Sunday 26 February 2023

Prison Numbers To Rocket

With Labour deciding to enter into a Dutch auction with the Tories as to who is going to be tougher on criminals in the lead-up to the next general election, news comes in from the statisticians as to likely future incarceration rates. It has to be remembered that the Tories often like to portray any new prisons as 'job opportunities' for any intended location and increasingly are doing their best to keep more people inside and for longer as a way to 'protect the public'. This from Russell Webster neatly summarises the likely direction of travel:-   

Our Prison Population Could Be Over 100,000 by 2027


The latest official prison population projections published yesterday (23 February 2023) by the Ministry of Justice and the Office for National Statistics demonstrate the uncertainties at the heart of our criminal justice system. The headline figures are confusing, to say the least:
  • The prison population is projected to increase, with a central estimate of 94,400 by March 2025
  • The estimate for two years later, March 2027, is within a huge range of 93,100 to 106,300.

In the first few years of the projection period, the projected rise in the prison population is primarily due to an increase in receptions of determinate sentenced offenders. This is because courts are assumed to dispose of more cases than they receive in order to clear the additional trial backlog that arose during COVID-19 restrictions and the Criminal Bar Association strike action.

The total prison population is projected to continue to increase over the full projection period. This is partly driven by rising police officer numbers which are expected to increase charge volumes and therefore increase the future prison population.

There are several sources of uncertainty for long-term prison population, particularly around future levels of demand entering the Criminal Justice System (CJS).

The publication presents three prison population projections to assess the impact of differing potential upstream demand scenarios. All three projections reflect what the statisticians call “plausible scenarios for future police and prosecutorial activity”. All three scenarios take account of expected increases in police officer numbers and project higher long-term prison demand, but vary factors such as charges per police officer, the crime mix entering the courts, and average custodial sentence lengths. You can see how the different projections unfold in the chart reproduced from the report below.


The scenarios are not intended to reflect the full range of demand risk for the CJS, but rather to estimate the plausible range of police and prosecutorial activity – a large driver of future prison demand over the mid to long-term. The statisticians are keen to emphasise that the projections do not represent the highest and lowest possible prison demand or the full range of uncertainty surrounding the projections.

There are several additional sources of uncertainty including the speed with which the CJS recovers from the pandemic – Crown Court backlogs remain very high. Other uncertainties relate to future crime types (in particular which types of crime police prioritise) and the volumes of crime and how many are processed through the CJS.

The plethora of recent policy changes (many of which relate to extending maximum sentence times and reducing the likelihood of parole) have not all yet been implemented and therefore make it hard for statisticians to model their impact on prison numbers.

The three scenarios which result in this very imprecise projection of the prison population being between 93,100 to 106,300 by March 2027 are:
High upstream demand – police and CPS crime mix and charges per officer start to return to pre-COVID (2019) levels, resulting in a large increase in the volume of cases coming into court. Additionally, Average Custodial Sentence Lengths (ACSL) return to 2019 levels.
Low upstream demand – police and CPS crime mix and charges per officer stay at lower levels observed in 2021 and do not return to pre-COVID behaviour. Similarly, ACSLs reflect 2021 levels.
Central upstream demand – crime mix remains as observed during the COVID-19 pandemic. While there are some increases in charges per officer, it remains below pre-pandemic levels. Additionally, ACSLs reflect levels observed from 2019 to 2021.
When trying to make sense of these very large rises in our prison population (there were 83,687 people in prison last Friday 17 February, itself a jump of 1149 people in the previous four week period), it is important to remember that, along with Scotland, England & Wales already incarcerates a large proportion of its citizens than any other Western European country.

Russell Webster

Friday 24 February 2023

Probation in Wales

An interesting article published yesterday by Walesonline. Regarding the first guy interviewed - no mention of a PSR? Sentenced without one perhaps? Note the absence of any reference to 'POPs' - a sure sign Wales wants to go its own way methinks.

'Most people would run away from them - we try to run towards them': The probation officers working with Wales' offenders

They try to help people who break the law change their lives, while protecting the public from harm, and are always thinking about risk.

A convicted offender is having his first meeting with a probation officer in Swansea after being sentenced for stealing a substantial sum of money from his employer. He was given an eight-month sentence suspended for two years, meaning he will stay out of prison as long he complies with the Probation Service. He must also carry out 130 hours of unpaid work as part of a two-year community order.

The man is in his late 20s and it is his first offence. He sits down opposite probation officer Laura Gray for an induction meeting - and so begins another case for the Swansea Neath Port Talbot probation delivery unit, one of six such units in Wales. Housed over three floors of a dark-bricked office building on Orchard Street, the Probation Service works with prisoners - both those locked up and recently released - and those handed community orders for lesser offences. There are probation officers based at Swansea Prison and also in the city's courts.

As of November 2021, the Swansea Neath Port Talbot unit's total caseload was 1,900 - 977 people on community sentences, 525 individuals being supervised post-release from prison, and 398 still in custody. The service sets out to protect the public from harm and also help rehabilitate those who pass through its doors. Assessing and updating risk is a vital component. "You've got to come with an open mind and not be judgemental," says Laura. "You're working with them because you're trying to prevent future victims. With support, most people have got the ability to change their lives and be functioning members of the public."

Back in the meeting room, Laura explains to the first-time offender that a colleague of hers will be assigned to him, so she fills out some but not all of a lengthy pack which will form the basis of a sentencing plan. She takes contact details, where he is living and with whom, whether he works and if so doing what, and what both parties can expect from one another over the course of the next two years. She also asks him if he understood the sentence and how it came about. There is a pause. The man provides the information. It turns out the crime was committed in London a number of years ago.

She tells him that a home visit will take place in the next couple of weeks, and stresses that keeping in touch and turning up to appointments on time are key. "The whole point of being on probation is to support you so that you don't end up in this situation again," she tells him. The unpaid work will be arranged in due course and might involve litter picking, cutting grass or painting. It emerges that the man's wife lives overseas and that the plan was for him to join her. That won't be happening now for two years.

A few minutes later we are in another meeting room where Laura is talking to one of the 34 mostly medium and high risk offenders she has on her caseload. He lives with his partner, their daughter and a new-born son. There have been some noise complaints from a neighbour, which are being looked into. Laura asks the man, who has assault convictions, about his drinking - he previously had to wear a sweat-sampling alcohol tag around his ankle for 72 days - and is encouraged by his response. "Seeing people drunk around Swansea, I think, 'That could be me.' I just want to be with my family," he says.

Laura says he has engaged well with social and housing services, and that his risk category has dropped from high to medium. She is constantly asking questions, assessing risk and, it seems to me, looking for solutions. She tells me later: "I know so much about him, he has talked to me about things that have happened in the past, I have been to his house, I have met his partner. You become so involved with these people. You've got to be constantly curious." She says "professional curiosity" is integral to the role.

The probation service runs programmes and works with organisations to deliver others. They cover substance misuse, employment and housing support, mental health services and domestic violence awareness, among others. Running the service in Wales costs just under £80 million per year. There is additional probation officer training for managing sexual offenders, which is managed in partnership with police.

Laura, 32, qualified as a probation officer seven years ago. It was while studying sociology and criminology in Manchester that she first came into contact with the probation service - in what was then called Strangeways Prison. "I thought it was really interesting," she says. Returning to Swansea after graduating, she volunteered at Swansea Prison and later completed a 15-month professional qualification in probation.

Asked if there was one thing that really offenders really benefited from in their lives to make progress, she replies: "It's hard to say one thing. Having employment gives someone that sense of purpose, and a structure to the day. Support networks are such a huge thing. Then accommodation is another factor - it makes everything more settled for them."

Laura says cases where offenders have turned their lives around were very rewarding. She gives an example of a man who had been in and out of prison since he was 17 and had now hit 50. Prison, she says, had become much harder for him. She says he has dealt with his drug problems, that he has a flat, and has re-established contact with his adult children. "He came out (of prison) with a different mindset," she says. "He really worked with us. We are helping somebody to help themselves. That's when the satisfaction comes."

