Advise, Assist, Befriend - life in the National Probation Service

or, 'Enforcement, Rehabilitation and Public Protection'. You know the drill: any views expressed here do not (necessarily) represent the views of the National Probation Service.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Talking Tough

Surely it cannot be a coincidence that these two stories appear in the Observer on the same day. The first describes the shrinking of the public sector to pre-welfare state days; the second describes a massive expansion of work that is currently done by the public sector. You don't need to be studying for a Level 3 Numeracy qualification to know that more work being done by fewer people is a recipe for disaster - but actually, it's fairly plain that this, for once, isn't mathematical illiteracy by the Government.

No, this is the first serious salvo in the full-scale privatisation of Probation work. The "round-the-clock surveillance by GPS systems" will be done by computer, with a few cyber-overseers in regional offices for G4S and Serco. The Probation Service, which is rapidly approaching a point at which any further staff losses will mean it ceases to exist as a functioning organism, simply cannot do work on this scale. And nor should it - the proper punishment and rehabilitation of offenders is not a numbers game, but about working with people as individuals to challenge and change their behaviour.

Napo seems to be ostentatiously trying to get itself on the wrong side of the argument here, with Harry Fletcher saying that the tougher supervision is, the more likely it is to fail. Every officer who's ever written a Pre-Sentence Report will have typed the words "setting him [or her] up to fail" when trying to persuade a bench to avoid the kitchen sink approach when making a new Community Order. And the point is true - for some people, simply making it on time to an appointment each week is a significant achievement, and one that is not going to be assisted by an electronic anklet.

But we shouldn't be arguing against the creation of "tough" new sentencing powers. Instead we should be pointing out that community sentences, as they are currently constituted, are tough sentences. Anyone who's ever tried to give up smoking, or lose weight, will know how difficult can be to make and sustain behaviour changes - and that's without the other (yes, self-inflicted) barriers that a criminal conviction brings along with it.

The Observer (lazily, in The Enforcer's humbe opinion) says that community sentences are "widely seen as a soft option". This just doesn't match up with what those of us at the coal face see on a daily basis, with those we supervise, and those who know them. If the Government wanted to make a real difference, it would be trumpeting the successes of community sentences, which represent huge value for money and are a force for good in this country. An expansion of tagging will clog up the courts - and then the prisons - with breaches, and get in the way of any meaningful change.

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Monday, March 05, 2012

Thursday saw a Guardian story about the governor of HMPs Lindholme, Moorlands and Hatfield locking out staff from South Yorkshire Probation Trust, because of that organisation's alliance with G4S to bid for the contract to run those prisons. The most common reaction of my colleagues has been laughter at the thought that we sandal-wearers could ever be capable of industrial espionage, which I think misses the point that we seem to be reaching the logical conclusion of neo-liberal economics: the public sector is beginning to eat itself.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Yesterday's Independent carried a front page article about a "surprise surge" in the England and Wales prison population, which now stands at 87,668, having risen by more than 1,000 over three weeks. If this was genuinely a surprise for the Ministry of Justice then, well, The Enforcer can do little more than a rolling of eyes and a throwing of hands in the air. Surely someone could have been monitoring, in some small way, the cases of those involved with last August's riots with their glacial progress through our Crown Courts? Even the most straightforward indictable-only cases take months to wend their way through the system, and that's not even thinking about those either way charges that the magistrates will have deemed too serious for them to deal with.

Having said that, our prison system is so unwieldy that there is no realistic way of responding to large fluctuations in demand, other than using police and court cells as a short term option. The alternative is rushing unsuitable people into the Category D estate without a careful risk assessment, which puts those open prisons (which, by their nature, have lower levels of staffing and supervision) under more pressure - this reduces their effectiveness at both monitoring and resettling prisoners (as we saw at HMP Ford over Christmas 2010) and hence the public more at risk.

