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, April 30, 2006

Keep CALM

Last week The Guardian reported that the Home Secretary was considering getting rid of the anger management offending behaviour programmes (OBPs) run by the Prison and Probation Services. It referred to a Probation Circular issued after the HM Inspectorate report into the killing of John Monckton (I think this is that document - it's a pdf file and the relevant section is on page 15). This article has drawn an official response (on the Probation Service intranet so I can't link to it) that seems to suggest that the Guardian has misinterpreted the Circular; I happen to think the response also misinterprets the article, but there y'go. The fundamental point is, anyway, that "there is no intention of ending the current anger management programmes".

The issue is that the prison OBP CALM (Controlling Anger and Learning to Manage it) and its community-based equivalent ART (Agression Replacement Training) are too often being used for offenders whose crimes have been instrumentally violent - that is, where violence has been used purposefully in order to commit that offence, such as robbery. CALM and ART are only appropriate for those who commit expressively violent offences, such as common assault or even criminal damage, where they are unable to control their feelings of rage. Interestingly, I've heard that attendees frequently demonstrate very high levels of moral reasoning - but they offend because they simply cannoy cope with other people's rudeness, for example in 'road rage' incidents.

The programmes are unsuitable for non-expressively violent offenders because they are interventions to give an individual skills to control their behaviour; in an instrumentally violent person this can increase their capacity to manipulate situations to their advantage, and so it actually increases the potential harm they pose.

This isn't a new instruction in the face of the Hanson-White inquiry; the programme manuals and the training has always made an explicit disctinction between instrumental and expressive violence (although not necessarily the reasons for this). However, there is constant pressure from the Home Office and Probation management to increase the number of offenders completing these courses (because they're run in groups, they're relatively cheap ways of being seen to do something; and because there are pre- and post-group questionnaires, there are quantifiable measures of evaluating success or failure, which you simply can't get from an individual probation officer working with an individual offender, even though the practice might be equally as good, if not better). In the face of this pressure, and the targets we have to meet (which are, of course, financially-linked), little wonder that shortcuts are taken.

In the same Circular, there is a note that further research is being undertaken to see how instrumentally-violent offenders can be treated. I hope that this is a recognition of the problems posed by this particularly difficult client group, and that it stimulates an improvement in the provision of tools to staff in order to do their work effectively.

Mind you, this coming week should see the publication of an inquiry into the murder of Naomi Bryant in Winchester, Hampshire. This will probably have a lot to say about the ways in which MAPPA procedures and hostel facilities operated (or didn't), and so we'll have new things to look at for a few weeks. I'm off to find a bunker to lie down in...

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Thanks

Many thanks to Bystander for adding me to his sidebar on his estimable blog.

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Thursday, April 27, 2006

UK Criminal Justice Weblog

The other day there was some action on the much-missed UK Criminal Justice weblog - but only to direct us to this site as an alternative. Hopefully the author will be able to pick it up again in future, as it was an invaluable - and quick - source of news in the field of criminal justice (though I have doubts whether NPS web access extends as far as blogs)

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Grim

I recently finished reading Urban Grimshaw and the Shed Crew by Bernard Hare, a tale of one man's extremely unorthodox attempts at unofficial youth work. I recommend it as essential reading for anyone who doubts the scale of some of the social problems we're facing in this country.

Some days I'm glad that I only work with the over-18s...

Cough

The National Audit Office has published this report, "The Management of Staff Sickness in the National Probation Service. The headline figure is an average of 12.3 days per year per member of staff, against the target of 9 days - apparently the difference costs around £11million or about 300 full-time employees.

One third of days, costing £9.8million in total, and only one fifth have had stress awareness training; The Enforcer is part of that 80% - though is regularly asked whether he has had stress awareness training. The report does at least mention the number of organisational changes that have happened within the last five years or so, plus the increasing demands made on staff. But apparently management lack sufficient information to diagnose (clever phrasing there) the reasons for staff sickness and to take appropriate action.

The Enforcer's bet is that we will see senior management form committees to investigate the matter, and it'll all get lost in the great round of emails, notices and general noise that washes over frontline staff who are just trying to get the job done.