Equally, there was disappointment in other cases, particularly when someone's actions or behaviour warranted being remanded to custody. "It's difficult not to feel we have not let them down in some way," says Laura. "We do try to work with people, but it's ultimately down to them to decide if they do it."

Kristian Hooper, 36, qualified as a probation officer in 2020 after stints as a play worker, youth worker and drugs charity worker. "I always had an interest in criminology and psychology, and had a higher education certificate in counselling," he says. A good probation officer, in his view, had to be able to build a good rapport with someone and have an understanding of complex needs. His 26-odd cases are mainly high and very high risk. "It is a difficult job," says Kristian. "You do read about what people have done, which can be pretty horrific, but you need to be able to compartmentalise that. Most people would run away from them - we try to run towards them."

He says 60-70% of his time was spent on reports, the remainder on meetings with offenders. Trying to prioritise his work when "multiple things" were happening with "multiple cases" could be challenging. "It is relentless," says university graduate Kristian. But it suits him. "I don't think I would ever have a normal job," he says.

The Swansea Neath Port Talbot probation delivery unit was scrutinised by HM Inspectorate of Probation in autumn 2021, when Covid and the discovery of asbestos in the office building severely hampered operations. "The impact of both these events cannot be underestimated," said a foreword to the report by chief inspector of probation, Justin Russell. To have "kept the show on the road", he added, was to the credit of senior managers. But the report said the quality of work undertaken with people in probation was weak, and that there were shortfalls across all elements of case supervision. The unit was rated "inadequate".

Strengths were cited though, such as relationships with partner agencies, the positive impact of certain specialist teams, and senior management's high profile and commitment to improve. Inspectors made six improvement recommendations, and an action plan with target dates for completion was drawn up in response. Staff and managers at the unit say the disruption during Covid of face-to-face meetings with people in probation was immense.

"We were operating in a different way, which is inherently challenging," says head of the unit, Deanne Martin. "The impact of not being able to see people and rely on technology instead - it worked for some people, but not for others. Risk assessment is a really intuitive process. You need all your senses." Deanne has worked for 20 years in probation. Her role includes liaising with police, prisons, and councils, attending safeguarding meetings, and understanding the needs of staff and what pressure they might be under. A recall to custody - something not taken lightly, she says - or returning someone to court, would require her attention.

The unit has 139 staff, around three-quarters of whom are probation practitioners and senior probation staff. "Our colleagues come from all different walks of life, and for some people it's a second career," says Deanne. "It's still a vocation for a lot of people - they're really committed to it. "The most important this for us is protecting the public. Having a real emphasis on risk and understanding risk is really important. We have a dual focus on rehabilitation. That takes a lot of skill, time and effort. You've have got to be optimistic, but not unrealistic."

Deanne says she has seen people "come out the other side" that she didn't expect to. "That's wonderful," she says. "I see the worst and I see the best, and often I see the best." She adds: "I do think probation staff do an incredible job. It's a field which is really quite skilled. It's not always visible, but they really are true public servants."

Trainee probation officers joining this coming September will earn £23,637. Once qualified, the salary increases to £35,130 plus allowances.

There were 240,674 offenders supervised by the probation service in England and Wales at the end of last September, 2% more than a year previously. All these offenders have different needs. At a team meeting early in the day at the Swansea Neath Port Talbot office, a member of staff says one man she supervises rang her 10 times before 9am.

Laura is taking the meeting and goes through a list of questions, with input from a senior probation officer. Numerous acronyms are bandied about. A more recognisable word, "pancakes", also crops up a couple of times. I'm reminded later that it is Shrove Tuesday - considered in Christianity as a day for confessing and being absolved of sins.

Richard Youle
Local Democracy Reporter

Richard is covering Swansea and Carmarthenshire as part of the BBC's Local Democracy Reporter project, which is aimed at enhancing reporting from local authorities across the UK. He previously worked as a senior reporter covering Swansea.


It is of course official Napo policy to campaign for the probation service in Wales to free itself from the stranglehold of the MoJ and HMPPS. This was recently published:-


Here at Napo News we are always pleased to receive information about particular campaign initiatives that are being undertaken by our Branch activists. This just in from Napo Cymru.

Greetings from Wales! Siwmae! Napo Cymru branch reporting in.

In 2022 Napo Cymru won the support of NAPO to campaign for the devolution of Probation in Wales, and with it the uncoupling of Probation from the prison system.

Before this, Mark Drakeford, First Minister for Wales, argued for this in his Bill McWilliams lecture. Gordon Brown in his recent report on democracy and devolution, cited Probation and Youth Justice as functions that should be devolved Report of the Commission on the UK’s Future. A torrent of painful media reports is revealing the utter failure of the Probation Service under its current management.

Napo Cymru have been busy on the campaign, as mandated by you.
  • We are collaborating with the Wales Centre for Crime and Social Justice preparing a raft of evidenced based proposals for an alternative view of a future Probation Service in Wales.
  • We are linked up with other Justice Unions and have recently gained commitment from Welsh government for regular Welsh Justice Unions meetings and communications.
  • Napo Cymru has promoted a motion put to the Welsh Labour Conference in March: “Conference mandates the Welsh Labour Government to, as a matter of urgency, work with the UK Labour Party to progress the devolution of probation to Wales, along with other elements of the justice system including youth justice, removing it from the current unhealthy grip of the Westminster civil service and the prison service.”
  • Napo Cymru Vice Chair Su McConnel is a contributor to the Fabian Society’s publication “Solidarity, Equality and Opportunity: creating strong social justice systems for women” which was launched in Westminster in January. She argues for the devolution of Probation to Wales, and also for the return of full Pre-Sentence Reports.
Our work locally

We are of course, getting on with the day job of being a stalwart Napo branch. We have an increasing number of members and to all of you, Croeso! We have many members needing support and representation, and we welcome each of you. We welcome everyone that joins Napo in the spirit of solidarity with our belief that Probation can be better for our communities, our clients, and our workers. We believe in change.

To let Napo HQ know about any meetings that members may be having with their local members of Parliament or any aspect of campaigning in the locality, please contact: Tania Bassett or Tay Burke.

Wednesday 22 February 2023

Who Pulls The Parole Board Strings?

With the public being enthusiastically encouraged to watch the new BBC2 fly-on-the-wall series about the workings of the Parole Board, I note the Prison Reform Trust are doggedly continuing their investigation into recent 'reforms'. One result has been a dramatic drop in moves to 'open' prison conditions. Political involvement in criminal justice matters should concern us all and the PRT should be congratulated on this work. 

Parole – the plot thickens

In our recent blog of 10 February we said we would ask why officials started rejecting almost all Parole Board recommendations for open conditions before new rules came into force on 6 June. We’ve received a very interesting response.
"To be clear, you are working to the current policy, but with a more precautionary approach.”
Note sent internally to staff responsible for considering open recommendations made by the Parole Board.

On the central issue of what guidance officials were working to before the new rules came into force, it’s clear nothing was issued to caseworkers beyond the procedural note disclosed in this latest response. Instead, the ministry tells us in its covering note that “the change in approach was brought about through the intentions outlined by Government in the publication of the Root and Branch review (published on 30 March 2022). The relevant section of that document reads as follows:
110. As this review has set out, it is the perpetrators of the most serious offences which require greater scrutiny in the parole process. This applies not only to release decisions, but also on recommendation to transfer a prisoner to an open prison. Through reviewing the current process, it is the government’s view that any recommendations for moves to open conditions for indeterminate sentenced prisoners (explained in Annex B) in the following categories, should be subject to greater ministerial scrutiny. These categories are: cases where the offender has committed murder; other homicide; rape; serious sexual offences or cruelty against a child.

