4S. I think I'm with her in thinking that there's something really wrong about previously sound charities effectively turning into government contractors with all the consequent issues of being party to the dismantling of public service provision and helping to increase the profits of giant multi-nationals. What about the ethics of being directly involved in this way, can it really be regarded as charitable? 

As I write this, I see that there is discussion once more within the Labour Party about removing the charitable status of private schools if they ever get back into power. If they were ever foolish enough to go down that road, maybe the public might take a wider interest in exactly what's going on in the whole charity sector.    

Thursday 19 July 2012

Oh What Sweet Music...

I was always taught that it was bad form to gloat, but sometimes in life exceptions have to be made, and so it is with the aptly-named Nick Buckles, Chief Executive of now utterly humiliated G4S. He was forced to admit to the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee on Tuesday that the reputation of the company now 'lay in tatters'. Quite an achievement really when we also heard him tell the astonished Committee that he only took on the £300 million contract to supply security guards to the Olympics as a bit of a loss leader and as a way of building reputational value for the future. Blimey - and this guy thinks he can hang on to his job! 

Make no mistake this is a 'Ratners Moment' for G4S and that can only be good news for all of us who care about the future of our public services under the present coalition government. This story isn't going to go away for ages either. Those irritating MP's have got the bit between their teeth and can't wait to heap shit on any group that diverts attention from their own peccadillo's.  Already people are beginning to take notice of exactly what else this 'transglobal bandit' is up to and start asking some very awkward and searching questions about other contracts. It might help to bring back into focus attention on those former senior Civil Servants who 'jumped ship' from NOMS to the private sector and indeed might cause a moment of reflection for those senior Probation Trust managers possibly contemplating going in a similar direction. 

Most important of all, it brings to the attention of the public what is going on and in an extremely graphic way what the issues are. The potential disasters that await us if we continue down this politically-driven dogmatic road of privatisation in the illusory belief that it delivers cost savings and improved services. The debacle has brought the whole issue to the top of the political agenda and in the process people are now beginning to cast a critical eye over the whole sector. Other predators such as Sodexo, Interserve, Mitie, and A4E all have serious issues with their practices and indeed their very ethos. 

This scandal has the possibility of beginning a sea change in the whole political landscape that is called variously 'marketisation', 'contestability' 'payment by results' or plain old 'contracting out' because it demonstrates beyond doubt that the private sector doesn't give a toss about anything other than turning a profit. If they can't make money or 'deliver', they just walk away. Why did we think it was anything other than like this? Is this really how we want our probation and police services to be provided in the future?     

Wednesday 18 July 2012

Not a Pretty Sight

Well Louise Casey, Head of the governments new Troubled Families Unit has been busy, talking to twelve families up and down the land and in the process discovering some things that she found surprising and apparently that 'are not pretty'. I suppose this might have something to do with what a commentator to the Guardian so succinctly put:-

"Never done a proper frontline job....promoted way beyond her competence and expertise...arrogant and ignorant in equal measure...joined various organisations at a senior level...without proper domain knowledge....headhunted and talent managed and now she can screw up vulnerable families ...inequality in action"

Of course she hasn't discovered anything that has not been well known to the probation service since we were founded in 1907. Our social work roots were established for good reason and for decades officers continued to do battle with other agencies of the state in order to try and improve the lives of their charges and their families. Surely I can't be the only person to make a  connection between our move away from welfare-orientated work with clients, and the apparent rise in numbers of problem families in recent years and their seemingly intractable situations? It was politicians of course that told us that we were no longer a social work agency, but instead a law enforcement agency. Not only were we told to change our ethos, we were also told to retreat from the communities we used to serve and instead entrench in distant and anonymous office complexes.

I also see a certain irony in Louise Casey championing a fund of £448 million pounds, half of which will be used to reward local authorities on a Payment by Results basis, basically to provide services and support that families should have been receiving anyway. As all probation officers and youth offending teams will know only too well, it is often the intransigence and inflexibility of housing, education and social service officials that compound families difficulties and militate against efforts to improve situations. I notice that she has particularly identified the issue of child sex abuse and it's often inter-generational nature, but I can assure her that trying to get the NHS to provide skilled counselling or family therapy in such situations is nye impossible. 