As a hand-wringing big state liberal (note the small 'L', please), The Enforcer's answer is more government spending. But not just on the criminal justice system - in fact, spending more money here is effectively an acknowledgement of failure, much as I hate to say it. No, we need money targeted where it can do the most good - I'm talking about funding Sure Start centres properly (NB, Dave and George - that doesn't mean just saying you support Sure Start but failing to require councils to fund it by not ringfencing the cash), about proper support for drug and alcohol rehabilitation, and about supporting the small and medium-sized businesses that will create the jobs that will keep the majority of those who end up committing offences out of trouble.

At the moment the salami-slicing of budgets means that departments look to find their own savings without thinking (or, let's be honest, without caring) about how this is going to cost someone else more money. The short-termist attitude and allergic reaction to any type of public sector spending currently seen across Westminster and Whitehall is only leading us into a game of who can blame the last lot quickest.

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Sunday, January 08, 2012

If the economy begins to pick up in 2012, I like to think that my colleagues and I will have played a small part in this. Not necessarily through the economic benefits of reducing the number of victims or from assisting ex-offenders to find work, however.

No, The Enforcer fully expects to see a noticeable uptick in the sales of new television sets, thanks to the damage wrought by hundreds, if not thousands, of cups of tea (herbal, natch) flung at the screens during the broadcast of Public Enemies last week.

This was trailed earlier this week as having sought technical advice from Harry Fletcher, assistant General Secretary of Napo - well, if this was the case, I shudder to think what crazy stereotypes the producers had in the original script! I enjoyed the bits involving Eddie, the lifer, but the PO character, played by Anna Friel, was completely unrecognisable from anyone I've ever worked with. Having said that, an accurate depiction of offender management in 2012 would probably not make for very interesting television.

The public profile of probation officers is never particularly high, except when things go badly wrong. Dramas like this have an obligation to get it right, and this one failed, in the name of entertainment.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

It's all the fault of probation officers, of course

Today's Guardian reports that the Prison Governors Association are blaming the unsustainably large number of prisoners on two things: the inexorable rise of the indeterminate sentence for public protection, and prisoners being recalled to custody for breaching their licences. You don't have to be as paranoid and hassled as I am to spot the implication: it's those bloody wishy-washy liberals in the probation offices, who've suddenly decided to get steel toecaps for their sandals and get tough.

The point about licences being breached is old hat, really, and pretty vague with it. Yes, prisoners are recalled to prison for breaching terms of their licences - and isn't that what's supposed to happen? I'm told that Inside Time, the magazine written by and for prisoners, regularly carries stories of prisoners having been recalled for being a few minutes late for their appointments. I very much doubt if this is much more than an urban myth - recalls happen when appointments have been missed completely and earlier warnings have not been heeded, or when further offences have been committed, or when there are good grounds to believe that the risk of harm to others is increasing, not just because someone arrives half an hour after their allotted time. But of course we're now being criticised for over-enthusiastically enforcing orders and licences!

I think the point about IPP sentences is a valid one, though I do object to the article's assertion that these are being passed without "proper risk assessment" - they almost always are based on risk assessments which are called pre-sentence reports... But again the blame is being placed on the wrong people. A judge is required to pass a sentence of imprisonment for public protection if the offence is on a list of "serious specified offences" and he or she considers the offender to pose a serious risk of harm to the public. If that offender has a previous conviction for a specified offence (a wider definition but also including the serious specified offences), then the judge must presume that they do pose a risk, unless it would be unreasonable to presume otherwise. I've written reports in cases where it's been very clear that the judge has carefully considered all factors before making a decision, but in reality they are extremely constrained in terms of what sentences they can or cannot pass.

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Sunday, April 01, 2007

What do we do?

As widely predicted (even by me), prison numbers hit new heights on Friday. Some will no doubt say, so what? Well, higher prison numbers means more time has to be spent on containing those who are there, rather than making efforts to rehabilitate them, provide education or training, facilitate family visits and so on. It also means a greater likelihood of prisoners harming themselves as, according to a BBC report, apparently happened in London last week.