111. There will be direct ministerial oversight of decisions on whether to move offenders in the above categories to open conditions. This greater scrutiny will create a stronger parole system, further ensuring the public are protected.
Needless to say, nothing was issued to prisoners, the Parole Board or prison staff to explain what “greater scrutiny” or “direct ministerial oversight” would actually mean or when it might come into operation, but the response to our FOI request now shows that from 4 May last year, something curiously entitled a “slightly interim process” was brought into operation.
“The response doesn’t tell us who this all-powerful individual is, nor their job title or position in the ministry (or elsewhere in government). It certainly doesn’t tell us what qualifications or expertise they might have to overturn 19 out of 20 recommendations made by the Parole Board. And it doesn’t tell us what instructions or guidance they have been working to in doing so.”
We already know from the previous FOI response that no minister has been personally involved in any of these decisions so far. What the latest response shows is that “greater scrutiny” and “direct ministerial oversight” appear to have been delivered by requiring all decisions in the “upper cohort” (that is, for offences of murder, other homicide, rape, serious sexual offences and cruelty against a child) to be taken by a specific individual. This also appears to apply to any cases in the “lower cohort” (everyone else) where junior officials think it necessary to do so. There’s no guidance on when this would be, but it seems safe to assume that it might be if they were tempted to agree to a Parole Board recommendation.

The response doesn’t tell us who this all-powerful individual is, nor their job title or position in the ministry (or elsewhere in government). It certainly doesn’t tell us what qualifications or expertise they might have to overturn 19 out of 20 recommendations made by the Parole Board. And it doesn’t tell us what instructions or guidance they have been working to in doing so.
“Should we take this to mean that Dominic Raab is taking instruction from someone else…rather than giving that steer himself? That seems so unlikely that we assume this is a drafting mistake, but the recipients of the email or note within the ministry must have been a little confused too.”
The ministry tells us that there is an absolute exemption under the Freedom of Information Act from disclosing personal information, but the redaction of names from this document leaves a mystery about the chain of command as well as the identity of the person concerned. It is very strange that the document says that “the Secretary of State is clear xxx wants to take a more precautionary approach”. Should we take this to mean that Dominic Raab is taking instruction from someone else about the approach to be taken rather than giving that steer himself? That seems so unlikely that we assume this is a drafting mistake, but the recipients of the email or note within the ministry must have been a little confused too.

As for the policy to be applied, the document says to caseworkers making recommendations to the mystery decision maker that “To be clear, you are working to the current policy” (the ministry’s underlining), but immediately qualifies that by saying “but with a more precautionary approach”.

So it really matters that we try to clear up the confusion this latest FOI response leaves unresolved.

First, we need to know more about who the unidentified decision maker is. Are they appointed by the secretary of state, or, bizarrely, superior to him in some way?

We need to know if a “precautionary approach” amounts to anything more complicated than an instruction to “just say no”. Does the repeated assertion (in this and in a previous response) that officials should consider recommendations for open under the same policy as the Parole Board (i.e. the policy applying before new Rules came into force on 6 June) actually mean anything? On the face of it, the application of a “precautionary principle” appears in reality to represent a radically new policy, quite different from what the Parole Board was applying in those cases.

So we will start by asking for the job title and qualifications of the mystery decision maker, and what instruction or guidance they received from (or, improbably, gave to) the secretary of state.

The outcome of all this doublespeak has been anything but confusing: a 95% rejection rate of Parole Board recommendations. It doesn’t take much to predict what the impact of a similar “precautionary approach” procedure might be if the secretary of state is allowed by parliament to insert himself into decisions on release as well as transfers to open conditions.

Peter Dawson


The FOI response letter:-

Dear Sir or Madam

Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Request – 230130004 

Thank you for your request dated 30 h January 2023 in which you asked for the following information from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ): 

Further to the data supplied in response to FOI request 221220023 concerning decisions taken by the secretary of state (or his officials) following Parole Board recommendations for transfer to open conditions, I would like to request the following information under the Freedom of Information Act.
• Copies of any guidance under which officials acting under authority delegated by the secretary of state were operating in relation to the 123 decisions taken under the policy in place prior to 6 June (109 rejected and 14 accepted). 
• Copies of any correspondence, email or other communication requiring a change in approach by officials considering the 123 cases in which those decisions were taken by comparison with their previous practice. 
Your request has been handled under the FOIA. I can confirm that the MoJ holds all of the information you have requested and I have provided some of it below and attached. 

In response to your first question, when considering whether to accept or reject a recommendation from the Parole Board for a prisoner to move to open conditions, in the cases you refer to, the Secretary of State (or his officials) will refer to the policy and guidance in place before 6 June 2022. I attach a copy of the Generic Parole Process Policy Framework which contains the policy and guidance. When considering whether to accept Parole Board recommendations for open conditions, each case is considered on its own merits, against the terms of the policy, taking into account all of the information provided. 

Turning to the second part of your question, I attach a copy of a note sent internally to Public Protection Casework Section (PPCS) staff responsible for considering open recommendations made by the Parole Board, which explained the change of approach in the context of which cohort prisoners were in. There was no further communication in relation to the consideration of Parole Board recommendations. 

Please note, some information within the attached documents has been removed as it constitutes personal data. 

Section 40(2) and section 40(3A)(a) of the FOIA taken together mean that personal data can only be released if to do so would not contravene any of the principles set out in Article 5(1) of the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and section 34(1) of the Data Protection Act 2018. 

Individuals have a clear and strong expectation that their personal data will be held in confidence and not disclosed to the public under the FOIA. Also, although s40 is an absolute exemption, we have considered whether there is a wider public interest in disclosing this personal information, that would override the fundamental rights of those concerned. We have concluded there is no such public interest in this instance. 

We believe releasing the requested information into the public domain would be unlawful; the personal information is therefore exempt from disclosure under section 40(2). 

This is an absolute exemption and does not require a public interest test under the FOIA

Outside the scope of the FOIA and on a discretionary basis, I can inform you that the change in approach was brought about through the intentions outlined by Government in the publication of the Root and Branch review. The Root and Branch Review report is available on the following link:

Appeal Rights 

If you are not satisfied with this response you have the right to request an internal review by responding in writing to one of the addresses below within two months of the date of this response. You do have the right to ask the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) to investigate any aspect of your complaint. However, please note that the ICO is likely to expect internal complaints procedures to have been exhausted before beginning their investigation. 

Yours sincerely 
Public Protection Operational Policy & Support (PPOPS)


That procedural note referred to:-

Dear all, 

As of today, Wednesday 4th May, can we please begin progressing those cases highlighted in Green on the attachment. I have highlighted six for each Team. This is admittedly, a slightly interim process, as there are further matters to iron out but we do need to progress some cases. In addition, any cases where you are regularly being chased by Legal Representatives can be progressed, but via the following process. 

You will need to place specific consideration on which cohort the case falls into and then follow the guidance below prior to progressing. 

To be clear, the Upper Cohort includes anyone sentenced for the following offences: - 

- Murder  
- Other homicide  
- Rape 
- Serious sexual assault on a child/causing or allowing the death of a child 

The lower cohort covers all other offences. 

