Wednesday 30 January 2019

Probation and Workplace Harm

There has been an increased focus on SFO's recently, something that was highlighted as a danger for staff right from the beginning of TR and rather neatly summed up by this that came in over night:- 

Re: SFOs. Toward the end of my career in Probation I was disappointed with the ever decreasing supervision that I received. Managers were less accessible, supervision ever increasingly focussed on targets, targets that were invariably met (the new cultural imperative, that many of us thought missed the point), and the attention to people (my cases and myself) less so. To be fair to my managers they were less in number and in consequence managing more people and tasked with ever increasing responsibilities. In addition the reduction in dedicated admin support for frontline officers additionally increased their workload and responsibilities. Take that along with IT failings and demands on officers to increasingly feed their IT then inevitable stresses and further failings were becoming apparent. Of course we were equally aware of the odd officer who was not up to it and or swinging the leg but this was the exception. Then the staff exodus started, people frazzled and off sick, and others simply calling it a day and exiting leaving a vicious cycle to embed itself. In conclusion I wonder about where the disciplinary onus for SFOs lie? I imagine this to be a shared experience across the Probation divide, CRC or NPS.

Mention has also been made of the latest edition of the Probation Journal that brings academic rigour to cataloguing the disaster that TR has been and I want to particularly highlight the following alarming article with an extract that serves to confirm much from my personal experience. Please try and read the whole piece; indeed the whole of this edition which I commend especially to people considering a career in probation - it is now a career that can be seriously harmful for your health. 

Transforming Rehabilitation: The impact of austerity and privatisation on day-to-day cultures and working practices in ‘probation’


Viewed as a culmination of broader neoliberal governance within the UK, this paper examines the impact of the government’s Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) agenda on day-to-day working cultures at the frontline of probation work. TR has brought with it extensive structural and cultural changes to probation work in England and Wales. Once a single public-sector service with a social welfare ethos of ‘advise, assist and befriend’, probation has been dismantled, partially privatised and culturally transformed into a collection of fragmented, target-driven organisations, divided according to risk and with an official rhetoric emphasising public protection. The implications of TR are now starting to surface. While much of this attention has focused on the impact of TR on both the supervision of offenders and in terms of public protection, less research has been conducted on how these organisational changes have impacted upon staff. Drawing upon findings from qualitative research, this article suggests that deepening cuts, precarious working environments, and increasingly unmanageable caseloads inflict upon staff what we consider to be a pervasive form of systemic workplace harm, resulting in mental health issues, stress, and professional dissatisfaction.


Despite widespread opposition, the Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) agenda, which was introduced by the government in 2012, was operationalised at great speed, severing probation from its public-service and humanitarian foundations (Deering and Feilzer, 2015). In the place of existing probation trusts emerged a ‘new’ and much smaller National Probation Service (NPS) and, following a complex bidding process, 21 new Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) took over responsibility for managing medium- and low-risk offenders. In 2014, following a review of all staff caseloads conducted on a randomly chosen date in 2013, all probation staff were reallocated either to the NPS or to CRC (Robinson et al., 2016), and what followed was a swift array of changes typical of broader patterns in the field of work and employment within the context of neoliberalism. Welldocumented downsizing through redundancies, staff cuts and role changes has injected a sense of job insecurity amongst many probation workers – particularly those working within CRCs. Such feelings have been deepened by the CRCs’ overestimation of revenues and a shift toward more automated services, such as the introduction of offender management ‘kiosks’ and over-the-phone supervision (National Audit Office, 2017). The result has been at times unmanageable caseloads, giving rise to extreme stress and anxiety among probation staff and a general experience of deskilling and deprofessionalisation which has thrown many probation workers’ professional identities into a state of existential crisis. 

Although the probation service has undergone numerous structural and cultural changes since its creation (Mawby and Worrall, 2013), the extent of these changes in the last few years cannot be over-stated. Described as ‘the most radical change it [probation] has ever seen’ (Newburn, 2013), TR has intensified the existing significant challenges that decades of neoliberal policies have posed to the ‘probation ideal’ (Deering and Feilzer, 2015) and its established working practices (Robinson et al., 2016: 165). Therefore, while this article builds upon existing critiques of contemporary probation, it focuses more specifically on a consideration of the harmful impact that these structural changes have upon workers. Indeed, it is our belief that TR and the changes this has brought about offer a unique opportunity to conceptually expand and advance research in the broad field of workplace violence. 

Numerous studies have emerged detailing the systematic failings of TR, failings which have been confirmed in the government’s early termination of the CRC contracts (MoJ, 2018). However, government ministers have failed to concede that TR’s failings are a result of its neoliberal underpinnings and the problems inherent within the privatisation of public services. On the contrary, in discussing the termination of TR, Justice Secretary David Gauke defended the continued role of the private sector in the delivery of such public services, suggesting that ‘clear lessons needed to be learned in improving the system’, but that he ‘doesn’t favour excluding the private sector from this at all’ (Grierson, 2018). 

Given the government’s clear ideological attachment to policies of privatisation, it is therefore important to stress from the outset that the purpose of this paper is not limited to a focus on analysing or critiquing specifically the effectiveness of the government’s TR agenda. In view of the early termination of CRC contracts and the clear intention of the government to continue private sector involvement within probation, we deem it necessary to situate TR as a symptom of a deeper neoliberal agenda and examine the impact that these changes have had on the organisational cultures and day-to-day working practices within probation more broadly. In other words, we focus on TR, austerity and privatisation as the mechanism through which systemic work-based harms emerge from their underpinnings in neoliberal ideology. By drawing upon qualitative interviews with former probation staff, in this article we explore some of the challenges faced by probation staff in the wake of neoliberal capitalism. We demonstrate how neoliberal ideology has modified professional roles and responsibilities, how it has affected day-to-day working practices, and how it has had a significant impact on the occupational identities of those working in the probation sector today. Ultimately, in this paper we argue that, when viewed as part of the broader neoliberal agenda, TR and the changes that have occurred within probation constitute a more pervasive and equally damaging form of systemic work-based harm.

Workload pressures amongst probation staff 

In their sociological polemic Dead Man Working, Cederstrom and Fleming (2012) suggest that much of modern work, rather than characterised by physical harms, is more explicitly concerned with that of the dying spirit of the worker; a death, they suggest which ‘can be equally slow and painful’. Work today has colonised almost all areas of social life, occupying our thoughts even in our sleep (Crary, 2013). Much of contemporary work, including probation, draws upon forms of ‘emotional labour’ (Hochschild, 1983) such as affability, communication skills and sociability. We can see this in the command to ‘do something you love’, to incorporate work as part of our personal identities and to inject authenticity, meaning and life-affirming moments into our work; a trend quite clearly reflected in our participants’ desire to do ‘meaningful work’ within a profession they felt was ‘more than just a job’. 

Supporting such an assertion, Scott (2017) demonstrates through his research how, whether in the form of insecure employment, excessive hours generated by unmanageable workloads, or a sense of occupational devotion, a common reality for the modern-day worker is the blurring between work life and home life. This blurred reality was one also shared by many of the participants in this study. The need to work above and beyond contracted hours was a recurring theme during interviews. Having worked in probation since the mid-1970s, one of our participants, Nigel, was quick to point out that this was not a new feature of probation work. Originally, Nigel argued, this was because of dedication to the job; wanting to work long hours due to a sense of love and devotion to the work which was closely tied up with his biography. However, as time has moved on and the probation service has undergone the forms of depersonalisation and deprofessionalisation characteristic of neoliberal trends in criminal justice, he explained that the reasoning and motivation behind this ‘overtime’ shifted: 

I can remember working long hours, but it was different. It was longer hours because I was putting in the time working with people [ ... ] [doing] things which I felt was important. [ ... ] Now people are coming in at the weekend to do all their OASys and all their assessments and paperwork to defend themselves and the agency. 