Without doubt it is a very sad state of affairs when an estimated 120,000 'problem' families cost the state approaching £9 billion, but with seemingly very little benefit to show for it either in relation to the families concerned, or wider society. But in my view this situation was entirely avoidable because the state used to have a specialised arm that was intimately involved with virtually all these families and hence were in an unrivalled position to take a holistic approach to each, based on an absolute wealth of experience and information. I used to naively believe that any sensible government would listen to this grass roots branch of the state and make social policy decisions grounded on such frontline and informed advice. But it was not to be and in relation to this troubled group the Probation Service has been systematically ignored, local support structures dismantled and staff de-skilled and marginalised in the process. 

Just to conclude this rant, I have to say I find this piece of news astonishing and yet another sign of the direction of travel we find ourselves on under successive governments:-

It is perhaps possible that the troubled families unit may work where others failed because ministers have agreed to suspend the privacy of poor households. For the first time, local councils will be allowed "without informed consent" to access benefit records. The idea is to build up a map of troubled families – which will be shared with other agencies such as the police, GPs and housing associations.

Casey, a self-confessed Guardian reader, believes that, for all the liberal hand-wringing over the prospect of a too-powerful state assaulting civil liberties, more lives are blighted by the erosion of authority than by its extension. "We need to find out what is happening in relation to all of the data. I don't think that is about someone's civil rights. I think it's about their right to get help and the system's right to challenge them to take it."

That's just what we need - another control freak.                    

Saturday 14 July 2012

Turkeys Welcome Christmas!

So, Friday the thirteenth was the date chosen to announce to the world the largest ever privatisation of probation services in England and Wales. The contract to provide the whole of Community Payback in London for four years from October has been awarded to a partnership between Serco and the London Probation Trust, having seen off cheeky Essex in partnership with Sodexo and Mitie with disgraced A4E. Thoroughly disgraced G4S didn't bid for this contract, but the Ministry of Justice has apparently confirmed that 60% of the total probation budget will be up for grabs by the autumn, so there's plenty of time for them to get on board yet. 

Seeing as LPT is part of the winning bid, they really had no alternative but to welcome the news and sound all excited about the prospects of saving money, oh and delivering much better services of course. But the warm congratulations from the Probation Association and Probation Chiefs Association must be seen as a bit of last ditch sycophancy to try and get the government to change it's mind, or at least pretend they have at least bothered to read the submissions from the recent consultation exercise. The rumours I've heard say they haven't taken a blind bit of notice and intend to carry on preventing Probation Trusts from being both commissioners and providers of services.  

Just for the record, and so I can join the likes of HM Chief Inspector of Probation in being able to say 'we told you so', if the government persists in farming out the supervision of low and medium risk offenders, it will all go wrong because 80% of Serious Further Offences are committed by clients in these groups. 

So, all you private companies that have regard for your public image, give it a bit of thought as you burn the midnight oil cooking-up those clever bids for all those lucrative probation contracts - headlines like 'man murdered while on supervision to G4S' or possibly 'serial rapist was on licence to Sodexo' or even 'wife killed when supervised by Mitie'. You get the gist.     

Monday 9 July 2012

A Bit of a Break

I'm off for a few days and whilst I could try and post, maybe a bit of time to reflect on things might not be a bad idea. As I prepare to sign off though, a couple of stories caught my eye and I'll just point them out as I suspect both might get a bit of attention.

The first involves a BBC home affairs correspondent who found himself the victim of street robbery by a hooded youth wielding a knife. A very serious offence in itself, the story is particularly interesting because the perpetrator was caught swiftly by means of a clever mobile phone 'app' that was able to lead police direct to his location. Despite being caught 'bang-to-rights' he never-the-less pleaded not guilty right up till the last minute and only changed his plea when informed that the victim had turned up at court to give evidence. Having only been recently released from jail for a similar offence and hence on licence, this young 19 year-old man is looking at an Indeterminate sentence for Public Protection. A very sad case of another potential 'life' sentence on someone so youthful, but to be honest, trying to make a case for not doing so is going to be difficult for any PSR author.  