Upper Cohort 
• With all upper cohort cases, the proforma must be fully completed by both a Case Manager and the responsible Team Leader. 
• The Open Recommendation needs thorough and robust consideration and attention to detail. Please consider the defensibility of your recommendation from a public protection perspective. Remember this is your key priority. 
• In addition, the Secretary of State is clear xxx wants to take a more precautionary approach and you should bear this in mind when considering the recommendations. To be clear, you are working to the current policy, but with a more precautionary approach. 
• Once reviewed by the Team Leader, it needs to be sent direct to xxxx who will prepare a summary and provide the evidence to xxxx for him to reach a decision. Please cc’ your Band 8 when sending over. 
• Xxx will then return the decision to you, for you to draft the final decision letter and finalise the process. xxxx will set out clearly for you what the decision is and why. The letter will need to be approved by xxxx via your Band 8. 
• Once the letter is finalised and approve you will need to ensure it is issued imminently. 
Lower Cohort 
• With all lower cohort cases, the proforma will need to be fully completed by both a Case Manager and the responsible Team Leader. 
• The Open Recommendation needs thorough and robust consideration and attention to detail. Please consider the defensibility of your recommendation from a public protection perspective. Remember this is your key priority. 
• In addition, the Secretary of State is clear he wants to take a more precautionary approach and you should bear this in mind when considering the recommendations. To be clear, you are however, working to the current policy, but with a more precautionary approach. 
• Once reviewed by the Team Leader, it needs to be sent direct to the Head of PEC, or in xxx absence, the Head of PPCS who will either take a final decision and/or prepare a summary and provide all of the evidence to xxx for xxx to reach a final decision. 
• The decision will then be returned to you, for you to draft the final decision letter and finalise the process. I will set out clearly for you what the decision is and why. The letter will need to be approved by xxx via your Band 8. (Although we are working to agree a process where these can be agreed by the Head of PEC or PPCS). 
• Once the letter is finalised and approve you will need to ensure it is issued imminently.
Please note: You will notice the new process to be followed is driven by the offence cohort that the case is within, there is no differentiation between those cases where the report writers agree or disagree. In addition, the above process must be followed regardless of whether you are recommending an acceptance or a rejection. Please ensure you and your staff are clear that decisions going forward cannot be taken without xxxx’s agreement (for upper cohort), regardless of the consensus on report writers views. This is a significant change for us all.

 Please note: 
• A new Policy on Open Recommendations will be issued around 9th May. It will change the test we apply significantly and we are working on communications for the Teams. 
• We do need to discuss with the DPM whether he is content for Senior PPCS Managers to take decisions on lower cohort cases. xxxx will take this forward, but in the meantime, we will proceed as above.  
• We need to confirm with xxxx whether xxx is content to allow us to draft and issue our letters without xxxx approval in certain cases. xxxx is taking this forward. However, until we have xxxx agreement, please follow the process as per above. 
• A new proforma will be devised ready for the new test going live, but for now please utilise the current one. 
We will be required on a monthly basis to report to the DPM all of the recommendations we have considered in upper cohort cases, and the decisions taken. xxxx will lead on this with my input. 

Adverse Developments and Pre-Tariff Sifts 

Please note this guidance refers to Open Recommendations only. Pre-Tariff Sifts and Adverse Developments cannot be progressed without my oversight unless: 

• We are refusing a Pre-Tariff Sift. 
• Taking a decision for them to remain in closed. 

There will be changes in the future to both of these areas too, but how this will look remains to be seen at this stage. 

I hope this is clear but happy to answer any questions as they arise, and if need be, arrange a discussion. Thank you also for your patience. 


Tuesday 21 February 2023

Protecting the Public?

Well done for the BBC in bringing us this five-part series on how the Parole Board operates and their reported five year battle with the institutions involved to get agreement, but if the first episode is anything to go by, it's going to be far from reassuring. 

I'll nail my colours to the mast straight away and say that I absolutely detest 'remote' interviews and hearings of any kind and especially in dealing with people connected to such life changing situations as this. It's no way to treat people and I don't think sound assessments can be made sat in a bloody office gazing down an often poor line two-dimensionally rather than being in-person and three dimensions. Talking of which, there should be three members of a Parole Panel in cases such as this, not two. All this in the cause of spending cuts of course. 

I think I want to raise the issue of the 'Independent' as well. Probation Officers of long-standing will recall that the practice in the past was that several months prior to an Oral Hearing a prisoner was visited by an 'independent' member of the Parole Board for an in-depth interview that formed part of the dossier that went before the members of the Hearing Panel. An extremely valuable method of gaining a broader picture of an individual, but axed due to cost I assume.

We then come on to the role of probation in all this. In the case of the lifer, a uniformed Custody Offender Manager who had undertaken some offence-focused work, but other than that the classic 'keeps a clean and tidy cell'. No Community Probation Officer was present, but we are to assume the recommendation was to release, such ability having been a key professional function of a Probation Officer until recently prohibited by Dominic Raab of course. Sadly we heard nothing of the no doubt carefully-crafted Release Plan, so probation's input seemingly air-brushed out of the whole process.  

As for the probation input towards the serial fraudster and preyer-upon women, the 'Community Offender Manager' - I hate that term and have always refused to use it - astonishingly washed her hands of the guy and hence the Parole Board felt obliged to keep him in custody until his automatic release date and hence release unsupervised! Wow. 'Job done' it seems by both probation and the Parole Board 'protecting the public'? I think not!     

Monday 20 February 2023

Parole Board on TV

This from the BBC Media Centre gives us a flavour of what we're likely to see in the TV series starting tonight on BBC2 at 9pm. I wonder to what degree probation will feature? Should be interesting folks.

BBC Factual series Parole takes audiences deep into the heart of the Criminal Justice System
We hope that, from watching the series, viewers will understand more about the complexity of the decisions made by the Parole Board and the breadth of expertise that they and the other professionals bring.— Alice Mayhall, Series Producer
Filmed over a year with Parole Boards from across England & Wales, and with unique access to their members, prisoners and some of the victims/their families, this series tackles the fundamental questions underlying the British justice system, around crime, punishment, reform, rehabilitation, repentance, and morality, and ultimately puts the viewer at the centre of the debate. What would you decide?.

Every year in England and Wales, around 16,000 of the potentially most dangerous criminals are considered for parole before the end of their sentence. 4,000 of them are released onto our streets and into our communities. Charged with deciding who gets released from prison and who stays locked up are the 346 members of the Parole Board.

In an independent court like process, hearings are held in front of a panel of one, two or three members, depending on the kind of case. These panels are made up mainly of judges, police and probation, psychologists, psychiatrists and can also include independent members with no previous experience of the Criminal Justice System. Witnesses who know the prisoner including probation and prison staff give oral evidence to help the Parole Board decide if the prisoner has met the legal ‘test for release’.

No stone is left unturned in the search for clues about whether a prisoner has really changed, as they, more often than not, say they have. Dossiers, containing the prisoners’ life stories, sometimes running to a thousand pages of evidence, help the panel to make their decision. Difficult childhood upbringings, chaotic lifestyles, past offences, and rehabilitative prison courses can all be discussed and considered. As part of the hearing an impact statement from the victim or their loved one, who is often desperate for the prisoner not to be released, can be presented.

Oral hearings can go on for hours, and, in some cases, days. Different evidence can sway panels from one decision to another. But in each case, after an intense period of questioning both the prisoner and the witnesses, the Parole Board must make a crucial decision - whether it is necessary, for the protection of the public, to keep a prisoner locked up. Get it wrong, release a criminal who then reoffends, and the consequences could be fatal.

After the hearing, the Parole Board have 14 days to consider the evidence and make their decision. When panels can’t decide, they may need further evidence to help them. But with decision day, can come a life changing moment. “Release” and the prisoner will walk out the prison door, “no release” and it could be another two years before they have another parole hearing.

Waiting in the wings are those that parole can affect the most - the prisoners’ families, who desperately want them home - and the victims or their loved ones, who often want them kept in.

Q&A with Alice Mayhall, Series Producer

What can you tell us about the series?

Parole is a new series, made by Raw TV, that x. The series looks at the life changing moment that Parole Boards decide whether it is necessary for the protection of the public to keep a prisoner confined. These decisions are not taken lightly – they take months of preparation and evidence gathering before the big day of the hearing. Hearings can last a full day or sometimes extend longer. For many prisoners it’s the most important day of their sentence, a chance for freedom and a new life. But it’s also an enormously difficult day for victims, as it may mean the offender is released back into the community.

The Parole Board’s work is often controversial and some of their decisions can be unpopular especially to victims and their families. But the Parole Board operate within a set of rules set by Government and within a Criminal Justice System that offers people the chance for rehabilitation, repentance and hope.

The series follows the detailed decision-making process that determines which criminals are safe to walk free - and which will remain behind bars. What do you hope the viewers will take away from it?