This sense of occupational devotion and a divergence of harmony between personal and organisational values was a common theme expressed by all of our participants. Moreover, it was the justification consistently given for working beyond contracted hours (with or without pay). Both Susan and Roger both talked about feeling a sense of duty towards their job – particularly their clients – and both spoke about how they would routinely go above and beyond their normal expected hours of work. While some objected to this expectation of staying late, others felt that it was an ‘investment of their time’. As Susan reasoned: 

[It] was okay [that I worked more hours than I should] because that was my choice. [ ... ] That used to make me feel completely in control, up to date and stress free. 

This sense of occupational devotion and an alignment between the self and one’s job can certainly be viewed as a positive, even an integral aspect of being an effective probation worker in the sense of the service’s traditional ethos of ‘advise, assist, and befriend’. However, given such devotion, TR and the wider changes to probation appear to cut deeper into the sense of disenchantment, alienation, and ontological insecurity experienced by those we interviewed. The changes to probation caused by decades of neoliberal policies that culminated in TR were experienced by all of our participants as a profound loss. What was lost was not just an appropriate way of working, but the end of an entire relationship between one’s profession and identity: 

I joined [probation] to get involved and to help people. But the more and more the targets were piled on the less and less that became [possible]. (David) I was applying for jobs and trying to get out of probation and I couldn’t. I was getting frustrated. But [ ... ] I thought this is no longer the job for me! Its values, its ethics do not meet mine, I cannot work for an organisation that would treat another human being like this. So that’s when I decided to leave. It took me a considerable while longer to effect that leave. (Susan) 

What such quotes appear to demonstrate is a sudden realisation amongst many – particularly those working within the CRCs – of the ‘pointlessness’ (Cederstro¨m and Fleming, 2012) of their work that stemmed from the deprofessionalisation and dehumanisation of probation work under the aim of maximising profit. The pain associated with this ‘pointlessness’ was intensified by the way in which participants incorporated their occupation into their personal identity. This trauma was most potently experienced by Mary, who admitted to being suicidal at one point in her career:

I wouldn’t be there [at work], I’d be off sick with everything that’s gone on. I can’t ... I don’t want to work, it doesn’t match my values anymore, I wouldn’t be able to manage the workloads anymore and the expectations. I’m very much a one-to-one therapeutic type of worker and that’s gone, you can’t do that anymore, so it didn’t ... you know, my values and the values of the organisation have just gone completely [gestures for separation]. I just think I worked against the grain and I just kept doing what I always did. But it was becoming more and more obvious that I wouldn’t be able to continue, and I think a lot of people were the same, they kept doing what they always did and what they felt matched [their personal values and ethics]. 

It is important to acknowledge that irrespective of the speed at which TR was introduced, the impact that these changes had upon workers and their workloads took longer to take effect. This is significant for the emotional and physical welfare of many of those working in the probation sector today. Indeed, just like the frog in the metaphor of the ‘boiling frog syndrome’, the increased pressure of probation work appears to have gradually taken their toll on the wellbeing of frontline staff. 

Yet, as the values and ethics of probation were perceived to have changed, the ‘heat’ of heightened caseloads and an increased burden to meet targets also became more difficult to endure in the absence of a sense of meaningful rationale. Interestingly, in many cases this would not prompt refusal to work beyond contracted hours. To the contrary, work would simply seep into all pockets of life, often spiralling as staff would sign-off with stress or illness, thereby increasing an already unmanageable workload. As David explained: 

It was quite ‘funny’ because me and one of my colleagues were like ‘oh it can’t get any worse than this’ and gradually it did. [ ... ] Someone would go off sick with whatever, for whatever reason and we’d have to take over all their caseloads. Then someone else would go off sick and we’d have to look after their caseloads. And, you know, we kept on saying ‘oh it will get better, it will get better’ and it just progressively got worse and worse [ ... ] to the point where I had 80 plus cases. [ ... ] I was constantly coming home everyday just moody and depressed, you know, just really down [ ... ] She [my partner] could see that [ ... ] and her response was ‘well you need to get out of there, you need to get out of there!’ and I knew that, and I got that, but until you’re ready to do that, it won’t happen. [ ... ] [So] for us both, yeah, it was... it was difficult. 

Indeed, David spoke about how he had previously been a ‘happy and bubbly character’, but that this had slowly been stripped away to the point where he experienced a loss of self and had to seek counselling for stress and anxiety, something he saw mirrored in other colleagues’ experiences. However, what is most interesting about David’s narrative in this case is that, at the time, he failed to view his stress and increasing anxieties as a product of the pressures placed upon him through work. Instead, he internalised much of this and blamed himself for his inability to cope (see also Eadie and Sein, 2006). For Cederstrom and Fleming this is significant. Indeed, while most of us still have a ‘boss’ working above us, they argue that we have also internalised the ‘boss function’ within ourselves, becoming our own managers. In this way ‘self-exploitation has become a defining motif of working today’. 

Unlike physical illness, emotional problems often elicit less sympathy within the workplace (Cederstrom and Fleming, 2012). Rather than viewed as the product of the nature of work and workplace cultures, blame is often placed upon the individual worker insofar as it is not the targets that have caused the stress but rather the worker who has failed to manage their time effectively. This was expressed explicitly by Tracey: 

It’s very much a culture of ... it’s all top-down and if you have a problem it’s because you aren’t managing your time, and you aren’t managing your offenders, and you aren’t managing your morale. 

However, being signed off from work under these circumstances offers little respite to the worker. If anything, it can exacerbate the problem and make the situation worse. As highlighted in the work of Fevre et al. (2012), the absent worker worries not only about the work they have waiting for them, but also the impact that their absence will have on their colleagues. Subsequently when they return, the work will not only remain, but is likely to have increased in their absence; and so the cycle begins again. This was a common reason for individuals not reclaiming their overtime. As Harvey explained: 

I can say that I myself have very rarely taken TOIL [time off in lieu] because the other issue that you’re faced with as well is where do you find the time? You know, where do you find the time to take that back? [ ... ] I’m probably owed a lot of hours, I can tell you that quite confidently. 

From the narratives provided by our participants, it appears that despite any initial optimism for innovation under TR, this has been replaced by a pessimistic atmosphere of depression, defeatism and jaded cynicism. The analogy that was consistently referred to during our interviews was that of the Titanic. Any attempts at piecemeal reformism were seen as, to quote one participant, ‘rearranging deckchairs while the ship is going down’ (Nigel): 

We got to the point [ ... ] of feeling that, ‘well whatever we’re going to do, it’s not going to work!’ It’s the moment in Titanic in the film where he takes the plans out and says ‘look, whatever you’re going to do this ship will sink’. (Nigel) 

Ultimately, whether they jumped ship, ‘drowned’ (Hannah) under their increasingly unmanageable caseloads, or clung on for survival, it is evident that many are left grieving for a probation service they knew; a ‘bereavement process’ which, began for many with the announced plans for TR. In the wake of the recent announcements that CRC contracts are to be terminated two years earlier than expected (MoJ, 2018), probation is once again to be sent into turmoil – a move which is likely only to prolong the issues and harms raised by the workers interviewed for this article.


In this article we have built upon a growing body of literature that explores how TR, when situated within a broader neoliberal agenda, has impacted upon frontline staff within the probation sector. In drawing upon the lived experiences of eight former probation workers we have attempted to demonstrate how such changes constitute a pervasive form of work-based harm. From the experiences of our participants we can see how TR and its neoliberal ideological base have not only destroyed morale but also how it has engendered more insidious forms of harm for probation staff, such as stress, overwork, depression, domestic conflict, feelings of pointlessness and even suicidal thoughts. Such existential insecurity is indicative of labour under neoliberal capitalism today. 