So, what to do? Lord Falconer, keeper of the brand, shiny new office of Secretary of State for Justice (an excellent title) has been out and about talking about possible solutions, from an early release scheme for non-violent offenders (I can sense tabloid editors already writing their stories for when the first such prisoner re-offends after release). Hidden amongst all of that is a promise to make community penalties tougher - because of course the presumption is that "tougher" means "more acceptable" to those voters who can swing elections. Nowhere is there any mention of any serious attempts to make community sentences more understandable to the general public - to explain what goes on, what being "on Probation" really means, and what probation officers really do, except drink our camomile tea and scratch our toes through our sandals. And I blame the Probation Service for this, just as much as I blame other parts of the Home Office - there hasn't been a concerted effort to provide leadership in this area on a national basis, although a search through local newspaper headlines shows that there is some very good work going on at a local level.

So why is this? Probation work has a very solid values base, backed up by decades of criminological research, backed up by extremely committed front line staff. But why do we never hear anything other than the story that "Mr X walked free from court" rather than "Mr X received a community sentence"?

Yesterday's Guardian had this interesting piece tracing back the roots of increasing use of custody, and an ever-more punitive sentencing climate to the early 1990s and the killing of James Bulger. The article quotes David Blunkett as describing the individualism of the 1980s that caused a social breakdown, and the massive influx of crack cocaine in the 1990s as further key factors in this shift - what a shame he didn't seem to show that sort of insight as Home Secretary. It's a little beyond me on a Sunday night to push all of this into a coherent framework - there's probably a postgraduate thesis in there somewhere - but what seems to me is that there will not be an end to prison overcrowding until there's a greater acceptance that non-custodial measures can be - and are - effective in cutting crime. Tougher community sentences will only lead to more breaches, and yet more prisoners.

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Friday, March 30, 2007


Confirmation came yesterday that, as widely trailed over the last few months, the Home Office will shortly shed some of its responsibilities to the Department of Constitutional Affairs, which will become a Ministry of Justice. Probation, prisons and courts will be the principal elements to shift, though responsibility for policing, counter-terrorism and immigration will remain. However, there will still be a National Criminal Justice Board which will be jointly chaired by the Home Secretary, Lord Chancellor and Attorney General, which in effect means that the Home Office will still be keeping its fingers in the criminal justice pie. The Home Office's statement notes that some of these changes, including the creation of the Ministry of Justice, will take place in May this year.

The announcement attracted quite a bit of criticism, particularly as it was felt this was rushed out before the Easter recess, thus preventing a proper chance for debate. The main attacks have focused on the expense and effort involved in yet another change within the Home Office (the cost of establishing NOMS, which still as yet is not entirely functional and may still be contingent on the safe passage of the Offender Management Bill, is said to have been as much as the budget for the whole of the National Probation Service), and further fragmentation in a ministry that has been heavily criticised for poor internal communication. The former Home Sec Charles Clarke was particularly scathing, and I would think he could be forgiven for being a bit miffed about this, given that it seems that John Reid has surfed over just as many crises as Clarke did, but managed to dodge the flak.

Today's Guardian leader is very critical, speculating that the announcement is more about the political impact of being seen to be doing something (probably ahead of the local elections in May). The Times asks questions about how sections within the two departments will now be able to work with each other (particularly the police, who will remain under the Home Office), and Peter Riddell comments that Reid had to play the "terrorism card" in order to get his way.

In other news this week: a few days ago we saw the publication of the government's Security, Crime and Justice Review: I'll admit to not having read it in great detail, as I've been far too busy, but the impression I got was that it was high on headline-grabbing 'ideas' such as fingerprint-activated MP3 players to cut crime (a side effect of which would probably be an expansion of the fingerprint databases...) and low on anything really new (it mentioned continuing the Permanent Revolution in privatising criminal justice services - I may be paraphrasing). And later on today we'll hear what the new record number of prison places is.

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