Oh, and Charles Clarke fights on... Lord Ramsbotham, former Chief Inspector of Prisons, has recommended that the Home Office be broken up into more manageable chunks. An idea worth looking at...

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Key messages

I was going to write a bit about the 'key messages' that have come out of yesterday's conference with middle managers, but today's story has jumped the queue. After reading some of the bullet points posted on 'EPIC', the Probation Service intranet, I'm looking forward to the full speeches...

I will not quit

"I will not quit" says Charles Clarke. Funny, that's the sort of thing that ministers usually say before a little exchange of letters with No. 10, ending with the PM thanking them for their service and wishing them well on the backbenches.

Apparently the Home Secretary "regrets" that more than a thousand foreign prisoners were released when they should have been deported after serving their sentence. I should bloody well hope so! (sorry, that's not good pro-social modelling, I must remember to tone down my language) He will asked by the Speaker of the House of Commons about why he hadn't made a statement about the issue, and perhaps there'll be more to follow tomorrow.

Basically, it seems that the Immigration and Nationality Directorate and the Prison Service couldn't keep up with the amount of work, due to the increasing number of foreign prisoners. That's entirely understandable with a government that keeps creating new offences and will take every opportunity given to be more punitive (Bystander talks about the problems that may lie ahead when 'Custody Plus' comes into force in November - I'll get round to them when I have a chance). But if you read this BBC News article, however, you'll see that Mr Clarke says he is not going to start pointing the finger and blaming people. The Enforcer couldn't possibly comment on the difference between this and his attitude towards the much-more-easily-kicked-when-it's-down Probation Service.

Dear old David Blunkett says that heads should roll, and he supports Mr Clarke in his efforts to get to the bottom of it. The Guardian and other papers report that Mr Clarke doesn't think it should be a "resigning issue". So what would be?

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Monday, April 24, 2006

Conference

Charles Clarke held a conference in London today with something like 800 senior probation officers. That's about a third of the total of the service's middle management, if my sums are correct - not a bad gathering, though of course he won't have reached everyone; when I asked one of our managers whether he was going, the response was "am I f..."

It'll be interesting to see what sort of "key messages" come out of this thing, and whether it's more than just making us more paranoid about recording every single little thing we do, just in case a file gets pulled for inspection. Maintaining up to date records and being accountable is one thing, but rabidly form-filling to cover our backs to the extent that we can't actually do the real work we're supposed to be doing is another.

I did a home visit today, and I've got another on Thursday. National Standards say we should do one in every case within the first sixteen weeks (unless they've changed it again), and they are quite valuable exercises in their own right, since you see people in their own environment, and sometimes have the delight of discussing the Probation Service with their lovely friends and families. But I wouldn't be surprised if my efforts this week constitute a majority of the visits done in my office this month. And that's because we've got too many people to see to be able to take two to three hours out of the day (I left at 10:15 and was back by 12:45).

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Sunday, April 23, 2006

More from the Observer

(please don't take the gap between posts as an indication of The Enforcer's reading speed)

In the context of a discussion about this week's revelations about the salaries of doctors (average of £94k but some earn up to a quarter of a mill) and various DJs (vast sums I can't be bothered to check) - though no mention of probation officers, I might add - Sunder Katwala, general secretary of the Fabian Society had this to say:

Britain has become one of the most unequal European societies over the last two decades. Market outcomes are affected not just by public spending and taxation, but by less tangible cultural factors. An 'inequality' culture has legitimised excessive pay at the top which is not linked to success. We need to show that more equal societies can be economically successful and better places to live, because they are less socially divided.

I have more to say about my own personal criminology - it can't quite be summed up by the phrase "It's all Thatcher's fault" - but that's a good starting point. The huge, and growing, disparities in incomes and life chances in modern Britain are responsible for a large amount of acquisitive and violent crime, and until there's a narrowing, things will get worse rather than better.

Elsewhere in the paper, Mary Riddell discusses Charles Clarke's violent offender orders (the column's headline: "Even Michael Howard would blush at these reforms", and makes a point similar to mine from the other day: "the real problem, as he must know, lies in an underfunded and over-reformed probation service, poor communication and the obligation on any Home Secretary to be bullish."