It is important to recognise that the problems experienced by the probation staff in this article were not just a case of ruthlessly demanding managers bullying and creating extraordinary working conditions to have their demands met. To the contrary, under the contemporary context of late-capitalism, these problems are quite ordinary (though nonetheless harmful). Qualitative changes to the nature of work under neoliberal capitalism have demanded reduced public spending, maximised value extracted from workers and, ultimately, enhanced profits. Indeed, while such harms and conditions are an established feature of work within the private and commercial sectors, in the context of austerity and privatisation they are no longer simply the preserve of the corporate sector. Indeed, while this research has focused on examining the impact decades of neoliberal policies has had on day-to-day culture and working practices of probation staff, we believe our findings are likely to be transferable to a wide range of criminal and public sector institutions.

Samantha Walker, Jill Annison, and Sharon Beckett
University of Plymouth

Tuesday 29 January 2019

Court IT Failure Inevitable

It would seem the MoJ knew all along that a court IT failure was inevitable. This from the Guardian yesterday:-  

Justice ministry knew court IT systems were ‘obsolete’, papers reveal

The Ministry of Justice knew its court computer systems were “obsolete” and “out of support” long before the network went into meltdown last week, internal documents have revealed. An MoJ digital and technology review warned last year that judges in employment tribunals were threatening to stop hearing cases because of the unreliability of communications and 30,000 users were on systems that needed “immediate remediation”.

The detailed assessment seen by the Guardian blames “historical under-investment in ageing IT systems” and warns that it is reaching “unacceptable levels” of risk which could result in large-scale data breaches. Courts across England and Wales have been disrupted over the past two weeks because of successive IT failures which began when the criminal justice secure email system went down, depriving 75,000 lawyers and staff of communications.

The MoJ’s main computer network linking lawyers, judges, probation workers and court staff also malfunctioned. Cases were delayed, access to the courts’ digital case system was denied and jurors could not be enrolled. The justice minister Lucy Frazer was forced to answer emergency questions in the Commons last Wednesday during which she said there had not been a cyber-attack and also denied the problems were the result of financial cuts.

The internal review, however, makes it clear that long-term underfunding is at the heart of computer weaknesses in the MoJ. The department, which has to pay for courts, prisons and probation, has suffered larger cuts than any other in Whitehall since 2010. Its current funding level is almost 40% lower than it was in 2010.

The MoJ document, entitled Digital & Technology, says: “Historical under-investment in ageing IT systems has built our technical debt to unacceptable levels and we are carrying significant risk that will result in a large-scale data breach if the vulnerabilities are exploited.” It adds: “We have a Technology 2022 strategy, but it is not funded to help us address the long-term issues with current systems and allow us to make best use of new technologies to improve service delivery.”

In one case study it refers to a database used by 16 employment tribunal administrative offices in which the “scale of outage” accounted for 33% of incidents over the previous six months. Users were unable to access systems for a “significant number of hours”. The report cites problems such as “risk of database corrupted leading to data loss; unable to restore service in a timely manner”, and adds: “Judges say they will put tribunal activity on hold because of the poor running of the application.”

Addressing what are said to be “secondary risks”, the document notes: “Failure to reduce and prevent technical debt leading to a continued reliance on obsolete and out-of-support systems that may lead to operational failure and cyber-breach.” The document also contains a series of colour-coded levels relating to “criticality”, ranging from the worst, black, to the least dangerous, green. Among those in the black category were 30,000 users whose systems required “immediate remediation”.

The MoJ said the document was a routine risk assessment of its computer systems. The case study referred to in the document is understood to relate to a different system to the one that broke down last week. A spokesperson said: “Like any responsible organisation, we carry out regular assessments of risks to ensure that we can identify and manage them. It would be entirely wrong to suggest that last week’s IT issues were caused by us ignoring a risk assessment. We have always been clear that there are a number of outdated IT systems that need replacing which is why we continuously review our IT infrastructure and invest accordingly.”

Commenting on last week’s courtroom IT chaos, Chris Henley QC, the chair of the Criminal Bar Association, wrote in a message to members: “Whatever the reasons, and whatever the fix, has anything been more emblematic of the deep and worsening crisis in the criminal justice system than the collapse of IT systems in courts across the country last week? Trials adjourned, evidence inaccessible, secure emails vanishing, wifi down, Xhibit just a blank screen, prisons beyond communication, the stuff of satire, and a high-profile media story for several days … But it’s OK, it had nothing to do with a chronic lack of resources.”


Another Guardian article highlights the decimation of the court infrastructure and the effect it's having on the delivery of justice:- 

Half of magistrates courts in England and Wales closed since 2010

More than half of all magistrates courts in England and Wales have closed since 2010, forcing defendants, witnesses, police, lawyers and justices of the peace to travel sometimes more than 50 miles to access local justice. The full scale of the closures is revealed in data published by the Guardian and the House of Commons library. Since the coalition government came to power in 2010, 162 of the 323 magistrates courts in England and Wales have shut – a loss of 50.2% of the estate. The latest was Maidenhead magistrates court in the prime minister’s constituency. Most have been sold.

The controversial Ministry of Justice (MOJ) efficiency exercise is directly tied to the need to generate funds for a £1.2bn digital modernisation programme, which came under the spotlight following a meltdown of court computer systems this week. As large gaps open up in the courts network in Wales, East Anglia and the North of England, HM Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) has confirmed it is considering whether to pay for taxis to ferry defendants and witnesses from the most remote parts of the country to hearings.

The distance model developed by HMCTS requires that 95% of the population should be able to travel to court from their homes by public transport leaving at 7.30am and arriving by 9.30am. It also specifies that 98% of the population should be able to reach court by 10.30am, which implies a three-hour journey to court and a further three hours back – a total of six hours travelling on a court attendance day.

Concern about the shutdowns is rising up the political agenda. The Commons’ justice select committee has launched an inquiry into HMCTS’s reforms. Among questions it is addressing are the impact of closures, reductions in staffing and how far online systems and video hearings can be “a sufficient substitute for access to court and tribunal buildings”.

Including crown courts, county courts and tribunals, since 2010 more than 250 hearing centres have ceased operating. So far £223m has been raised by sales. Treasury funding for the courts digital programme stipulates that a third must be raised by selling courthouses. HMCTS and the MoJ justify the closures on the grounds that crime rates have fallen and large numbers of courthouses are operating at less than 40% capacity. The agency is developing justice websites and remote video screens, which, it is argued, will mean fewer journeys to court.

Critics fear savings will only be achieved by displacing costs on to other agencies. The MoJ has declined to give a commitment about halting closures: six more magistrates courts are scheduled to shut this year. A study by Dr Olumide Adisa of the University of Suffolk found that local court closures have led to an increase in the number failing to attend hearings. The MoJ disputes such figures, saying the rate of defendant non-appearances did not change at the time most closures were enforced, although it concedes figures rose last year.

Sue James, a solicitor at Hammersmith law centre in west London, suspects a similar problem is emerging among claimants fighting repossession orders, leading to more evictions. Housing work in London has been transferred to Clerkenwell county court. She believes “people are not turning up” at more distant and unfamiliar courts.

A row erupted last year over a case raised by a Telford solicitor, John McMillan, a defendant from Shropshire who had to attend a remand hearing in Kidderminster and make a 53-mile journey back home via Birmingham. McMillan says the man missed the last bus in Shrewsbury and ending up walking home in the dark long after midnight. The MoJ does not accept the details, maintaining that the man could have left Kidderminster earlier.

The justice minister, Lucy Frazer, said: “The closure of any court is not taken lightly – it only happens following full public consultation and when communities have reasonable access to alternative courts. We are reinvesting every penny raised from selling these underused buildings into modernising the justice system to provide swifter and easier access to justice for all.” The MoJ is consulting on guidelines for future closures.