The second story concerns some research by Birmingham University and commissioned by the 'Civitas' thinktank. The results claim to prove that Holy Grail of the right, namely that prison works and that locking up burglars for longer leads to less burglaries being committed. The same goes for fraud as well it seems. Well, I have my doubts and am with Ken Clarke on this one that it's nye impossible to prove cause and effect with so many other factors playing a part, such as general economic conditions. For me it also serves to highlight the now common but dubious practice whereby universities are 'commissioned' to carry out research, essentially to confirm the pre-conceived views of those paying for it. It sort of confirms my suspicion regarding psychiatric reports prepared for court hearings. Funnily enough you can always find a learned doctor to contradict anything the other side says, for a fee of course.              

Sunday 8 July 2012

Dinosaurs - Latest!

I'm pleased to say that 'Brontosaurus' has responded once again and raises a number of key points that I will endeavour to answer here. Dare I say, there are signs of a degree of agreement emerging? 
'anonymous' - insightful, no. Inciting, maybe. The Lay Judiciary should have been dispensed with years ago. Just read the Magistrates Blog as a good example of everything that is wrong with the magistracy. They have no concern for justice, just the status they believe putting JP after their name gives them. 

"No concerns for justice" - what cobblers! Over the years I've had a great deal of experience of the Lay Judiciary, not least because from day one of my appointment I've always worn a tie at work and hence was routinely packed off to court when requested. Of course the calibre of magistrate has varied from the bumbling and not very bright, to the insightful and capable, from the caring and concerned to the vindictive and bullying, but they invariably sit in threes and in my experience are normally extremely concerned about justice, as in 'did they do it? For every time I've witnessed a Bench outrageously fail to question a police officer's evidence, I've seen a Bench throw out cases with insufficient evidence. I've seen brilliant decisions by District Judges, and equally punitive and misguided ones.

It's swings and roundabouts, a lottery  or any number of metaphors you choose to come up with. Now for a real example of injustice, take a look at this story from Russia. Apparently there is a 99% chance of conviction if your case gets to court. A staggering three million entrepreneurs have been jailed over 10 years, most the victims of 'fitups'. The advice seems to be that it's much better to pay the £300 bribe at the point of arrest in order to make sure 'the case goes away', rather than take your chance in court.

'On Probation' - Winston Smiths views on children in care are more relevant than any comments on education.

I have written previously and at some length about how damaging it can be for young people supposedly placed into the 'care' of the Local Authority - a misnomer if ever there was one. Always under-funded and staffed by those with less qualifications and experience, residential care requires urgent attention from the government and there are signs that something is happening on this front.

You can teach skills to improve capabilities in a role. The problem with the Probation Service is that, generally, the wrong type of people have been recruited to achieve the aims of the organisation. Once an organisation is infested and managed by the wrong people there is no hope for it other than to start again from scratch. 

Of course capabilities can be improved by teaching, but we seem to agree that you have to start with the right raw material as it were. There is no doubt that the change in ethos of the probation service has brought about a different kind of recruit in recent years. Predominately young and female, increasingly the Service has lost the ability to attract a wider cross section of age groups and hence life experience borne of differing previous occupations. Without doubt this has been extremely unfortunate, especially as the majority of our caseload consists of young men. With hindsight this substantial skewing of our employee profile should have been identified earlier, if not foreseen and action taken to present a more balanced profile to clients in what is essentially a key role-modelling position.

'For probation to have any chance of working its magic.'
I think Paul Daniels has more magic than the Probation Service and he should have been put down years ago too.

Well it's a question of judgement, but I do agree Paul Daniels is a very annoying magician.

Gadget panders to a minority of officers who mean well but really don't have a clue as to what is happening in the broader sense. I wouldn't waste my time raising issues there.

Inspector Gadget is at his worst when he panders to the lowest common denominator represented by what can best be described as the 'canteen culture'. However, there is no doubt in my mind that he has enormous and valuable insight into what is really happening on the 'frontline' of many of our towns and cities, in stark contrast to probation who have all but retreated into edge-of-town 'bunkers' or posh city centre offices. I find much of his writing utterly gripping and thought-provoking. 

Perhaps you can reflect on how many successes you have had with clients compared to failures and what you may need to do to increase successes. Not enough accountability.

