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.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Just a quick note

Although The Mirror may try to contradict me, I am not Dr John Reid.

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Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Stinks

Several of my colleagues have recently been busily writing pre-sentence reports on a group of several young men, all in their late teens or early twenties. Without wishing to give away anything that would identify any of the individuals concerned, all were originally charged with a serious offence, to which they all pleaded not guilty and were due to go to trial. However, at some point the lawyers got involved, and suddenly all but one of the defendants find themselves pleading guilty to a similar, but much less serious offence.

The last individual, who happens to be the youngest by some years, pleads guilty to the more serious crime. This may be because a) he was the principal culprit, despite being the junior member of the crew in both years and offending history, and is 'fessing up; b) the others have leaned on him to take the greater share of the blame; or c) because he's the younger, he knows (or his legal representatives) know that his sentence will be much lighter than the others would get, and so they've made a deal that will be acceptable to all. Everyone wins, right?

Well, no. The CPS might improve their conviction stats, and I'm sure it looks good for the police. The lawyers can even convince themselves that they're saving public money into the bargain. But this is not justice! One individual gets a greater sentence for what seems, from the available evidence, to have been an offence involving all of the group. He's not happy, even if he does get a third off for his guilty plea, and will be disgruntled whilst he serves whatever sentence is handed down. This will reinforce his sense of victimhood. The others get to claim that they weren't really involved, and were led astray by this callow youth. This'll assist them in minimising their behaviour; effectively their denial of responsibility has been sanctioned in a court of law. And, right at the end of the line, are some poor buggers in a probation office trying to make sense of it all, and to make some kind of assessment of risk, culpability and so forth, completely undermined by the short-circuiting of the legal process.

Advocates

This morning The Guardian reported John Reid's plans to improve public protection representation at parole board oral hearings by having special advocates present to put across the views of victims and the public. Err... what exactly do you think the Parole Board are there to do, Mr Reid?

The system is effectively an extension of the principle of being judged by your peers, members of the community - albeit highly-qualified and extremely experienced members of the community. Parole Board members aren't ivory tower magicians, set in place to pluck mystifying decisions out of thin air; their role is to consider whether it is safe to release an individual into the community based on the best information available. Besides which, the Parole Board's role in taking such decisions was removed from the great majority of cases by the Criminal Justice Act 2003; they now rule on the suitability of licence recall applications, and will continue to consider parole for life and other indeterminant sentence prisoners.

So, please do try to keep up, Home Secretary. And stop trying to get sympathetic headlines on the morning of your first appearance before the home affairs select committee.

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Friday, May 19, 2006

INDescribable

I've had cause to ring the Immigration and Nationality Directorate twice this week, to try to get some details about whether a couple of offenders were listed for deportation or not. The staff there were even more careful than normal about confirming my details and not giving out information over the phone in the same call (unlike plenty of other agencies). I suspect they've had some pretty strong warnings about not giving information to people who might just be journalists, after yesterday's arrest of illegal immigrants at their own offices. I'm not saying it's their fault; it looks, most likely, that the company that provided the individuals in question didn't check their credentials thoroughly enough. But you really couldn't make it up.

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Monday, May 15, 2006

All Talk?

The PM's Let's Talk initiative launched today, purportedly to involve the public and interested parties in reform of public services. His opening broadside, as reported in The Guardian, firmly placed him on the side of those who don't think offenders should be allowed to breach community orders with impunity, and that prisoners who pose a risk of harm to the public should not be released early. Err... that's along with more or less everyone, Tony (apart from those offenders, probably), including probation officers. We're all working towards the same ends, but if you don't give us the resources - and continue to sap our morale with constant criticism and change - it's very difficult to do the job properly.

I did wonder how quickly the contestability reforms would take to come back after the reshuffle; it now seems likely that it'll be sooner rather than later, and that it's the PM that's driving the privatisation express.

Marcel Berlins has a stab at defending the Human Rights Act against its recent detractors. For some reason there seems to be widespread ignorance that release at the halfway point of a sentence is enshrined in the Criminal Justice Act 1991, brought in by a Conservative government, let's remember, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the Human Rights Act. And since when did "human rights" become a dirty word?

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Saturday, May 13, 2006

Ministerial movements

Still haven't read the HMIP report yet - I had an absolutely frantic week (45 hours or thereabouts) and I simply don't have the motivation to read it over the weekend! I suspect it may make some pretty ugly reading though.

So far Dr John's pronouncements have been limited to terrorism - inevitably, given the publication of two reports into the 7th July bombs in London. So, as yet no word on his views on the future of the Probation Service. Given all I've been reading about his character (described in one paper as "an ex-communist bruiser", and he seems to move between ministries faster than some of my clients do between prisons), that's a bit of a relief.