There is so much misunderstanding about what the Parole Board do, for example people get them mixed up with the Probation Service, or they think that the Parole Board are responsible for most prisoners’ releases – which they aren’t. We hope that, from watching the series, viewers will understand more about the complexity of the decisions made by the Parole Board and the breadth of expertise that they and the other professionals bring. We hope that victims will be given more insight into and understanding of the decision-making process. But we also hope that viewers, through hearing the Parole Board’s members thinking, for the first time, will be able to draw their own conclusions about what they would do if they were in their shoes.

What challenges did you face in making the series?

We expected that it would be a challenge to get access to prisons, probation teams and Victim Liaison Units, because of the sensitive nature of their work, but everyone was very welcoming and supportive of the idea of the series and increasing public understanding of what they do. Our aim was always to get a 360 degree perspective of the parole hearings but this was not always easy or possible, due to the complexities of the work.

Q&A with Rob McKeon, Parole Board member and Panel Chair

What does your role as a Panel Chair entail?

As Panel Chair, I oversee the review of a case once it has been directed to an oral hearing. This includes reviewing and directing written evidence, identifying whether the witness list is sufficient, dealing with complex issues that might arise, and ensuring the case is ready to be heard. At the hearing, I am responsible for the effective management of the review and ensuring that the hearing is fair and that it follows the Parole Board rules and relevant legislation. I’ll lead the discussions with panel members and am required to produce the written draft of any decision. Sometimes, as a Panel Chair, I sit and consider cases alone as a single member panel.

Why did you decide to join the Parole Board?

The simple answer is it seemed interesting, although there was little information available publicly about the work of the Parole Board. On reflection, it is one of the best roles I have ever been fortunate to do. Whether it be chairing Parole hearings, or addressing specific problems within a case, the work is always challenging, interesting and rewarding.

You must make life changing decisions and the responsibility is huge. What do you look for when assessing individual cases?

Every case is focussed on an assessment of risk. I want to be sure that there is sufficient evidence to allow for a full, fair and accurate decision to be made. My role is often trying to find out what we don’t know about a particular case, so that every aspect of risk can be explored. Parole reviews will often go through the entire life of a prisoner, going back to their childhood – if there is something to explore, I will ask the necessary questions, even when topics may be very personal or very difficult to deal with. These are very important decisions, I don’t lose sight of the responsibility and I don’t back away from asking difficult questions.

When you’re face to face with a prisoner and find out more about their offences and circumstances, how hard is it to control your emotions and any moral judgement?

Parole Board members deal with the most serious crimes in the country, that is the nature of our work. I make decisions based on the facts of the case and cannot allow emotions to influence that decision making. It isn’t for me to pass moral judgement on any prisoner’s past actions and to do so would likely compromise the level of information that is often disclosed. Cases can be troubling, they can be difficult to read, but if I’m to do my job properly then I must (and do) stick to the evidence.

Why did you agree to take part in the documentary series?

I’m keen on the Parole Board being transparent about its work and the decisions it makes. Parole Board panels make informed decisions based on the evidence before them. I hope this documentary series is enlightening and encourages more discussion about the work of the Parole Board.

How did you find having cameras filming parole hearings?

The documentary team worked hard to make sure we didn’t notice them, in fact on the first recording I nearly left the prison still wearing the radio microphone because I’d forgotten I had it. I was always focussed on the Parole review of the prisoner being the priority and the filming came second.

Why do you think it is important that members of the public have an insight into the decision making process?

So that there can be greater understanding of and engagement with what we do. I welcome debate, but the starting point must be based on what we actually do and not what some people might think we do. I also hope it provides clarity for the victims of offences that come before the Parole Board so that they can have confidence in the decisions we make, even if it can be difficult at times to accept them.

It is complex work you do and the Parole Board is often under intense scrutiny. What do you hope people will take from watching this series?

These are some of the most serious offences, often involving serious violence or serious sexual offending. Our role is not to decide whether someone has been punished enough for the offences they committed – it is to make decisions about risk, ensuring public protection and sometimes those decisions can be unpopular. However, we come to our conclusions based on the evidence and must direct release if the legal test is met - in fact only one in four prisoners meet the strict test for release.

Q&A with Noreen Shami – Specialist member, Forensic Psychologist

What does your role as a forensic psychologist entail?

My role as a forensic psychologist involves assessing and treating people who have committed crimes (or been the victims of crime), by applying psychological theory to try and understand what led to the offending behaviour. This involves looking at a person’s full history from childhood to the present day, any significant life events and experiences such as trauma, neglect, mental health or cognitive difficulties. As well as identifying the things that trigger and maintain their behaviours, I develop treatment plans to provide targeted interventions to help prevent further reoffending.

I support the work of other parole board members by providing advice and guidance on any psychological issues or concerns which non psychologists may need assistance with. I also review any psychological assessments, reports and post intervention reports to gain an understanding of the psychological issues that are relevant to the offender and which treatment needs to focus on. I also provide guidance on whether certain traits are evident which may merit further exploration, such as possible Autism or mental illness.

What do you look for when assessing individual cases? What are the main challenges?

When assessing individual cases we have to look at whether the person meets the test for release. This involves looking at how much a person has changed since committing the offences, how much they have reduced their risk and whether they have addressed all the issues and treatment targets that were relevant to their offending. It is a challenge when professional witnesses have different opinions about what the prisoner needs to do next, as this can be the difference between someone being released and remaining in custody. On occasion, panel members have strong opposing views about whether the offender meets the test for release.

When you find out more about an individual’s circumstances, how hard is it to control your emotions and any moral judgement?

When finding out more about an individual’s circumstances, it can be difficult to control your emotions and moral judgements, but the job of a Parole Board member is to consider whether a prisoner has met the test for release. This is particularly when someone has committed a horrific, devastating and brutal offence, yet they may be well over tariff and have completed everything that was required of them and there is a consensus amongst professional witnesses that the individual has reduced their risk sufficiently.

The public often feel outrage about offenders being released even after many years; huge evidence of change; and often a great deal of time in the community. However, it is important to remember that the Parole Board’s test for release is set by parliament, and states that a prisoner is eligible to be considered for release once they have served the period set for punishment by the courts.

Why did you agree to take part in the documentary series

I agreed to take part in the documentary because I believe the public have a misperception of how the parole process works and can often have a very punitive view towards offenders. I felt it was important for people to gain an insight into this work and the challenges that are faced.

How did you find the experience of having cameras filming you? Do you think it is important members of the public have an insight into the decision making process?

I did not mind the cameras filming - however I was conscious that they were and that this is a highly controversial and emotive topic.

Sunday 19 February 2023

Another Journey

I'm always extremely grateful for contributions to this blog because I think it keeps it relevant and as someone said recently, it provides a place for testimony. This came in yesterday:-

Reading some of the comments about probation, the police and vetting I’ve thought about my own journey.

I remember my interview for probation officer training. There was me, a young black person sitting in front of an all white male middle class looking panel of professionals. To the question “tell us about a change and the process you followed”, I just went for it and explained my journey of being a school dropout, care leaver and juvenile prisoner to become a university graduate with a good work history. I think I fought not to shed a tear when I was speaking and they listened without a flinch and simply asked how I had such a story but was no different in age from many of the other graduates being interviewed.

To my surprise I got the job and during the first few days in probation I was summoned to HQ. It was all very formal and was sat in front of two older middle class looking females who had a printout on me that looked like an old MG16. I remember feeling so worried and that my dream of being a probation officer was about to end. There was a blank sheet of paper and an envelope on the desk for me to write the what, where, when, why, how. They gave me a cup of tea and left me alone for an hour with instructions to seal and leave the envelope with the person outside the door on my way out. I did what they asked, went back to the office and it was never mentioned again.

A few years later I went for a promotion elsewhere and came across one of the same women at interview. I was successful and I saw her again a few weeks later when I started the new job. She reminded me of when we first met at that HQ in my first week and told me she had thought, “good heavens, what have we taken on here”, but thought my education and work history “spoke for itself”, adding that I had proven myself and had got the promotion as my practice as a probation officer was “shit hot”. I wasn’t used to positive feedback and remember being amused to hear such a posh looking older woman use a swear word.