If I'm honest, I think it's this that irritates me the most - simplistic notions of 'success' or 'failure'. How much in life can be truely measured in such a way? First off, I have stated before the blindingly-obvious fact that failure to re-offend might simply mean failure to get caught. Probation officers by definition only see the 'failures' who re-offend, so pointing to successes is a tad difficult. I could produce 'fairytale-sounding' stories of letters and cards from clients grateful for turning their life around, but even if true, diffidence and necessarily limited numbers would preclude this, along with the absence of proof for confirmation. Again I say it is naive to think that a couple of sessions with a PO will result in someone going off a changed person and set on the road to a crime-free life. 

So how does a probation officer measure 'success' or 'failure' then? I have to say that the former often comes in very small doses not unlike the search for the elusive Higgs boson particle. It might range from a client just turning up, let alone on time, to an incredibly dangerous sex offender that you've worked with over years. A 'hopeless' case that you've refused to give up on, seen them through the sentence, gain release, grin and bear the hostel, settle with a female partner, get a job and complete the licence without incident. A journey that began with a man so dangerous and damaged that prison interviews could only take place with two officers outside the interview room and ending with chats over cups of tea in his front room. Yes of course it could be classed as a 'success' - but none of us has a crystal ball and should that man flip one day and end up killing or raping again, I can say hand on heart I did my bloody best.

'Success' might be getting a convicted murderer to at last admit what really happened, or it could be finding a place in a hostel. It could be getting a court to change its mind and give a person a chance, or making sure a prosecution goes ahead because you judge it is in the public interest. To spell it out, in this job if you measure 'success' a little more carefully as individual steps towards the long term goal of achieving a crime free life (and hence protecting the public), the work of a probation officer might become a little clearer. It's not about accountability - it's about understanding.    

Just like 'success', there are many ways of measuring 'failure'. I find it easier to recall 'failures'. I think I can pretty well remember all the clients that have died whilst under my supervision. From the old lag dying in hospital from a lifetime of alcohol abuse and begging me to get him out so he could die at home, to the mobile phone call in the car telling me that the young man I was driving to visit in prison had just died of the long-ignored brain tumour. From the young man who died in the office from ingesting unnoticed thinners, to the man who jumped to his death moments after I said I was too busy to see him. In this job, 'failure' of one sort or another can have serious consequences. 

I understand very well that writing people off or just locking them up and throwing away the key are not sensible solutions. I still maintain that the way the Probation Service and YOT are currently working are of little effect at all. I agree that other related services are just as ineffective and the whole system needs to be joined up.

"Joined up services" is very much a bit of government-speak, just as meaningless in my view as 'seamless end-to-end offender management' - code for the prison service takeover of probation under NOMS. What really matters is substance, not soundbites. What is actually happening or not. In many ways setting up Youth Offending Teams was a good idea, but in the process it created a rather brutal and arbitrary transition to probation involvement at age 18 which was not present previously and is often unhelpful. Nevertheless, contrary to your assertions, YOT's are succeeding in diverting many young people from criminal behaviour and finding suitable alternatives to the inevitable damage caused by incarceration. 

I repeat that you should be concerned about the privatisation of the police both as a potential customer and as a member of the justice system. When the police is privatised you will see the focus on other parts of the criminal justice system.

I'm extremely concerned about the creeping privatisation of the police, and other parts of the Criminal Justice System, including probation. Does anyone think that justice is going to be better served by the demise of the Forensic Science Service and it's fragmented replacement by private companies and in-house police provision, any more than G4S swanning around trying to look like proper police officers? There is no evidence to support the view that private prisons are cheaper than public ones, or run any better and with virtually no accountability.

"A potential customer" - is that as a probation officer, or do you know something I don't? 

Saturday 7 July 2012

Gordon Behind Bars 2

As this Channel 4 series filmed within the confines of HMP Brixton continues, it's highlighting some very familiar aspects of prison life for me. Senior Officer Cole struck me as pretty representative of the type of officer I'd characterise as institutionally obstructive. He manages to foster his profoundly negative influence under the guise of administrative routine and whilst going about it, can barely hide his glee. In fact I think he pretty perfectly represents exactly the sort of attitude that is likely to bring the worst out of the likes of Jerome.