John Bache JP, the national chair of the Magistrates Association, said: “Justice should, wherever possible, be administered locally and, with half of all magistrates courts having closed since 2010, many courts are already worryingly remote from the communities that they serve. A more dispersed court estate will affect the retention and recruitment of magistrates, as some will have to step down if their local court closes and people will be less likely to apply in the first place if the nearest court is not in their immediate area. Longer travel distances for magistrates will also increase the cost of meeting their travel expenses.”

Penelope Gibbs, the director of Transform Justice and a former magistrate who monitors the service, said: “Courts are being closed without really thinking through the consequences. Vulnerable defendants and witnesses cannot be expected to travel several hours to attend court and to spend significant sums on doing so. Already many do not turn up for their own court hearing.”

Christina Blacklaws, the president of the Law Society, which represents solicitors, said: “People across England and Wales are losing access to their local courts and having to travel sometimes for several hours on public transport to alternative sites – assuming that such public transport even exists. In addition, police and prison delivery services may suffer increased costs, which will ultimately fall on the taxpayer. There is some evidence of defendants increasingly failing to turn up for criminal hearings, resulting in court time being wasted and witnesses being inconvenienced, as well as cost to the public purse.”

Examples of long journeys to court

Residents of Staylittle in Wales have a 1 hour and 50 minute car journey (74 miles) to Caernarfon criminal justice centre, the designated “receiving site” for Dolgellau magistrates court, which closed in 2017-18.

People living in Kielder in Northumberland were previously served by Tynedale magistrates court in Hexham, 34 miles away. They now have to travel 52 miles to Newcastle upon Tyne magistrates court, which according to Google takes 2 hours and 53 minutes by public transport. Services do not run daily.

In the past, those living in Mildenhall in East Anglia could reach Thetford magistrates court within 18 minutes by car or 40 minutes by bus at certain times of the day. But since it closed in 2013-14 the designated receiving court is Norwich magistrate’s court, a 55-minute drive or an extra hour by public transport, although it can take longer depending on the time of day.

Monday 28 January 2019

TR - 'Read All About It!'

With perfect timing given that the CRC contracts are about to be torn up, re-designed and re-tendered, the Probation Journal has published a special edition that casts a forensic eye over the whole sorry saga called TR. 

Of course this blog has seen the whole thing through from the beginning and forms part of the historical record so thoroughly discussed and dissected here. For all those wanting to know how and why we've ended up in the current unmitigated mess, it's all in black and white in one slim volume. I'm particularly enamoured by the notion of practitioners indulging in 'principled infidelity'. 

Five years of Transforming Rehabilitation: Markets, management and values

This special edition on Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) appears at a timely moment, five years on from the beginning of TR reforms, and following the release of a series of censorious reports from a Parliamentary committee (Justice), the National Audit Office and the Probation Inspectorate. All of them concurred with respect to the inadequacies of the financial model for TR, its logistical malfunctions, wastefulness, and most of all, failures towards those caught up in the criminal justice system. Moreover, these could hardly be dismissed as the predictable polemics of critical interest groups. This special issue, therefore, appears as the wider probation community has had an opportunity to digest the scale of the current situation, as well as consider what the next phase of development might be.

A second aim is to provide a further point of reference from the previous special themed issue of this journal, ‘Transforming Rehabilitation: Reflections Two Years On’ (63:2), by updating the prescient concerns originally raised in that issue, some of which remain salient, while other predicted outcomes did not materialise as envisaged. Thirdly, we aim to document the implementation and practice of TR in its particular historical space, in the awareness that this knowledge and institutional memory might otherwise fade from the record as the next iteration of probation evolves. Accordingly, the articles here are written by researchers and practitioners whose work offers contemporary insights into the experiences and perceptions of those directly involved in implementing the programme. Fourthly, the collection offers a kaleidoscopic view of TR from the diverse vantage points of stakeholders, demonstrating the practical complexities of implementing TR at different interfaces. Finally, these accounts offer rare insights into otherwise opaque spaces of authority and decision-making, especially at higher reaches of political, executive and managerial authority whose activities are least well-documented in the literature.

The special issue is also part of a wider endeavour to address empirical holes and narrative gaps in the TR story (appreciating that some questions may never be adequately answered). The order of the articles thus follows the direction of responsibility for decision-making and implementation as they flowed through different agencies, from the government in Whitehall to Community Rehabilitation Company (CRC) level management, through to specific sites such as prisons, community settings and probation. Each individual article illuminates the dynamics of TR in operation in a particular space. They show the compromises and tensions (and creative adjustments and improvisations) that people made at each juncture or level of practice. Taken together, though, they also create a bigger picture of the interrelated consequences of TR as it affected not just individual services or sectors, but disrupted relationships between agencies and across networks. This reminds us that while TR primarily targeted the probation service, it instigated a chain reaction across the whole resettlement and integration landscape. Moreover, the emphasis on inter-dependence clarifies something distinctive and important that is absent from other collections and discussions about TR: that is, it ultimately rose and fell on the basis of agency, i.e. what people did. Indeed, references to emotions pervade the articles – anger, regret, stress, anxiety, sadness, frustration, and also optimism, determination, pride, pragmatism, and creative freedom. These bring TR back to a human scale.

This issue is not designed to be either an exercise in retrospection or a catalogue of ‘we told you sos’ (although see back issues of the journal both pre- and post-TR for extensive comment). Rather, at this stage it is instructive to take stock of what TR was intended to achieve and what has actually transpired, to view the current situation from a range of perspectives, to identify lessons learned and where we might usefully go to from here, albeit without glossing over the damage that has occurred and the scale of the job at hand.

In this approach, we underline the point missed entirely by TR: that resettlement and probation are best undertaken as collective, public responsibilities. Accordingly, several essays consider structural reforms (as distinct from cosmetic changes) which might anchor the next phase, including: justice reinvestment; genuine local responsibility; accountability and transparency; limits to marketisation; plural service communities (across public, private, voluntary sectors); co-produced solutions and proper accountability to the public and service users; clearer lines of responsibility among commissioners; and genuine localism underlined by democratic accountability.

The collection opens with the question: ‘What conditions enabled the emergence of the idea and form that TR eventually took?’ These are by no means straightforward issues. In the first article, John Deering and Martina Feilzer make the case that TR was less of a departure from, than a continuity of, previous decades of policy. Taking the longer view, they contend that the roots of TR grew from a number of transitions since the 1970s, such as greater state control, loss of local autonomy, divestment in the name of marketisation, attacks on a rehabilitative ideal and the depletion of a public service ethic. This was not about natural decline, however, but the outcome of a determined agenda to politically control and tame the unified base of the probation profession. In an admittedly ‘bleak and pessimistic’ conclusion, they survey a service which ‘has become organisationally, structurally and ideologically divided’.

In the current climate, the political economy is intrinsic to any analysis of what has happened to probation. Kevin Albertson and Chris Fox argue that TR ‘makes sense’ within the ideological parameters of what might be called ‘neoliberal’ political thinking. Neoliberalism, dedicated to instituting market-based solutions to complex social challenges, permitted the policy agenda to be dominated by the logics of supply and demand, alongside claims that markets freed up service providers, created greater accountability and thereby protected the public interest. That these beliefs were resoundingly brought up short by deficient outcomes, they contend, demonstrates the deep flaws both in thinking and implementation, to the degree that TR has failed the public interest test.

The next article documents what happened to these ideological agendas when they met political realities. Based on ethnographic research and interviews with senior politicians and civil servants, Harry Annison’s article takes us directly to the architects of TR, allowing us to follow TR as a ‘policy disaster’ in the making. Ministerial hubris was a key factor in destabilising the normal policy-making equilibrium that ordinarily provides insulation from policy shocks. The ‘monomanical fervour’ through which Chris Grayling in his role as Justice Secretary pushed through TR is noted. The rush to speed up implementation led to the abandonment of Payment by Results (PbR) pilots and rapidly enacted legislation and contract agreements, laying the basis for later system failures.