So you see probation used to be all about believing in people and change but we’ve lost that a bit. We had people in positions of authority that believed in giving people like me a chance and did so. I would not be writing this story without those people that gave me a chance and judged me on my merits. I’ve hardly told this story and rarely share my pre-probation background with anyone in the workplace. I’ve never used my background as a talking point either, even though I could have spent my entire career doing talks about ‘lived experience’. I always thought that while I’d be wheeled-out and applauded at conferences, I feared there will be too many colleagues negatively whispering about me. I’ve also always wanted to leave the past in the past where it belongs.

For those already whispering about people like me, we all wholeheartedly wish we hadn’t made those mistakes but cannot change the past. I remember speaking to a family friend about this shortly after I qualified as a probation officer. A really old black lady I’d known much of my life who came all the way to my house just to congratulate me for qualifying. She knew all I had been through, including some of the things I had suffered at the hands of the police which her own children and grandchildren had suffered too. She told me not to worry about my past any more or the stigma, “don’t be ashamed of your past, it was your journey to become who you are and look at you now and look at all the people you’re helping”. She was right and I’ve never forgotten those words.

I don’t think people like me are welcomed as much by probation as we were in the past. I do think my experiences overall have made me a better probation officer. That is not to say criminal convictions should be an eligibility criteria, but my reasons for wanting to be a probation officer were very simple but also very unique. I have found that probation teams do benefit from a varied mix of people and a good cross-reference of society. I don’t call it desistance or lived-experience and I do not consider myself to be an ex-offender either. I’m just a person with many experiences who wants to be defined by who I am today not what I did for a very short period in my distant past. I’ve encouraged every person of probation I’ve ever worked with to do the same.

I have always wished I didn’t need to feel so guarded about my past, but it’s what’s worked so far. CRB, DBS, Vetting is always a worrying time for me, with vetting being the worst as I’ve a few family members with not fully clean histories too, but all now upstanding professionals. I have passed vetting and know others that have passed too with similar pasts. The advice I was given and which I give to others is to tell them everything and don’t hold back. It’s still a bit hit and miss, I think luck plays a part too. The advice I give to probation is to do a bit more to enable those that struggle with vetting to pass the process and carry on with their jobs.

Saturday 18 February 2023

'Go No Comment'

I wasn't going to publish anything today, but I've changed my mind. In recent years it's become fashionable to talk about the need to recruit new entrants with 'lived experience' which is basically code for those with an offending history. Well, the following that came in yesterday should therefore be of interest and concern to us all:- 

I find it ironic that the police are still charged with vetting. Given that their own processes have failed to stop rapists, domestic abusers, thugs and voyeurs joining various forces….

Looking around now it’s hard to see anything of value in the CJS. Prison numbers remain far too high, racism is endemic, politicians make appalling decisions and rehabilitation feels like a thing from the distant past. Voluntary groups are underfunded, accommodation is dreadful, benefits are pernicious and even now people are released from prison homeless. It doesn’t really take a great leap to see why people continue to offend. Alongside this the cost of living keeps rising and the rich simply peel off more and more. The Labour Party is equally clueless. As I cast my gaze around I often ponder what life would have been like if I had been born in the 1990s rather than the1960s. 

Given my background I doubt I would have been able to achieve anything really. When I was younger I shoplifted, stole Ford cars (easy locks), got into trouble with an air rifle (accident) left school with 2 CSEs, worked in a factory, got sacked and then started my education. It was all free. Margaret Thatcher was the Prime Minister. I had all my university fees paid, got a PO job and well that’s it really. The fact is it would be impossible to take that path now without amassing some serious debts. 

On my course we learned about Marxism, power and social control. Probation has always been about social control so stop kidding yourselves. It’s just more overt these days. I grew up with criminals, I saw houses raided, police sticking the boot into neighbours and appreciated early on how the state flexes its muscles when needed. Probation these days is an extension of that power. It monitors thoughts, ideas, politics and passes information about political extremism and even identifies asylum seekers for the Home Office. I mean really….how low can you get. I wouldn’t have seen probation as a worthy career. It’s no better than the police and prison service.

And that’s a real problem. Why would anyone tell you anything? If I was unfortunate enough to have to see an officer I would never tell the truth. Contrast that with my experience when I first started. What surprised me was I was how willing people were to tell me all sorts of things that were really very private and personal. It took me ages to cotton on that they actually trusted the probation service in ways that they didn’t trust the police or the prison service. 

I still have friends who remain well known to the police and from time to time finish up in front of a harassed officer for a report. My advice these days is lie, don’t trust them and tell them nothing. Smiley pigs are still pigs. All the trust has gone, and that will never return. So to conclude, what would I have done if I had been born later? Education is expensive, even if you finish up paying for it, the probation is service is what these days? Smiley pigs, and an embarrassment to its history. No thanks I would rather have developed my car skills [and] fucked off with an ACOs posh car.

Thursday 16 February 2023

A Reprise

First composed and published as Guest Blog 26 some 8 years ago and by someone who reckoned they had 10-20 years until retirement, I think it's worth having another look at in detail. It covers a lot of ground, is a good summary and encompasses many of the key issues that are still with us today. Hopefully it might add something to the current dialogue regarding our future, not least because increasingly it's becoming obvious to many that:-
"Perhaps the best way to enforce, rehabilitate and protect the public is by advising, assisting and befriending."
To which I would add:- 
"Being a Probation Officer is completely incompatible with being a Civil Servant." 
Advise, Assist and Befriend

I've seen a lot of changes in probation over the years. When I started working in probation most of my colleagues tended to have 20+ year service records, while managers had been in post for like forever. The success of qualification as a Probation Officer was a real achievement, particularly when working alongside such long serving staff, some with previous careers in professions including mining, finance, teaching and the military. In those days you had to be qualified for at least two years to supervise a dangerous offender or lifer, you wouldn't be allocated a Parole Report unless you had already proved your worth in both report writing and through-care, and you needed an arms length of quality service to become a manager and a lifetime of service to become a senior manager or Chief Officer. Nowadays the new recruits can be allocated a caseload of high risk offenders on the first day and management is an escape route for those that have the least understanding of probation work. Pay increases were on an annual basis and I'm sure pay bands used to be a lot higher too.

There were always unique characters in probation offices, such as the good-natured colleague that supervised all the lifers and was always visiting prisons, the colleague that was an expert on mental health and seemed in need of the service too, the rebellious Union colleagues that management revered, you know the ones that were eventually seconded off to the local prison (the elephants graveyard for burnt out probation officers), the colleague that would bring in token presents for the most isolated clients at Xmas and allegedly on occasion would invite the most needy to dinner at Xmas and Easter (to which management turned a blind eye), the colleagues that awoke the office with Reggae tunes first thing every morning (if you were in early enough to hear), the colleague that seemed to have mastered the art of avoiding all unnecessary meetings in place of fag and coffee breaks, the colleague that was always trying to bend and reinterpret legislation and sentencing guidelines (sometimes summoned to appear before Crown Court Judges to explain their proposals), the colleague that wrote Pre Sentence Reports so lengthy that the rest of us went into hiding at gate keeping time, and the colleague whose Pre Sentence Reports were so short they could fit on two sides of A4. What united us all was the value of being probation officers and the desire to help our clients to change and improve their lives

I think I joined up when Probation had just about clawed back its status as a worthwhile profession after Michael Howard had tried to kill it off, but since qualification it's been downhill all the way. Unfortunately much of our good work seems to have been eroded and this has escalated under recent governments and the introduction of TR. Pay freezes and 1% pay rises are now an expectation, sickness and stress levels have risen even for the most experienced staff, probation management (particularly those recently retired CEO's) sold us down the river and told us to say "thank you", and we've lost a disproportionate amount of experienced staff to CRC's to be replaced by probation (PQF) trainees fresh out of university, some of which don't really seem to know what probation work actually is, or don't really care. Sad but true.