In dealing with either management or visiting professionals, probation especially, this type of officer is an expert in delivering obsequiousness, whilst at the same orchestrating endless checks, administrative procedures, delays and general piss-taking for his and others amusement. Finding a way of dealing with this without losing ones rag is an essential element of being a probation officer wishing to visit any one of HM Prison establishments. Can you imagine what it does to relatives, let alone prisoners?

Well, as the episode showed, Jerome was punished by being 'shipped out' because clearly he found it difficult to do anything other than 'rise to the bait'. It's such a shame because absolutely nothing has been achieved other than stereotypical behaviour being reinforced. Gordon is absolutely right in identifying that Jerome's behaviour and attitude could have been turned around with a different and understanding approach. In my view it's Senior Officer Cole, and similar others who would benefit from some re-training and behaviour modification.

I thought the missing potato peeler and subsequent body search of all prisoners had an unpleasant whiff about it. Call me an old suspicious cynic, but I think certain officers knew all along there were only 11 and not 12 peelers, but the opportunity to cause mischief is sadly just as prevalent amongst some in uniform as it is amongst some of those incarcerated. I think this point was not lost on Gordon and he has undoubtedly learnt from it.   

Thursday 5 July 2012

The Way It Is

I notice that it didn't take long for 'escaped' life sentence prisoner John Massey to be apprehended and for the Guardian to weigh in with some comment. In essence the article is confirming what I suspect is the private view of a lot of prison officers at HMP Pentonville that 'John has done his bird and should have got out years ago'. 

I have a degree of sympathy with this view and personal experience of similar cases where some life sentence prisoners feel passionately that 'keeping a clean and tidy cell and being respectful to staff' will be enough to warrant release after the passage of a suitable period of time. Unfortunately it doesn't work like this with regard to life sentences. In order to progress through the prison system, let alone be released, the prisoner must co-operate with risk assessments and undertake courses designed to demonstrate that they are safe to release. Failure to co-operate, or worse show disdain or disregard for the directions of the Parole Board, probation service or psychology, inevitably means that meaningful risk assessments cannot be carried out and therefore no progress towards release can be achieved.

What tends to happen, and John Massey's case seems to confirm this, is that a disgruntled prisoner decides to take some direct action of some sort as a demonstration against what they perceive as an unfair system. As a result they are inevitably punished, progress is reversed and any move towards release is delayed yet further. Way beyond his tariff, this is what has happened to this prisoner, and significant numbers of others in similar situations. As others have discovered, no amount of facebook popularity, letters to politicians, petitions or articles in the Guardian will change the way that the system works, as long as we have indeterminate sentences for very serious offences such as rape and murder. As a consequence, there has to be a fair and transparent system for determining release, and that has at its core in-depth considerations of public safety. 

I have written at length on the topic of risk aversion. Intensive media attention in recent years concerning high profile murders, particularly by those known to statutory bodies such as the  probation service, has ensured that the whole system is risk-averse. The public cannot have it both ways. We either return to the realistic situation when I started out that meant there was very little chance of spotting the propensity of someone to commit awful crimes. Or we accept that awful things are done by some people and give up seeking to blame some hapless individual who failed to have a bloody crystal ball. We have to decide if it's appropriate to stick with the current risk-averse situation where everyone is scared witless about the possibility of being pilloried by the commission of a Serious Further Offence, or we get a bit more real.  

Yes in Mr Massey's case "the probation service had other ideas and insisted he went to a hostel". In many cases, especially where there is a settled family situation to return to, it's a complete waste of time and counter-productive (as in this case) but you can bet it wasn't the probation officer that insisted on that. Much more likely to have either been a MAPPA decision influenced by probation service managers, or if not in the full MAPPA arena, then just a management directive borne of fear not common sense. I know because I've pleaded with management not to insist on a hostel placement for an offender being released, but was over-ruled on the basis of 'what if something happens' - not judgement. 

PS Since publishing this post, I notice the latest edition of 'Inside Time' has an interesting article by a man on Life Licence and about life sentences.


Wednesday 4 July 2012

Dinosaurs Clash Again!

Readers will be aware that I decided to respond in some detail to a critical comment that was generated by my earlier post 'Punish Less : Understand More'. This has now led to a further piece from Brontosaurus, so it looks like we have a bit of a debate going here. 