The remaining articles explore the rhetoric to reality gap by unpacking what happened when a deeply flawed policy was handed to responsible agencies to operationalise. Turning to the ‘privatisation journey’, Matthew Millings and colleagues recount the decision-making process at senior levels in one probation trust during its transitional period to a Community Rehabilitation Company. Here, the authors identified four phases of transition – absorbing, adapting, owning, and relinquishing. Despite commencing with high ambitions and expectations that they could leave a legacy of probation culture and professional standards, ultimately, the outcome was not only intensely draining for the individuals concerned, but also resulted in many of their good intentions being ‘lost in transition’.

Turning to prison resettlement: Stuart Taylor and colleagues remind us that that the implementation of Through the Gate (TtG) services was the defining test against which TR was to be judged. Their article documents the structural flaws in how TtG was delivered. CRCs were tasked with providing a service despite lacking a detailed specification as to what such a service would entail. In the case study considered in their article, the CRC sub-contracted out provision to a third-sector provider who seemed ill-equipped to deliver resettlement services within the prison setting. This was compounded by a failure of all parties (from commissioners downwards) to institute ‘a fully cohesive notion of resettlement’. Prisoners (and their families) struggled ‘to know what was offered them and who would provide the service’. As a consequence, the article paints a damning indictment of the absence of resettlement as prisoners experienced ‘dysfunctional induction processes’, reported sporadic engagement with rehabilitation services and had minimal support in returning to the community.

The article from Mary Corcoran and co-authors adds another side to the fragmented relations across the different sectors which were purportedly delivering services in partnership. Drawing on interviews with senior figures from charities, policy-makers and the CRCs, they explain why the much-vaunted role of the voluntary and community sector in delivering resettlement under TR did not materialise. Despite paternalistic promises about the indispensable value of charities in creating a truly mixed supply chain, the CRCs behaved like monopolies, placing commercial self-preservation ahead of collaboration. This revealed ‘the systemic bias’ of the funding model of TR, which ‘structured the market in favour of large commercial bidders’. Voluntary sector providers occupied unequal positions of negotiation with the CRCs and commissioners. Their workforces confronted the devaluation of their skills and experience. This produced misunderstandings and frustrations on the part of providers who were either left to struggle or exited from their contracts.

Several authors highlight the personal consequences of the demise of probation as a public institution. Samantha Walker and co-authors liken the personal and professional struggles of probation staff in their study to the widespread existential insecurity and precarity of late capitalism. They apply zemiological ideas about the harms of marketised practices of which the demoralisation and hollowing out of probationary identities and principles are symptoms. Further, Walker et al. locate this fallout within a wider experience of ‘the violence of work itself’ in late capitalism, experienced as a ‘pervasive form of systemic workplace harm, resulting in mental health issues, stress, and professional dissatisfaction’.

Which returns us to Deering and Feilzer’s initial question: why was there such limited ‘concerted resistance’ to the TR proposals, implementation and aftermath? They conclude that probation resistance had less capability to galvanise political momentum, because the probation profession is less publicly visible and the nature of the work does not appeal to public legitimacy or consensus to the same degree. Of course, much of this hinges on how one frames and understands ‘resistance’ and what constitutes ‘opposition’. Several contributors identify a spectrum of efforts to engage, ameliorate, outwardly resist, or manage change. Other contributions insist on vestigial forms of resistance in retrieving a different tradition of fairness, or in carrying the torch for probation as a continuous and still evolving practice and occupational culture. Hence, Walker et al. discuss how individual workers struggling with heavy caseloads and formulated ‘tick box’ regimes engage in ‘principled infidelity’ to retain meaningful relationships with service users and peers. Resistance might be seen in the withdrawal of the voluntary sector from what they perceived to be a rigged contract market which devalued their contribution. Resistance is discernible in the efforts of probation managers in CRCs to make space for continuity (albeit admitting defeat in many instances).

The final consideration must go to future developments. In his contribution Jim Barton from the Ministry of Justice outlines some of the current thinking from the MoJ after the Strengthening Probation consultation. The article summarises current priorities and a programme of ‘improvements’, which largely entail technocratic adjustments to existing mechanisms. These target areas for reform had already been broadly signalled in the consultation and it would therefore be interesting to note to what extent the responses to the consultation have shaped the thinking further. Reading between the lines of the careful, understated language of civil service code, we might reasonably anticipate a minimalist approach (‘limiting the scale of any future structural overhaul’) sufficient to make the next iteration of TR as roadworthy as possible, prior to any future election, contracting round, or reform. Some of the target areas for action include the proposed introduction of minimum standards to specify the form and frequency of contact with service users; revision of practice guidance and national standards for unpaid work; a clearer specification of Rehabilitation Activity Requirements (RARs) and a ‘re-design’ of Through the Gate provision towards an ‘in-reach’ model. At the broader institutional level there are plans to re-organise geographical boundaries of probation services and re-integrate NPS and CRC provision in Wales. There is also a commitment to the development of a workforce professional strategy and a professional register ‘to ensure that staff are appropriately qualified to deliver probation services’.

As a point of reference and a survey of different perspectives on TR, we hope that the articles in the special issue stimulate debate. As ever, we welcome your feedback.

Mary Corcoran (Guest Editor)
Nicola Carr (Editor)

Sunday 27 January 2019

Pick of the Week 55

As a CRC PO, NPS failures to me include; a superior attitude, crap PSRs, crap risk assessment, incomplete CPS, and a general unwillingness to work together to manage marginal cases. I am sick of being looked down on, of being spoken to like I don't deserve any respect and of demands being placed upon me even though I provided the update before the case was adjourned. Get systems in place NPS, you are a joke.

The old "divide and conquer" that MoJ tried last time they wanted to give out probation contacts to private companies. Is this a real CRC PO or another MoJ stooge stirring up trouble?

The passage of time also takes its toll & we've had a hardline Tory govt for 8 years now. If you were 16 in 2010 you'll be 24 now... I'm not involved in any exclusive facebook forum but occasional discussions with colleagues across a variety of disciplines suggests that many 'people professions' are being increasingly populated by newly qualified, younger self-confident staff who have a preference for keeping cases they work with at a distance, are less inclined to 'get alongside' & more likely to 'do work to' rather than 'work with' their caseload, i.e. a clinical model which has innate power imbalances & tends to favour hard data & targets. A perfect environment for the MoJ's vision of probation vis-a-vis TR2 & the new NPS: "my way or the highway".

Professionalism has been replaced by a target driven economy. Whether you be butcher, baker or candlestick maker, your value is calculated on outcomes, units of productivity that can be easily measured in a constant pursuit of profit. Quantity trumps quality in today's world. 

As a PO in the NPS I really don’t know how I can continue to try and manage my workload. I’m 136% on the WMT (is this normal?) I can no longer cope with the unrealistic demands and pressures placed on me & don’t know what to do. I have no clue who my union rep is & I never really receive any information from Unison. The IT failure has just made the situation so much worse. I no longer feel I can do my work to the standard I would like. Are there any other NPS PO’s out there feeling the same?

I'm also an NPS PO. In our office we're all on the same sort of percentage and have been for far too many YEARS!! These days, I have the 'sod it' view. I don't overwork myself anymore, just do what I can at my pace. Nothing happens when OASys are not completed. Just record your contacts, complete work that is targeted and do what you can with the remainder. Don't work over, I used to do but no more. If they want completing properly then get appropriate staffing levels. I'm far happier these days and less stressed. It's not worth it. They treat us all so badly, just look after yourself.