I joined probation a few years after leaving university too. I had the experience of youth work and being employed with various non-statutory rehabilitation agencies, and before that manual labour was my thing and long before that I was a delinquent and subsequently a prisoner, that's the experience I brought. On the last point (now that I have your attention), probation believed in me and in turn I've believed in every client I've supervised. I've once known a client return to probation as an employee, and I've counted amongst my probation officer friends over the years a few former football hooligans, two reformed prostitutes, numerous recovered drug addicts and alcoholics (some in relapse if the Xmas party is anything to go by) and a few convicted of the more minor indiscretions.

So I'm not at risk of being accused of glorifying offending or bringing probation into disrepute. I add that over the years my undesirable bunch of probation officer friends has also included a range of identities and top notch exemplary characters from the lowest classes to the borderline upper class, and even two 'new money' lottery winners still actually coming to work. I've also been lucky enough to work with some of the best probation managers, and thankfully my current manager is 'old skool' and and falls into this category.

What binds us together in probation is the contribution we make to society in supporting probation clients. We hold a basic set of values believing every person can change, given adequate support, motivation and opportunity, and this can shines through for many no matter whether they qualified with DipSW or DipPS. Ever since the Probation of Offenders Act 1907 provided the statutory foundation for the probation service we've been 'advising, assisting and befriending' those under our supervision. A few weeks ago when prepping for a parole hearing I came across documentation from what was then the Probation and Aftercare Service and I thought to myself, "even though it's hard to see amidst the MoJ limescale and gloss, we still are that service".

Despite all the changes, the IT failures, the TR omnishambles and the combined impact of the ideas of Michael Howard, Chris Grayling and all the other probation-haters, we will always be probation officers doing probation work. I won't pretend that probation officers are not overworked or are sometimes too preoccupied with assessing risk, MAPPA and "protecting the public". And we know when we attend hearings with barristers and psychologists that we're evidently not lettered enough to earn anything more than £27 per hour in providing our opinions. However, for whom the Courts think fit to be placed under our supervision every colleague I know takes their duty seriously in helping probation clients to improve their quality of life, which is what probation work has been about for over 100 years.

The reason for this now rambling post was to respond to the comments on this blog from probation clients, the ones that have unfortunately had a negative experience of probation. I occasionally comment here as 'Probation Officer' and I used to Tweet as 'SaveProbation', so this is an addition to my previous two-pence worth. A while back I fell out with my probation bosses over too many outspoken views and so moved on to pastures new, but I returned a while later because of my love for probation work, albeit less active in the campaign against TR (which has now been lost). The disclosure about my own background and that of some of my colleagues is to highlight that probation officers come from all walks of life as do the clients we work with.

I cringe at the implementation of too many conduct policies, vetting procedures and the now forced adherence to the Civil Service Code, which I think has become partly responsible for some of the rigid probation practices that undermine 'best practice'. This is unfortunate as our gift is that we're real people with real experiences and we use this in our work. Saying that, we do need forms of appropriate regulation and this is not an excuse for the discontent towards probation supervision, but if recruitment does not allow for variation and diversity then we may as well buy a bunch of robot probation officers like they have in the USA (probably coming to a CRC near you soon). Sometimes we don't have the time to bend over backwards for clients, we can't provide flats in Mayfair or jobs with the Bank of England, and yes sometimes we do have to refuse a release from prison or return clients to custody. We can't please all of the people all of the time.

I understand the frustrations of both supervising and of being supervised, and I have in the past come across probation officers that wrongly believed that probation clients should not be anxious or angry about having to come to probation and should even welcome their supervision. I've witnessed probation clients wrongly breached for arriving 10 minutes late and even learned of clients recalled to prison for trying to 'chat up' their probation officer or expressing a few profanities during supervision. I remember when 'supervision' wrongly began to take a back seat to CBT programmes and the activities on offer from outside organisations became increasingly more important, and when Community Service worryingly became a way to generate an income and create photo opportunities for local politicians and Police and Crime Commissioners.

What I'm saying is that we all know that there has been problems in probation for some time, made worse by TR, but I've also seen all of the good work. Some say they took away probation's social work roots and others say they turned probation into an enforcement agency, but they did not. Every probation office I enter has the same old mix of varied staff all trying to work towards the greater good. The age and experience of new entrants to probation officer training seems to be ever decreasing with the latest recruits fresh out of university, but I still don't think the ethos of probation work can ever be removed because by the time the 'nodding dogs' have escaped to management roles the rest would have already begun evolving into "poxy social work types" (as I was recently referred to).

The government is constantly banging on about reoffending rates but what's usually omitted is the fantastic news that the majority of people on probation do not reoffend. I know my own work has aided these figures and this is a summary just from today for those wanting an insight into probation work. After dropping the kids off at school I arrived at work, fighting the traffic to arrive at my usual time. I checked my emails and picked up a file and on to visit a local'ish prison. The visit was to discuss release plans for a man soon to be released after serving a very long sentence. He has no home to go to and no family to support him, but I've got him a place in a probation hostel and he's happy with that. We finished with a bit of a chat about Morgan Freeman's parole speech in the Shawshank Redemption, one of his favourite movies.

Two hours later I was back at my desk going through emails ranging from concerns about a young offender to gripes about what may be lurking in the office fridge. I tend to pick up the phone to respond to emails it's faster and I don't need to evidence everything I do with an email. As I was on my way to join colleagues for a team lunch I bumped into a client on his way in to see me unplanned. He wanted to use the phone to call the Benefits Agency so I put my coat back inside and sat with him while he made the call. He's not very articulate (and "where's my effing money" never works) so I explained the situation to the person on the other end of the line to get the ball rolling. 40 minutes later and after listening to his reflection on his recent melt down over Xmas, job done and I managed to grab a sandwich to eat at my desk.

Over the next few hours there was the usual steady stream of emails, telephone calls and clients in my direction. At the same time I was working on a Pre-Sentence Report due in Court in a few days time. The person in question is suitable for a community sentence and that's what I'm recommending. I try to keep people out of prison wherever possible, and I try to emphasise rehabilitation over punishment. My to-do list also includes a Parole Report, a recall review report, a few risk assessments and supervision plans, and I'm usually running a bit behind in updating the contact logs with details of every phone call and email and every visit from a probation client.

It had already turned dark outside and was nearing the end of the day. The last client through the door is young and headstrong so I always try to spend a bit more time with him. He's really started to do well since being released from prison and we have a chat about his future plans to keep him focused. He failed his driving test in the past week so we talked about that too and I gave him a few tips for his retest. In return he let me hear his lyrics in his latest Youtube video, which thankfully only lasted a few minutes.

The last part of my day is usually spent updating the contact logs, and then finishing outstanding prices of work. I managed to complete a recall review report ready to be countersigned and sent to the recall unit. The client in question has outstanding offences so I'm recommending that he's not released from prison just yet. His solicitor had been constantly phoning me about this decision and doesn't seem to understand legal processes so I'm no longer taking their calls until my report had been submitted.

Just as I was having a chat with colleagues and about to switch off the computer an email came through with confirmation that a prisoner due to be released will not be detained by the immigration section. I rang his parents with the good news and my working day ended on a positive note. It was a long day but a good day, as are most days in probation. There were no crisis situations, I wasn't called a "cunt", nobody turned up homeless, and there wasn't a fire drill so it was all good.

Its probably a good point to get back to the point of the article, which is to remind probation clients that we are here to help and we are darn good at it. I'm not interested in claiming to protect the public, provide a service to victims or to enforce 'proper' punishments. My job as a Probation Officer, not an Offender Manager which is an awful term, is to advise, assist, befriend, help, support, motivate and rehabilitate. Anybody can be an 'Offender Manager' (whatever that is) and in my book impersonating a Probation Officer should become a criminal offence.

The Government meddling and the introduction of TR will not change my ethos and nor will the business plans of the new owners of private probation companies. As the news of the cost cutting strategies of the new private probation companies begin to emerge it is quickly becoming apparent that they may have bitten off more than they can chew. The Offender Rehabilitation Act is built on too much controversy, TTG to be delivered by privateers and charities is already a looming failure, and only an idiot would introduce a Post Sentence Supervision strategy that is abbreviated and referred to as PSS.