What you are really saying is keep reading the crap that massages your liberal ethos and ignore anything that challenges those views.

You can get David Frasers book from the library. It provides a different and challenging view to the ineffective mess you are part of.

I could indeed get the book from the library, but life is short and as I've already said, it would only annoy me. I think it's likely to be crap, but clearly of a different persuasion to that I have been  accused of reading in order to massage my 'liberal' ethos. It could be said that it's entirely consistent with the 'crap' some read in order to massage 'illiberal' views. But that gets us nowhere and falls into the trap of making huge assumptions about individuals. Anyone that knows me would not describe me as a 'liberal'. I'm a staunch Royalist, do not agree with giving prisoners the right to vote and in many ways would favour enlightened despotism over what we laughably call democracy. As any good probation officer knows, people don't fit easily into boxes or categories, me included. 

My views are probably quite right wing and a blot on the landscape of everything you have been taught. I work with offenders every day and in my view the probation service is almost completely ineffective in rehabilitating anyone. An organisation with no teeth staffed by ineffective cronies in need of dentures. 

I'm interested in the use of the word 'taught'. I don't think you can 'teach' someone to be what I would term a good probation officer, any more than you can teach someone to be a good social worker or a caring nurse. I've never believed that qualities such as empathy, understanding, judgement or insight for that matter can be taught. All are required, and more in a good probation officer, and you either have it or not - it can't be acquired in my view. Another essential quality is self analysis and a degree of self doubt. 

In terms of being effective in rehabilitating or not, it would be naive in the extreme to think that a probation officer alone can address all the accumulated failings of parenting, education, health service, and social services together with the effect of peer group pressure and faulty reasoning in at most a weekly interview. To have any chance of success, we've always needed other statutory bodies to deliver and much of our valuable time has to be taken up acting as the clients advocate in relation to other organisations. As for being toothless, try telling that to people being recalled to prison or to lifers trying to get out.  

The only reason parts of the justice system get away with their ineffectiveness is that the police are always blamed for crime. When this Government have carved up and privatised the police service you will find them looking at those other parts far more closely.

Well some people might blame the police, but in reality the causes are many and varied of course. Unfortunately this doesn't translate well for most newspapers or politicians for that matter, hence the typically simplistic views proffered by both groups of opinion formers. Interestingly, one result of this is that it's the hapless probation officer that gets the blame if a current client goes out and kills, rapes or maims someone. 

Of course the government is currently in the process of carving up and privatising the probation service as well as the police. Some might say it's only time before their collective gaze falls upon the Lay Judiciary in the name of efficiency and effectiveness. It's all bollocks of course and it might be wiser for all parts of the Criminal Justice System to unite, rather than indulge in inter-service fractiousness.

The whole problem with the justice system is the lack of consequences for poor behaviour. Very simplistic, but if you watch the program Supernanny, you will see that poor behaviour always has consequences no matter what the issues and problems are. They have to be resolved later. From the outset, always, always, consequences. Most of our offenders are just children in adults bodies. They would understand this but their poor behaviour is constantly rewarded rather than punished.

Of course there are consequences, both in terms of record numbers in custody and a significantly  worsening quality of life measuring health, housing, employment, relationships and ultimately lifespan. Have you any idea how many of our clients die whilst on our books? I agree entirely that many of our clients could indeed be regarded as children and as such require support, guidance, good role modelling as well as punishment and discipline.

I am aware of Supernanny, but would rather point to Bad Lads Army as a fascinating experiment in re-creating many of the experiences associated with National Service. I wrote at some length on the subject strongly supporting the ethos that could be replicated by the likes of Outward Bound and Sail Training schemes. Those with long memories will recall that all this stuff was part and parcel of Intermediate Treatment schemes in the 60's and 70's, but scandalously killed off by the right-wing press as 'treats for naughty boys'. Stuff like this was of course far too nuanced for many as it was about teaching responsibility and broadening of horizons rather than punishment.   

Read the blog by Winston Smith for a taste of many of the problems caused by ineffectual liberal policies.