Exactly. Stressing and burning yourself out doing more than you can is not going to do you any good. Or your team mates any good if you end up going off work with stress through pushing yourself over the limit.

Talking about failure, no computers again today! Apparently it’s a ‘national problem.’ A national disgrace more like. The only good side to it is it stops the constant bombardment of management crap. They must be worried sick to realise that we cope extremely well without their ‘guidance.’ And it proves that they are being paid money for nothing.

Jeeeeez! Before we kick off a debate on the whys and wherefores' lets kick this debate into touch until the government prove they are capable of getting basic IT to work. As in, emails, basic communications. Head in hands, and dreading my return to work on Monday.

I'm a case manager within an Interserve CRC - I have many people on my case load that suffer with quite severe mental health that I feel back in the day of the good old PSR (adjournment for assessments etc) these cases would have been diverted out of the CJS that would better benefit the service users - the thought of digital courts fills me with dread for service users that will end up with us and not get the most appropriate support and for staff that are going under with increased case load numbers - we just don't have enough staff now for all the craziness we're expected to complete - in CGM Interserve we are being put into "specialisms, resettlement, engagement, community etc, all our cases are being reallocated to whatever team they're deemed to fit - so forget about relationships and the upset this may cause service users - it really does just make me feel ill literally.

Personally I think no IT puts everyone in an office at risk, both staff and service users. But given the number of sub standard inspections of CRCs, many indicating a potential risk to life, I'm puzzled as to why the probation inspectorate does not have the same powers as the prison inspector to issue an 'urgent notification' notice?

I don't quite recall how many CRC inspections there have been since the privatisation of Probation Services, I'm guessing 12 to 15, of which I recall only one, Durham, which had a reasonable write up. The rest have ranged from an unacceptable average to dire with, as a previous comment alluded to, some consolatory sugar lumps to sweeten the otherwise unpalatable mixture. Let's be frank about what this means, the public and victims at increased risk and rehabilitation not much more than lip service paid.

Computer services are not restored in all offices and not everyone can send and receive e-mails, prisons will not allow wi-fi, dongles or mi-fi, and the chaos which prevails has not prevented the Parole Board from sending reprimands about overdue reports. I don’t envisage our glorious leaders staffing the barricades in our defence as once again, their silence is deafening. Keep sending the money (and the gongs,) we’re alright Jack!

Yes I agree the cuts have only just started. UPW units around East Mids trying to get offenders to report to site for their UPW  so vans are not needed. Cost cut or what. I've even heard of one unit trying to get the placement to supervise the whole group. No supervisor needed. Lives yes will be at risk if proper trained staff are not in use. Where does the cuts stop and at what cost.

The brass-neck of the MoJ is impressive. MP Yasmin Qureshi was asking about defendants being released without trial, i.e. released from the jurisdiction of the court. That MIGHT mean being released from prison if they were remanded into custody pre-trial, but it also includes (probably the majority) defendants bailed, whether conditionally or otherwise.  Frazer's non-answer is one of those *telling* strategies much-loved of politicians when they don't want to give anything away. EVERYTHING about this bullying, deceitful government & the eager lick-spittles that support it is utterly suspect. 

DLNR CRC - Shock! Horror! Even the farmer's friend Dame Stacey can't find much positive to say. Managers cut staffing & resources to the bone, remaining staff neither knowledgeable enough nor allowed the time to do their jobs.

It highlights the bleedin' obvious though, i.e. the CRCs cleared out the expensive experienced qualified staff in a planned move to save money for themselves & their shareholders; then recruited cheaper unqualified alternatives who will inevitably be without the knowledge & skills of experienced qualified staff. I agree. Those frontline staff are NOT to blame. The unscrupulous, selfish, greedy CRC managers at ALL levels are wholly to blame, whether they designed, imposed or implemented the CRC policies. I can hear them whining already...

"I'm only doing my job"
"I'm only doing what I'm told to do"
"I'm only following company instructions"

Yes, indeed, it is likely to be true that quite a few kept their jobs at the expense of hundreds of colleagues' careers that were cast aside; and it is those collaborators who implement the CRC policies to hang on to their jobs, to keep their CRC salaries & thus enable the CRCs to continue to butcher the 'probation' carcass - funded by the UK taxpayer. Come on, tell it as it really is. Save the sugar lumps for Dobbin down on the farm, Dame Mary Poppins.

I genuinely feel for staff in CRCs. They are not to blame. The operating models were essentially about doing things on the cheap; fewer staff, with fewer resources and vastly inflated workloads. The privatised/outsourced model for Probation services on so many levels was anticipated to be, has now proven to be, a highly flawed model. It should really be consigned to the dustbin of regrettable political experiments.

I note that some of the High Street banks suffered a computer failure on Friday afternoon, but they were back up and running before close of play. It seems that if there is money to be made, the problems can be overcome. Meanwhile, there does not appear to be a contingency plan.Imagine compiling an OAsys in this manner and submitting it to someone calling themselves a manager. I think it might be rejected but this is yet another example of “do as I say, not as I do”.

I think the real issue is accountability, or lack of it. Outsourcing and privatisation has pervaded into all areas of our society, and it's damaging and destructive. I used to think that the neoliberal ideology of shrinking the State was just to make it smaller, offload responsibility from government. In fact, the privateers and outsourcers now provide a fortress between the people and government. The State has not just got smaller, it's being insulated against responsibility and accountability by thick walls of corporate legislation and confidentiality. 

The Government don't give a jot if IT systems aren't working, pension pots are being depleted, or public services are in meltdown. It's the corporations that's to blame, not them. The corporations don't give a jot either. They take their money on the go ensuring those that profit get theres, and if it all goes wrong heyho, just move on to the next contract. Sir Nicholas Soames this week made an outrageous argument that outsourcers are being too hard hit, and they should be allowed to fail. I have no problem with that argument as long as it's the corporations that absorb the financial losses, and not the public purse. But it never is.

There has to be more accountability by government. Persistent failure in all areas of our social existence can't (and shouldn't) be tolerated any longer. Privatisation, outsourcing and giant corporations are sucking the blood out of our society, and left unchecked, they will continue to pollute everything from our education systems, workplaces, to our old age and social care. They're making society ill. 

The way the corporations operate is seeping into everything. Many think of the third sector as a group that organise themselves to do charitable work, providing for people in great need without looking for anything in return. People may be surprised to know there's over 160,000 registered charities in the UK! And it's big business too.

There needs to be more accountability, more transparency, and more consequences for the blatant disregard the public is shown by both corporations and government. I believe social values, and how we want to be seen as a nation, and as individuals, is just as, if not more, important then the relentless pursuit of profit for profits sake. 

Here in ProvincialBackwater LDU we have adopted a paper based work-around. Basic offender details are typed onto doubled white A4 paper. We call this a Part A. Sentence Plans and Reviews are typed onto pink A4 paper. We call this a Part B. Day to day recording is typed onto white A4 paper. We call this a Part C. It works and has yet to go down on us. 

Please train somebody up in IT, second week of being unable to access systems!!! Shite system that is proving, YET AGAIN, unfit for purpose.Why is this stuff not being publicised. Complete waste of public money. How much is this farce costing? How many employees bring paid but unable to work? What is the daily cost of that? Not to mention the risk to staff and the public issues. Feeble apology yesterday but no information as to when the problem will be fixed. It's a bloody joke. No doubt there'll be a CBE next year for the Head of IT.

Education and qualifications are great. But you don't need a City and Guilds for a zero hour contract with Deliveroo or order picking for Home Bargains. I'm quite shocked to learn that 27% of offenders being released go into employment upon release given that 1 in 4 prisoners are now being released homeless. 27% seems pretty high to me. I have no real time either for organisations like St Giles who get funding to help homelessness, but also provide information to the authorities on those they claim to help that may have an illegal immigration status.