Probation work cannot be properly costed because if it were we'd be getting a lot more than £27 per hour. Nor can our work be time restricted or dictated by government whims, that's if rehabilitation is to remain an achievable outcome. When probation services are in tatters, when a new Justice Secretary is in post and when all those probation Chief Officers and management types that aided and abetting the sale of probation are forced to lower their heads in shame, we will continue to say "We told you so" and we'll carry on with advising, assisting and befriending.

Probation Officer

Wednesday 15 February 2023

Criminal Justice Questions

"Coverage has already disappeared & the spotlight has moved on."

Well that's certainly what the MoJ and HMPPS hope, but we all know that's cobblers with more SFO's in the pipeline and the media continuing to watch, listen and learn more about a festering issue that's been largely hidden from public attention. Yes we have a disgraceful wall of silence, concerted attempts at news management and officially-endorsed obfuscation from the MoJ, but there are stirrings if you look for them. I notice the following was published a couple of weeks ago:-

Three questions on criminal justice

As part of a new series of blogs, Crest Advisory will be posing some of the big policy questions in the field of crime and justice. The first blog, by Crest Chief Executive Harvey Redgrave, sets out three challenges facing the criminal justice system in 2023.

The criminal justice system (CJS) in England and Wales starts 2023 in arguably the most precarious state it has faced in over thirty years. Fewer offenders are being charged and prosecuted. Victims are having to wait longer than ever to see justice served in the courts. Prisons are dangerously overcrowded and serious offenders are not being adequately supervised.

These failures are less visible than those of other public services; far fewer people have contact with the police, courts and prisons than they do with a GP, hospital or school. But they matter, for two reasons. First, if the justice system fails to offer any deterrence, offenders are likely to be emboldened to commit more crimes, putting individuals and communities at greater risk. Second, in order to function effectively, our justice system relies on the willingness of victims and witnesses to report crimes and give evidence in court, which in turn requires them to trust the system to seek justice on their behalf. Once they begin to lose that trust, the risk is that the system rapidly loses public consent and, ultimately, grinds to a halt.

As we start the new year, there are three questions in particular that deserve consideration:

Is there a need to re-think the role of probation?

A series of reports by the Chief Inspector of Probation, Justin Russell, has revealed grave, underlying problems with the probation service. Read together, the reports suggest there’s a systemic inability to accurately assess and manage risk, meaning dangerous offenders are too often left without the right level of supervision. In the cases of Joseph McCann, Damien Bendall and Jordan McSweeney, the consequences for victims were catastrophic.

The chief inspector makes clear that these failures need to be set against the backdrop of a workforce that is struggling with ‘excessive workloads’ and challenges in respect of staff sickness and unfilled vacancies. Reading between the lines though, it seems that there is a wider concern that the service lacks clarity as to its overriding purpose: caught between a traditional ‘social work’ model (which emphasises rehabilitation) and the growing panoply of public protection obligations, such as the new Serious Violence Duty (which has an emphasis more on risk management and enforcement).

The way the probation service is currently structured arguably does not enable it to meet either purpose. The policy levers which underpin rehabilitation - stable accommodation, employment, education, treatment - largely lie outside of the CJS (mostly at a local level). And when it comes to public protection, the police may well be better trained and equipped to understand and manage risk than probation officers steeped in a more ‘social work’ tradition. Is there a case for carving out and localising the rehabilitative function of probation, while handing the public protection obligations to a new or different agency?

Given the recent history of policy confusion in this area (with probation part-privatised then brought back entirely into public ownership seven years later), it is understandable why some might say that this isn’t the right time to think about further structural reform. But ploughing on with the current model appears, if anything, more risky, given the state of the service.

That is why Crest is pushing the case for a strategic review of probation. It would seek to better understand how the mission and role of the probation service have changed; which skills, knowledge and capabilities are required to fulfil its mission; and what the best organisational platform is to deliver it. If you’d like to know more, please get in touch.

Does the rising prison population mean we need to start considering radical alternatives?

It has gone largely unnoticed that the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) has now baked into its future planning scenarios that there will be a significant rise in the prison population. According to the MoJ’s latest projections, the number of prisoners in England and Wales will increase by around 17,000 to 98,500 by March 2026, which would represent the steepest rise since the mid-1990s. This appears to be largely a result of the police recruitment drive, which is expected to increase the number of suspects charged, with knock-on effects for the prison population.

Given that the current prison population (82,538) is already close to operational capacity (84,478), and that overcrowding remains a challenge in most jails, particularly in local and Category ‘C’ training prisons where the majority of inmates are held, there is likely to be significant pressure on places over the next few years.

The government has committed £315 million of capital funding towards improving the condition of the existing estate, which may free up some additional capacity. Ministers have also committed to building 20,000 new prison places by the mid-2020s. Modernisation of prisons is to be welcomed; ensuring there is sufficient capacity is very important too. But published details of what is being built and when are unclear and the MoJ’s track record in this area is not exactly stellar.

Perhaps something will turn up and the MoJ will muddle through. In November 2022, it activated ‘Operation Safeguard’, an emergency measure which will allow the Prison Service to use police cells to hold up to 400 prisoners temporarily because there aren’t enough cells in male local prisons. But such schemes are not a long-term solution. Ultimately it is difficult not to conclude that unless more radical alternatives can be found of removing people from custody altogether the system is heading for a capacity crunch.

If any MoJ officials are reading this, they are welcome to get in touch with us: Crest have published a number of reports setting out a range of pragmatic policy options for reducing the prison population, including the abolition of short custodial sentences and greater use of out-of-court disposals.

Does the new Victims Bill go far enough or is it merely window dressing?

The Victims Bill was published in draft last May, complete with explanatory notes and related documents. The bill’s purpose is “to improve the end-to-end support for victims of crime so that they get the support needed to cope and recover from the impact of crime and feel able to engage and remain engaged in the criminal justice system”.

However, the proposals have been met with scepticism. Dame Vera Baird KC, the former Victims’ Commissioner, pointed out that the vow to enshrine the principles of the Victims’ Code in primary legislation will be meaningless without corresponding responsibility and accountability mechanisms to ensure criminal justice agencies deliver against them. Similarly, the Commons Justice Committee commented in September last year that the draft bill does not appear to do any more to enshrine the rights of victims than is already provided for in existing legislation and does little to improve agencies’ compliance with the Victims’ Code. For example, under the bill, the onus is still on victims to claim rights they are often unaware of, rather than requiring the relevant agencies to deliver them.

If ministers are looking for inspiration, one country they might consider learning from is Australia, where a victim is an active and valued ‘participant’ in criminal justice proceedings. It gives victims a distinct legal status separate from that of the wider public; the delivery of their rights is an inherent requirement and core function of the system. The Australian government has also recently passed an ‘affirmative consent’ law to give victims and survivors of sexual offences stronger protections - shifting the scrutiny onto perpetrators. Of course, making the CJS in England and Wales more victim-focused would require change at a number of different levels, not just the law.

Given rising levels of victim attrition, where the withdrawal of victims from criminal proceedings has contributed to falling charge rates, it would be a surprise if the MoJ let the opportunity for serious reform pass by.

The questions in this blog are not exhaustive: they are just the start of the kind of far-reaching conversations we need to have in order to bring about improvements in the criminal justice system.

Tinkering at the edges, doing what we’ve always done, more of the same simply won’t cut it.

Harvey Redgrave
CEO Crest Advisory


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Crest Advisory is the UK’s leading criminal justice strategy and communications consultancy. Our team are experts in performance, governance, policy and communications, and have unparalleled experience in applying these skills to help organisations in the public and private sector function more effectively. We work across the policing, justice and public safety sectors, for local and central government, for police and crime commissioners, criminal justice agencies and charities. We also support statutory and non-statutory public inquiries, arms-length bodies and major independent reviews.