I'm very familiar with Mr Smith's views on the education system and share many of them. It's an utter disgrace that schools and Education Authorities can seemingly absolve themselves of their responsibilities by expelling troublesome pupils instead of putting effort into tailoring individual programmes of learning for these difficult kids who will undoubtedly cause society much more pain and expense in years to come. As routine I always ask young clients when they left school and am often told "13 or 14". We are all aware that the Statutory school leaving age is 16, so what's been going on? 

I understand very well the work of the probation service. My wife is a probation officer. Her frustrations regarding the ineffective mess the service is in are transposed here.

With respect I think the trouble is a profound failure to understand the work of probation at all and in this regard it's sadly no different to the vast majority of the population - hence this blog. For probation to have any chance of working its magic, each client has to be seen as an individual and not processed as a type, category or number. Each person has particular circumstances, problems and issues and deserves nothing less than a response tailored to their unique situation.

If I was on probation, this is what I would want and unless I was engaged by someone willing to listen to what I had to say and was focused on me as a person and not a set of criteria, it would all go in one ear and out the other. Only at this point would I be receptive to being told that maybe I might need to change, consider other options and alter my behaviour. Of course the Service is in a mess, not of our making but that of successive meddling governments and with yet more to come, but that shouldn't mean that what goes on in the privacy of the interview room need be that different. Approached in the right way, it is still this one-to-one relationship between officer and client that remains the key to the possibility of changing someones life for the better. Research continually confirms that it is this that lies at the core of effectiveness.           

My views can be summed up in another blog.

I've not come across this particular police blog (there are so many, but only one on probation as far as I can see) - but it looks good and have added it to my blog list. Regular readers will be aware that I frequently make reference to Inspector Gadjet and routinely take issue with him.

Tuesday 3 July 2012

Still Barking Up the Wrong Tree

So it's official. Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has told the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee that 'the UK is plainly losing the war on drugs'. 

"We've engaged in a war against drugs for 30 years. We're plainly losing it. We have not achieved very much progress. The same problems come round and round but I do not despair. We keep trying every method we can to get on top of one of the worst social problems in the country and the single biggest cause of crime."

The best he could offer the committee was that "there was better co-ordination between government departments".

So since when do intelligent people just carry on doing the same thing, when clearly as Ken confirms "nothing seems to be working". If he was a probation client and displayed such obvious cognitive deficits, we'd put him on an Enhanced Thinking Skills course. You'd think that the time had come to consider other options, a different approach perhaps, but not at all. What the government is actually doing is carrying on with the same failed policies and just 'reshuffling the deckchairs' by paying drug treatment providers differently.

As I have discussed previously, the government is convinced that introducing Payment by Results to whole swathes of public service provision will miraculously deliver better value for money by encouraging better outcomes. In April this year this new miracle accountancy device was rolled out in eight areas who bid to be guinea pigs under the grandly titled Payment by Results for Recovery Pilot Programme. From the initial twelve applications,  Bracknell, Enfield, Kent, Lincolnshire, Oxfordshire, Stockport, Wakefield and Wigan were selected, not to do anything substantially different, just carry on with failed policies like community methadone prescribing. This initiative follows on from the previous one entitled Drugs System Change Pilot Programme that involved lots of accountancy changes, but kept delivering the same failed treatments.

Confident in the knowledge that the war is being lost, I nevertheless forced myself to read some of the impenetrable crap that the new PbR industry has spawned and in the process provided  lots of jobs for bean counters. This is typical from Enfield:-

 In 2009 the DAAT  was keen to develop a revised commissioning framework to
embrace the wider Personalisation Agenda and Department of Health’s World Class 
Commissioning Vision. This included tendering for a new contract  that required
applicants to submit proposals for a mixed outcome and activity service level 
agreement against a capped annual contractual value of £1.35M. Tender applicants 
were also tasked with driving up performance against previous activity levels to
ensure that the DAAT Partnership was able to evidence value for money. The tender 
applicants had to submit two separate weekly unit costs: one for people in treatment
in receipt of prescribing services; the other for those in treatment but who were not 
receiving prescribing services. The new contract was awarded to a third  sector 
provider and came into effect on 1sJanuary 2010, running for 5 years. The DAAT, 
therefore, has obtained set weekly tariffs with the prime provider for processing
individual community treatment budgets.