It's a food chain, even a gravy chain and everyone wants a bit. Everybody wants to help the ex offender when they can shake a few bob out of their situation, but it's all short term and mostly irrelevant interventions. Nothing is done anymore (excepting a few good voluntary organisation) if there's no profit in it, and the people on the treadmill are acutely aware of that fact. Assistance and support and the development of ex-offenders has become such a huge marketplace, why would those who profit from that market have any interest in reducing reoffending? They'd just be doing themselves out of a job. It's criminal justice ambulance chasing. 

Not our job to house them. The PO who allowed him to live in a budget hotel almost certainly balanced the risk against him being on the street and likely this would have been much less safe. Also, would have almost certainly had SPO approval. Probably on account of housing not being able to house him because of the strict policies laid down by councils. As a consequence of? You guessed it. Tory cuts. Or, as I have seen with my own eyes. Council housing workers not wanting to help "the dirty bastards." Common theme amongst organisations. Raising risk of course.

Going off at a tangent, I heard a tale today which is utterly scurrilous and clearly has no grounding in truth. A CEO went to a team meeting (see, it already sounds far-fetched) and began to grill staff as to why they hadn’t applied for jobs in a prison. (There has been a murder in one of her Majesties establishments in the same region this week by the way). The CEO, not liking the response they were getting, went round the room pointing at people individually with a pen and asked them to explain themselves! The said leader (!) is reputedly a diversity devotee and a CBE. No conflict of ideologies there then, and clearly believes they live in the days of the Empire. It couldn’t be true, it’s too outlandish.

We had all the right balance pre TR and needed some resources. Guess what Grayling squandered billions and put work back a decade and now we are scratching heads .

I found it surprising that a former Senior Probation Officer has sought to boil criminality down to a 'choice' (to be or not to be) without at least expanding on the idea, acknowledging that choices are not simplistic calculations. Changing or choosing behaviour as if it were always a simple matter of a polarised, freely made and calculated individual choice, a flick of a switch, really does not stand up to scrutiny. 

Whilst I am not against the use of custody to protect the public, deprive offenders of their liberty as a punishment, a reflection of society's desire to have some form of retribution in the name of justice etc., I did find the idea [surprising] that custody in its present form and more of it is the means by which the wrong behavioural choices can be best deterred. Again does not stand up to scrutiny. Overly simplistic Mr Fraser, as is banning short custodial sentences Minister.

“We do not need psychologists to tell us that if you reward bad behaviour you will get more of it.” What a disappointing and reductionist argument from someone with a Probation background. It reminded me of the rhetoric of the Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro so steeped are David Fraser's critiques of anything more sophisticated than ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key’ approaches. We do need psychologists to help us understand risk. Paedophilic and other forms of criminality may not be able to be changed and we the law abiding have to manage it in a humane way, remember the criminals can be our family members. Psychological approaches can also inform us how early relationships with caregivers can nurture anti social tendency’s and how these can be understood moderated and inform accurate assessment of risks to the public.

For those caught in the revolving door of the CJS, a short sentence is at worst an inconvenience, at best it provides a short respite from a chaotic lifestyle. Many I believe, if given the choice would choose a short custodial over many types of community punishment. I read a warning from the Lawyers today about the legal system being so under funded that it's creating a situation where those with money are able to escape justice. Its services being made available and the provision of some means of opportunity that Rory should be looking at. Getting rid of short sentences may reduce the prison population slightly, but on its own will achieve nothing for those being diverted. 

What Fraser fails to mention is that crime is a construct, and offences are often linked to those pesky social & environmental factors. Because of this, the less fortunate will commit more crimes, because they don't have the wealth or education to avoid the system (the drug user with no job has to steal to fund his habit. The stock broker with same habit can afford not to steal). However, if we are going to deliberately ignore all the independent variables of poverty, upbringing, unemployment etc in shaping criminality, then surely white collar crime most fits David Frasers basic theory that crime is an individual choice. This crime is mainly hidden in the fabric of capitalist values. But it's impact is far reaching (we are still in the grip of a financial depression caused by white collar crime).

A jarring read, particularly that by David Fraser. I imagine that his views are supported by a large percentage of the general public and his writing is powerful. His views need to be part of the debate, they have significant support, but I think the approach to the problem of criminality requires a more nuanced understanding and with that thoughtful investment in a wide range of services of which community sentences are but one of many.

Saturday 26 January 2019

Food for Thought

As we have previously mentioned, Rory Stewart signalled a few weeks ago that the government is minded to effectively outlaw imprisonment of less than six months, a policy he expanded upon in a recent interview with Erwin James. It prompted the following letter:-

Rory Stewart is correct that short sentences are largely ineffective in reducing reoffending and should be used as rarely as possible. Sentencing guidelines used by magistrates are, however, already clear that custody must be only be used when there is no appropriate alternative. The proposed “presumption against” short prison sentences would therefore be unlikely to make any significant difference. Indeed, this has been demonstrated in Scotland, where a government evaluation of the impact of their recently introduced presumption against short prison sentences found that in practice it has had a minimal impact on sentencing decisions.

If the Ministry of Justice wants to see fewer short sentences, its focus should instead be on ensuring that effective community sentences, including appropriate options for women and treatment for people with mental health, drug or alcohol problems, are available in every area of the country. Magistrates should also be given the power to review the progress made by an offender serving a community sentence. This would enable us to impose community sentences with confidence, knowing that they will help offenders to turn their lives around.

John Bache
National chair, Magistrates Association

But lets look at the context. This from the Guardian:-

Rise in recorded crime is accelerating in England and Wales

The rise in crime in England and Wales is accelerating, according to police figures, which show a 14% year-on-year increase in offences recorded by forces across England and Wales. Knife crime has gone up even more steeply, by 21% in the 12 months to September, and gun crime has risen by 20%, according to quarterly figures released on Thursday.

Police chiefs said the increases – including a 32% rise in domestic burglary to 261,965 offences and an 18% rise in vehicle-related crimes (443,577 offences) alongside the sharp rises in violent crime – marked a turning point after more than 20 years of sustained falls in these categories.

“Today’s police officers are dealing with more complex crime, more safeguarding and protecting vulnerable people and an unprecedented terror threat, as well as tackling some of the genuine rises in knife and gun crime, robbery, burglary and vehicle-related crime – crimes which turn the trend on many years of reductions,” said chief constable Bill Skelly, of the National Police Chiefs’ Council.

Meanwhile, official figures show that the number of police officers in England and Wales has fallen by 930 in the past 12 months, to 121,929, the lowest level since comparable records began in 1996. Police officer numbers are now 22,424 below their peak in 2009, when there were 144,353 officers.

Then there's this from the Independent:-

Justice system in ‘crisis’ as only 8% of crimes prosecuted in England and Wales

Tens of thousands more crimes are not being prosecuted amid warnings of a worsening “crisis” in Britain’s criminal justice system. Almost 92 per cent of offences do not result in perpetrators being charged or summonsed in England and Wales, with the number of offences taken to court dropping by almost 30,000 in a year.

Lawyers, police officers and victim support workers interviewed by The Independent blamed a perfect storm of police cuts, rising crime, rows over disclosure, falling confidence and the backlash to a series of collapsed rape cases. Figures published by the Home Office show in the year ending September 2018 only 8.2 per cent of 5 million recorded crimes were prosecuted, down from 9.5 per cent the previous year. The lowest figures were for sexual offences (4 per cent), with only 1.9 per cent of recorded rapes prosecuted – down from 2.4 per cent the previous year. Nick Thomas-Symonds, Labour’s shadow solicitor general, said the statistics made “very worrying reading”. 

“This is, sadly, no surprise given the swingeing government cuts to both police and Crown Prosecution Service budgets,” he added. “The government has to step up to the plate and provide the resources needed to properly support victims and ensure that no stone is left unturned in bringing people to justice."