My problem is, I read these eminently sensible words from these eminently sensible people and think "why do they continue to push ahead with these ludicrous suggestions?" But then of course I don't read the Mail, the Express, the Sun, or even the Telegraph and the Times. And millions of voters do.

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Debate

Not strictly related to my work in the NPS, but today's Observer carries this email debate between columnist Henry Porter and the Rt Hon Tony Blair MP. In the main, Porter's argument focuses on anti-terror legislation but the PM's replies tend to concentrate on the anti-social behaviour powers they brought into law - possibly because he senses his argument is stronger there?

Anyway, towards the end of the final email from Mr Blair is the following paragraph, which I thought was worth quoting in full:

This new terrorism requires a separate debate. But on anti-social behaviour I agree the causes of this are very deep - to do with shifting communities, dysfunctional families, globalisation and myriad influences, not all benign, to which our young people are subject. And, at the risk of opening another front, the remedies here are quite stark too. The system intervenes once kids are off the rails. This is usually hopeless. We need intervention at an early age.

Well said, Tony, well said. Ah, if only I had more confidence in your government's desire and ability to put them into practice, I - and hundreds of thousands of others - might be convinced to vote for your party's candidates a week on Thursday. But I'm afraid that's not going to happen.

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Friday, April 21, 2006

Super-ASBOs

Yesterday Charles Clarke unveiled new plans for controlling offenders deemed dangerous after they're released from prison. Frustrated by pesky things like human rights and the rule of law that mean he can't make his Imprisonment for Public Protection and Extended Sentence for Public Protection sentences retrospective, the new Violent Offender Orders (which may end up being called something else) will be measures obtained through civil courts (not criminal courts because then those subject to them could contest them on the grounds they were being punished twice) that would prevent individuals from going to certain places, associating with certain people and so on.

All well and good, except as any fule kno (or at least, any probation officer), these provisions can already be attached to a prisoner's licence after their release from custody. So the new Orders (as explained in The Guardian and The Independent anyway) will simply duplicate existing regulations. Except they can be in force for life, and any breach can be punished with up to 5 years in prison, rather than simply being returned to custody.

So, New Labour, new offences, new levels of coercion. I don't often agree with the Tories, but their description of "super-ASBOs" is pretty close on the money. What's needed, Mr Clarke, is not these new headline-grabbing measures, but properly resourced and trained public services.

But then I would say that, wouldn't I?

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Saturday, April 15, 2006

Domestic violence

Domestic attackers escaping with a fine screams The Guardian today, in a reversal of the normal tabloid/broadsheet split over those woolly liberals/corrupt fascists who pass judgement on n'er-do-wells in Britain today.

Although, actually the article is rather interesting because it's looking at the output of specialist domestic violence courts, and not yer average every day bench. It's a small sample (5 such courts), but the key figures are thus:
  • 59% are fined or ordered to pay compensation
  • 30% are given a conditional discharge
  • 29% are given community rehabilitation orders with a requirement to attend the Integrated Domestic Abuse Programme (or similar)
  • 10% are given community punishment orders
  • 4% are sent to prison

Now, The Enforcer got an A* in his GCSE Maths, so he will point out that the figures exceed 100% - and this is because, as mandated in the Criminal Justice Act 2003, fines and compensation cut across all sentencing bands, including custody. So the number who received only a fine is rather smaller than the figures immediately suggest.

The Enforcer will point out that the figures are only for summary or 'either way' offences, and thus represent the lower end of the scale in terms of violence. Domestic violence incidents do end up in Crown Courts (two women a week are killed by their partners) and they will attract significant custodial sentences. He will also speculate that the numbers receiving Probation intervention in this sample are significantly higher than those convicted of similar offences (most likely common assaults or criminal damage) who would get CROs. He won't quote figures at you simply because he doesn't have them to hand right now. But it seems likely that above statistics are a step in the right direction.