We do have a new Under Secretary of State, Gerry Sutcliffe, but Charles Clarke used to jump over Fiona Mactaggart's head all the time and I don't think John Reid will be any different. There were some signs that Clarke was beginning to have a rethink about contestability, given the huge opposition to the Home Office Consultation Paper, Restructuring Probation to Reduce Re-Offending. But with one of the PM's favourite enforcers (not a claim yours truly will make) now in situ, expect rapid progress towards greater privatisation.

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Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Report

Off on a long-distance prison visit today, and what a lovely day it was to be out of the office! It's put me in a very good mood, and for this reason I will not be spending any time tonight on reading the HM Inspectorate of Probation's report into the Anthony Rice Serious Further Offence in Winchester, Hampshire. I'll save that for tomorrow (when I can be paid for reading it).

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Howards

On Monday the Howard League published a report into what it describes as the Government's failure to tackle the re-offending of young men. Almost 70% of the more than 1,000 18-20 year olds sent to custody each month will re-offend within two years; it says that "prison was found to confirm a criminal identity on the young men rather than helping them to reject offending." Short prison sentences, in contrast to the lovely Michael Howard's claim of a "short, sharp shock" do almost nothing to reduce offending. There isn't enough time during short periods in custody to tackle drug or alcohol problems, find employment or new skills, or challenge anti-social attitudes. But even a short sentence is more than enough time to break up relationships, lead to the loss of accommodation, and create an even greater sense of victimhood.

The 'criminal career' concept suggests that the frequency of offending will inevitably deteriorate as a person gets older, due to 'maturity' (which could be anything from a relationship and the birth of a child, to simply getting tired of running away from the police). This means that it's entirely unsurprising that so many young offenders are reconvicted. But it's difficult to say what exactly will make any individual reach the tipping point at which they're ready to stop offending. My own view is that it's different for everyone, which unfortunately runs somewhat counter to the Home Office's preference for standardised interventions (which, admittedly, are much less time- and other resource-intensive). Prison can work, but it's not possible to say who it will work for, and when and why.

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Friday, May 05, 2006

Hands up...

...who was surprised that Charles Clarke was sacked in today's Cabinet reshuffle? Yeah, thought not.

Though I've not had much sympathy for him lately (due, in large part, to the way he's treated the Probation Service - and not just in recent months but over the whole contestability/privatisation issue), the manner in which it happened was pretty ugly. It seems as though he did offer to resign as the whole foreign prisoners debacle broke, but he was turned down by the PM. What was the poor guy to do?

He was made, over ten long days, to look ever-more ridiculous by saying that he was going to fight on and was the man to sort out the problems his unwieldy department had got into. He had vast numbers of people calling for his head. He had the knowledge that, probably for the bulk of the next twelve months, the courts (and the papers) will be full of cases involving those of the infamous 1,023 who did re-offend, to which his name would be inextricably linked. There was simply no way he could fight his way out of that. Yet the PM refused to let him go.

Instead, Tony Blair clearly decided to wait, obviously expecting the local election results to be as bad as they were yesterday, and to hang Charles Clarke out to dry, and to soak up as much of the fall-out as he could. I realise my view of Mr Clarke has shifted a bit over the last couple of weeks, but I can't help feeling a bit sorry for him.

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Tuesday, May 02, 2006

Language barriers

I went to our friendly neighbourhood prison today for a pre-sentence report interview with - topical, this - a foreign national prisoner. Luckily for Charles Clarke, this particular individual won't be going anywhere anytime soon.

I like doing interviews through interpreters, because - while one question is translated and the response comes back in the other language - it gives me a chance to think about my next question, and hopefully I end up looking more intelligent. Unfortunately, it also cuts down the amount of time I've got available for the interview, and I do think the quality of the assessment and the report sometimes suffer as a result. That's not something I have a great deal of control over.

The best interpreters (in my opinion) give as close to a word-for-word account of what the person is saying; unfortunately there are others who instead give a summary or explain it in their own words (I'm reminded of an 'It'll Be Alright On The Night'-type clip where the interviewee's response was 30 seconds long, but that of the interpreter was simply: "Yes"). An essential part of my job is try to assess motivation, remorse, insight into offending behaviour and so on - things that aren't always easy to judge when there's someone else involved in the communication process. And some - the tri- or quadri-lingual interpreters - sometimes forget which language they're supposed to be translating back into, and so I get Italian into French or so on (and they get a blank-faced probation officer)!

People with limited English skills are often not eligible for the offending behaviour programmes we run, because of the practical problems involved in placing them within appropriate groups (though it's possible that some areas may have sufficient numbers to run groups in languages other than English). Does that mean they're less likely to get a community penalty, and more likely to go to prison? Possibly. Could that account for the rise in foreign national prisoners in recent years? Who knows?

Another view

Dr William Wonogron, one of the co-authors of CALM, writes in today's Guardian, making the same points as I did on Sunday. Except, y'know, with actually knowing what he's talking about, and all that sort of thing.

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