The reason for closing almost half of investigations was that no suspect had been identified, but almost a third were listed as “evidential difficulties”. There was a sharp rise in the proportion of cases recorded as “victim does not support action”, increasing to 42 per cent for violence, 35 per cent with rapes and 29 per cent of sexual offences. The victims’ commissioner, Baroness Newlove, raised concern that lengthy delays, poor conviction rates, demands for phones and personal records, and the prospect of cross-examination were making women drop claims. 

“The very low percentage of rape and sexual violence cases that result in a trial is a huge concern, as are the increasing number of victims who do not want to endure the criminal justice process,” she said. “I am often hearing from victims of sexual crime that their criminal justice journey is as harrowing as the crime itself. This is just not acceptable. I fear we are letting these victims down badly.”

Finally, there's David Fraser who I notice has been plugging his latest contrarian book on the Conservative Woman website:- 

The inescapable fact – growing leniency equals rising crime

From the late 1950s Britain’s official attitude towards crime began to change. Instead of being viewed as bad behaviour that needed to be punished and controlled, it was increasingly judged to be a symptom of a social or psychological malaise. The offender was seen as being forced into crime by poverty, inequality or other forces beyond his control which society could, and should, alleviate. Greed, laziness and the wish to dominate others were no longer recognised as the motives for violent crime. Persistent violent and dangerous criminals, who spurned hard work and thrift as the route to a comfortable standard of living, were rewarded with state protection from prosecution whenever possible, and the guarantee of their human rights, even in the face of their violence and law breaking. What was required, our ruling elites argued, was the application, wherever possible, of non-custodial sentences (even for violent offenders), such as the supervision of offenders in the community, to identify and alleviate the ‘underlying causes of crime’.

This has never worked, either to reform offenders or to protect the public. The re-offending rates of supervised criminals have steadily worsened. Forty years ago they were 41 per cent measured over two years. They are now at least 56 per cent measured over one year. This equates to millions of offences committed against the public every year by offenders trusted with their freedom. Further, between 1998 and 2014 there were at least 6,300 of the most serious violent and sex crimes, such as murder, rape, robbery, kidnapping, committed by criminals on the probation service’s books.

Eighteen-year-old Opemipo Jaji, a violent sex offender, was convicted of making an indecent image of a child as well as robbing and sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl. Despite his obvious dangerousness, he was given 18 months probation supervision in the community. A few months later, Jaji, having made a routine visit to his supervisor, left the probation office at about 4 pm.

After about five minutes, he fell in behind an 11-year-old girl walking home from school. He followed her, chose his moment and dragged her into a park and subjected her to a violent three-hour assault. While this attack was taking place, his supervising officer would have been putting the finishing touches to his record entry covering the interview. Probably, at the very moment that he closed the file and sat contemplating how well Jaji was doing and the wisdom the courts had shown in not sending him to prison, Jaji was repeatedly raping the terrified child.

During the 1990s the probation service embraced the idea that ‘thinking skills’ programmes, designed by psychologists, could identify faults in the way offenders made decisions and so help them avoid crime. They were hopeful that years of failure could at last be reversed. But four years later the published results showed that not only had they had failed to reform the offenders on these programmes, but that in many cases their offending had increased.

What probation and other officials will not admit is that crimes are not committed because of faulty thinking skills, nor because of some pressing social or psychological need, nor because of problems associated with poverty and inequality, but because the offender chooses to commit them.

Although it is true that many criminals emerge from the poorer or less well-off sections of the community, it is wrong to interpret these conditions as factors which ‘cause’ crime. (An analysis carried out in 2011 found, contrary to what many believed, that countries with greater degrees of inequality and poverty had less crime than those which were wealthier and with more equality). Most people who choose to be violent and commit crime tend also to make life choices that generally keep them in the lower classes of our society. For example they refuse to work at school, are violent, ill-disciplined, demand instant gratification, and fail to plan for the future. This is not to say that they do not have access to money – crime and violence brings many of them a good income and their social station in life can be seen as an indicator of how they choose to live and spend their ill-gotten gains. The fact that the majority of children from poorer home backgrounds go on to live decent law-abiding lives bears out this truth. In 1926, when millions of working-class Britons lived in dire poverty, our violent offender rate was 4.4 per 100,000 of the population. It is now over 1,400.

Swathes of legislation have allowed courts to avoid using imprisonment for increasing numbers of convicted criminals. Yet we are told ‘we send too many offenders to jail’, and many now believe this is a truth written in stone. But it is a trick created by measuring the numbers in prison against our general population. When computed this way, it suggests that our imprisonment rate, per 100,000 of the population, has been rising.

But a moment’s reflection tells us that most of us do not commit crime and are not in that group of persons liable to be sent to jail. Therefore, this calculation tells us nothing about how lenient or severe we are in our use of prison for criminals. A more accurate imprisonment rate can be obtained by expressing the prison population against the number of crimes committed. The following graph shows that our imprisonment rate, when calculated in this way, has, since the 1950s, fallen not risen, and that we are not the ‘prison-obsessed nation’ that the anti-prison lobby would have us believe.

The opposite is the case. Only 28 per cent of offenders convicted of a serious crime are given a term of imprisonment. The public are left to rub shoulders with the remaining 72 per cent, except, of course, the justice elite, whose gated communities in cities and country retreats provide them with a level of security not available to the majority. Generally, they are not affected by crimes committed by those they campaign to keep out of jail. Many who are sentenced to imprisonment do not stay in long. The average sentence length for ‘violence against the person’ crimes is just 23 months, which in practice means 11 months, because almost all sentences are subject to 50 per cent remission.

We do not need psychologists to tell us that if you reward bad behaviour you will get more of it. We should not be surprised that violent crime is escalating. The offenders have taken their cue from us.

David Fraser


This about the book and author:-

Based on over 30 years research of government sentencing policy and work in the criminal justice system, David Fraser’s book demonstrates that the State’s increased reliance on alternatives to imprisonment has allowed all categories of violent crime to flourish in Britain; that, the homicide rate, for example, doubled between 1964 and the turn of the millennium; that the numbers of life threatening attacks have increased rapidly over the last 40 years, and that justice officials have hidden this development with a blizzard of deceptive statistics whose purpose is to mislead rather than inform the public.

Anti-prison groups and other apologists for offenders tell the public that violent offenders can be ‘managed’ in the community under supervision to the probation service, that prison doesn’t work because it makes offenders ‘worse’. The analysis presented here shows that none of this is true. Readers will be informed that contrary to the misleading propaganda regularly fed to the public, that parole is a cruel absurdity and should be abolished, that criminals under probation supervision as an alternative to imprisonment, commit hundreds of murders and other serious crimes every year, while the governments own figures, kept away from the public eye, makes it clear that long prison sentences are our best protection against violent (and other) crime, and are effective in encouraging criminals to reform.

The book demonstrates that the death penalty was an effective deterrent to homicide but its purpose is not to argue for its reintroduction. But by acknowledging its effectiveness, we can argue the case for a re-vamped sentencing system that is as effective as was the fear of the hangman’s noose. Evidence shows that the adoption of a 2 or 3 strike sentencing system resulting in mandatory long prison terms would provide the public with a much greater degree of protection. Other English speaking countries who have, in response to public demand, legislated this type of system have found that it discourages further violence and has produced startling reductions in crime.

David Fraser was a senior probation officer and criminal intelligence analyst with the former National Criminal Intelligence Service (now The National Crime Agency). He has had many articles published along with two well received books, the first of which was recommended for the George Orwell Prize in Literature. It provoked wide interest in this country and abroad and was commended to the House of Commons during a speech by an MP. David Fraser is married with two adult children and two grandchildren and lives in the South-West of England.