Domestic abuse (a term that includes violence but also non-violent behaviours that are controlling in other ways, such as economically or psychologically) forms a pattern in people's lives. The article above refers to research suggesting that women are the victims of 35 incidents of violence before the police are called (or before the police decide to take action, which is another issue altogether). Sending an individual to prison for a relatively short period of time is not going to be enough to change those behaviours; a two-year Community Order with an intensive programme might be. Six months (or less, as is much more likely) behind bars would probably reinforce the perpetrator's view of themselves as a victim, given that our society does not adequately challenge men's views towards women, despite the advances of feminism. A programme that forces them to face up to their abusive behaviours, while at the same time involves multi-agency working to monitor their behaviour and the safety of the victim, could potentially do a lot more than that.

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Monday, April 10, 2006

Visits

Today the Guardian reports that the Parole Board are asking the Home Office to pay for visits to interview serious offenders. This of course comes in the wake of HM Inspectorate of Probation's inquiry into the murder of John Monckton, and the killing of Robert Symons by Yousef Bouhaddaou (in whose case, by the way, there have been no allegations of misconduct whatsoever) - mind you, in The Enforcer's humble opinion, the Home Office should be making sure that Probation Areas have enough money to pay their officers' expenses so that they can go out to do these visits.

I'm in favour of this; although it might be seen as the Parole Board going over the heads of those professionals who undertook thorough assessments of risk, and the manageability of that risk, it has a number of things to commend it. Firstly, it may start to roll back some of the dehumanising influence of prison. When decisions are taken on the basis of little more than the words contained in paper files, it's little wonder that people fail to engage with the system. Give the individual to whom justice is being done a chance to respond, account for their actions and maybe even take responsibility for them, and there's a chance of a different result.

Secondly, and I think this is probably the Parole Board's main argument, there's a chance that the interviewing panel (or individual) might pick out something of significance that others have missed. I don't know what the qualifications for becoming a member of the Parole Board are, but I bet some of them have a half-decent insight into the human character. Again, it's not that the poor grunt in the probation office might have missed something, but more that an 'outsider' who won't be involved in the supervision process might have a different view.

And thirdly, it should improve accountability. With the Monckton case in particular, the blame was very quickly shifted onto those who had assessed Damian Hanson's suitability for parole, and not those who had actually taken the decision. Not that that wasn't necessarily appropriate, but it should be remembered that probation officers aren't directly responsible for those decisions.

Speaking of avoiding blame, Erwin James noted last week that the Government's reaction to the HMIP report was to blame individual errors, whilst the Tories (in amongst a bit of tabloid "lock 'em up foreva!!" grandstanding) blamed structural problems and a lack of funding. Isn't it supposed to be the other way around?

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Monday, April 03, 2006

Welcome

I am a probation officer. In recent weeks I've begun to think long and hard about admitting that in public! We're under pressure like never before, from courts, politicians, the Home Office, the media, the public... It comes from all sides, and at times it seems unrelenting. But more than that, it seems to stem from a lack of understanding of what we actually do. Mind you, I find it nigh-on impossible to describe what I do on a day-to-day basis in a few, easily-understandable words. And on some days, even I'm not sure what I do.

I suppose my hope for this blog is that it will go some way towards illustrating that. There are a large number of excellent blogs written by police officers, and - I'm sure - also some by probation officers, though I've never stumbled across them. (Possibly my colleagues are far too busy for this sort of frippery!) The Law West of Ealing Broadway is written by a magistrate, and is thoroughly commendable.

Today I went to my local MAPPA (Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangements) meeting. The MAPPA system was established by the Criminal Justice and Court Services Act 2000, in many respects a response to Lord Laming's report into the death of Victoria Climbie. Lord Laming quite rightly pointed out that the horrific abuse could well have been prevented if all the agencies involved had shared some of the information that each held about the family involved, and taken action earlier. The meeting I attended today was chaired by the police, with five or six officers directly involved, but also had contributions from Probation, Social Services, housing, mental health and the Youth Offending Team. It was my first attendance, and it was a fairly positive experience (though I learned rather a lot about some of the dangerous people around in the borough in which I work!) Of course, the acid test is the action that is subsequently taken; I have several action points that I have to work on when I get back to the office, but input from different people with different skills and methods of working helped clarify several issues and identify useful points of contact for me.

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