Reading this stuff you could be fooled into believing that it might represent a policy that could lead to better services for alcohol and drug dependent people. Instead we all know it will just lead to cynical creative accounting on an industrial scale. What's needed of course is a change in policy, away from methadone or abstinence for everyone, to a real personalised agenda that includes heroin prescribing and residential treatment. Just imagine what a difference it would make if a heroin addict could be assured of regular, quality assured, free doses in a safe environment and without the risk of contaminated needles or the imperative to go out stealing. It would reduce crime at a stroke and make our job a damn sight easier.      

Sunday 1 July 2012

Gordon Behind Bars

In furtherance of my self-imposed role of Criminal Justice System tv critic, I feel I'd better say something about the 'Gordon Behind Bars' series that's just started on Channel 4. I have to say first off that I find Gordon Ramsey an enormously irritating person, irrespective of his abilities as a chef. I think I'd go as far as saying I share a bit of the obvious glee apparent on some of the prison officers faces as they contemplate how his abrasive manner will go down with the hard men at HMP Brixton.

Nevertheless the idea is an interesting one, trying to motivate and train up a bunch of novice and seemingly unlikely candidates and turn them into a mean, keen, money-making food-producing machine. The trouble I always find with enterprises like this though is the hidden hand of the producers. Seemingly they feel there won't be enough excitement without winding the inmates up a bit first off. What was all that ridiculous - and dangerous - stuff on the wing at the beginning with the prisoners still locked in their cells? And do we really need that very tired old cliche of lining up 12 guys in the exercise yard 'Dirty Dozen' style? Embarrassing and pathetic.

A number of things struck me about the programme, not least that suspiciously shiny-looking kitchen. It's been supplied and paid for by Channel 4 and Electrolux (did you see the prominent labels?) and its legacy will form part of Brixton's extensive refurbishment programme and re-categorisation from a Cat B local to a Cat C. Interestingly, since the shock closure of HMP Latchmere House, it's intended to use part of Brixton as the first city centre prison for resettlement and where Cat D prisoners can work outside the prison. According to this article in Inside Time, the governor wanted to try and replicate the Clink Restaurant at HMP Highdown, but that idea might have to wait a bit. 

So, the future for this bleak London Victorian jail looks bright. As an overcrowded 'local' it never had, or arguably needed, any workshops, but big changes are on the way that should provide the constructive opportunities for training and employment we all know is needed for long term prisoners. In the meantime, lets see what circles those bad boys run round Gordon in the coming episodes. I think he's going to get some nasty surprises unless he treats them with a bit more respect. And I can't help feeling that would be a good lesson well learnt by Mr Ramsey. But then I suppose that might have been the producers plan all along..... 

The Penny Drops

I didn't want to let this story about A4e from last week on Channel 4 news pass without comment. As we all know A4e, run by the Prime Minister's former muti-millionaire friend Emma Harrison, is the governments largest provider of the Work Programme. Designed to get the long term unemployed off benefits and into work, the idea is that success, as measured by 13 weeks employment, is rewarded by considerable payments to the Contractor.

In dealing with this challenging group, many of whom are former or current clients of the Probation Service, it should come as no surprise that it would prove so difficult a task, especially in a period of economic decline, that resort should be made to 'massaging' the figures. In a sense this was always going to be the outcome if payment was going to be on a 'payment by results' basis because many of these people are almost unemployable without some considerable, and very expensive assistance. 

Since A4e was 'rumbled' in relation to cooking the books, I think it's reasonable to assume that practices have changed and hence Channel 4 has managed to glean that only 3.5% of clients have met the 13 week criteria for substantial payments to be made. This is nowhere near the governments minimum target of 5.5%, but is probably an accurate reflection of the huge task involved, rather than the former misguided and falsley optimistic hyperbole.

So what is to be done about this embarrassing situation? My guess is that A4e will simply be tempted to give up on chasing the ever-elusive higher payments, adjust their staffing levels and simply carry on accepting the basic £300 per head which they receive for every one of the 115,000 referrals from the DWP. In effect there will be every incentive to do very little in the face of a seemingly impossible situation. The only trouble with this is that it raises the very obvious question that £300 of taxpayers money per head could be saved if they wern't referred at all and something else was tried.