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.

Thursday, June 22, 2006

The debate goes on...

Thanks to Bystander for pointing me in the direction of this article, by Ian Loader, Professor of Criminology at Oxford University, posted on the 10 Downing Street website. It calls for the PM to encourage a better dialogue with the citizens of this country about crime, social disorder and human rights, and basically to stop leaping into every problem with another set of legislation.

The Times has been quick to comment on it, as as the BBC and The Guardian. It's all in advance of the PM's big speech on criminal justice in Bristol tomorrow. I'm tempted to make up some "speech bingo" cards with choice phrases such as "re-balancing the system in favour of victims" and something about reforming the Human Rights Act. But I won't, since a) it'd only depress me and b) I'm moving house over the weekend, and I've got far more important things to be worried about than the criminal justice system.

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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Must do better

I've just noticed that recently I've been commenting a lot about prisons, courts and policing - anything, in fact, other than Probation practice. Which is not really what this blog was supposed to be about! Obviously the component parts of the criminal justice cannot be seen in isolation, but equally I don't want to move away from my intended focus. I had been planning to write a bit about Custody Plus, the introduction of contestability (aka privatisation), and the other burning issues affecting my work, but recent events have rather overtaken my thinking. Not necessarily a bad thing, but I want to try to haul myself away from getting irked by tabloid nonsense on a daily basis.

Research

The Home Office Research Development and Statistics (RDS) website is a treasure trove of interesting - and occasionally useful - information about crime, justice and immigration. Unfortunately, the current settings on NPS internet browsers means we're not actually allowed to download the reports, only wonder at the mysteries within. Unless we've got our own access at home, of course (though it is vaguely sad to be looking this stuff up in my spare time).

Anyway, this 'Findings' report was published today - it's an evaluation of a pilot of the Offender Assessment System (OASys) tool now used on an everyday basis by probation and prison officers to assess the likelihood of reconviction and the level of risk of harm presented by any individual under supervision. The report gives a reasonably good introduction to some of the complexities of OASys, and whilst it's not the most riveting of reads, it's quite short and so perhaps worth a look for anyone who wants a bit of an insight into this particular area of risk assessment practice.

The findings suggest that OASys is a good predictor of reconviction, and that the criminogenic (offending-related) needs that were statistically most predictive of reconviction are drug misuse and accommodation problems. No real surprise there. Amongst the three least predictive (along with alcohol misuse and emotional well-being, which encompasses psychological and psychiatric problems), though, was the 'thinking and behaviour' category.

Now, this is very interesting, since the majority of the accredited offending behaviour programmes currently operated by the Probation and Prison Services are almost exclusively targeted at this particular area, addressing 'cognitive deficits' such as poor problem-solving or impulsivity and failure to consider consequences before acting. Much has been made of the need for 'evidence-based practice' in dealing with offenders; is this report a sign that the evidence is shaky? (This report analyses the available research into the successes or failures of a variety of interventions, but is much longer so it may be a link to skip. Don't worry, I won't get offended).

The report also suggests that one group of offenders with a below average level of criminogenic need is those who were assessed by probation officers in the community, as opposed to offenders assessed in prison. Which is basically as it should be, since higher criminogenic need (should) equal a higher frequency and severity of offending, which should in turn mean a greater use of custodial sentences. This should then mean that the onus should be on the Prison Service to address those criminogenic needs, but it doesn't work that way; the apparent desired core function of custodial sentences is to keep dangerous people off the streets (and out of hostels near schools) rather than actively trying to ameliorate their problems.

Of course, excellent work is done throughout the prison estate to help prisoners cope with their problems - I mentioned the St Giles Trust in a previous post, and establishments like HMP Coldingley are working wonders with resettlement of inmates at the moment. But with numbers rising - and this is a trend that won't soon be reversed - the capacity for such work diminishes. What is needed is a grown-up debate about what prisons and probation should be doing, and what they can reasonably be expected to achieve.

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Monday, June 19, 2006

Control

It looks like 10 Downing Street is reining in the Home Sec after his proposal to introduce a "Sarah's Law" enabling parents to be told when convicted paedophiles are living in their area. Some sensible soul has pointed out that this is a licence for lynch mobs, and therefore likely to a) drive sex offenders underground and away from close supervision (only months after the Home Office already managed to lose more than a thousand foreign prisoners, let's remember) and b) lead to hundreds of new offences being committed, from criminal damage and public order offences through to common assaults, GBH and possibly worse.

And exactly what good purpose would such a law serve? Except to boost the circulation of certain Sunday tabloids to whose websites the Enforcer refuses to link? What exactly would people do with the information obtained under Sarah's Law? Yes, it would allow people to make choices about where they should live or send their children to school - but the only people who have the financial muscle to really take action on such information are the wealthy. The outcome would be sex offenders living in ever-more socially-deprived neighbourhoods, increasing their dislocation from society and doing nothing to treat or re-integrate them into society (and this coming less than two weeks after questions are raised over the future of the Social Exclusion Unit, a government initiative that actually did make sense).

All this extra information would also serve merely to increase the fear of crime, which is often a more pernicious influence on communities than actual crime. Attacks on children by predatory sex offenders are, mercifully, extremely rare, although inevitably a great deal of media attention is attracted. Telling people where convicted paedophiles live will expose much greater numbers of people to such fears, founded or unfounded.

Trust in the criminal justice system to deliver on public safety is very low at the moment, and yes, there are some good reasons for this. But we can't put that same public safety in the hands of vigilantes.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Relief

So Custody Plus is to be shelved for the time being. By my reckoning this is the second time; it was supposed to be introduced in April this year, 12 months after most of the new provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 came into force, but was put off until November. We'd been given to understand that implementation was imminent, as there have been a series of 'Train the Trainer' events for members of staff who will then cascade information about CP down to the rest of us at local training sessions. As far as I know, these are still going on, but with no start date in sight, it's difficult to know what to make of this. Regardless, it's a decision that brings no small relief.

The Guardian's figures suggest it could have applied to 60,000 offenders who would previously have served a sentence of under 12 months. At the moment, the Probation Service only supervises those serving 12 months or more, as well as all young offenders (18-21 year olds), who automatically get three months on supervision after release, however short the actual period in custody. That's potentially an extra 60,000 cases to supervise, when there are something like 220,000 people on community sentences at the moment. The Telegraph reckons there are 60,000 offenders being supervised in London alone at the moment, and only 800 probation officers to do the job - the system simply could not cope.

But it's not just the Probation Service that would have problems with Custody Plus; although it's portrayed as a more liberal scheme, and a recognition that prison does little to rehabilitate but probably makes things worse, my suspicion is that it would (will?) actually encourage greater use of custody. The temptation for magistrates, when faced with a case on the cusp between custody and a community sentence, will be to give the offender a quick 'taste' of prison to see how they like it, in the knowledge that a longer than usual period of supervision will follow. There will then be a greater pressure on prison resources, with a much quicker turnaround of places.

We're fast approaching 80,000 people in custody, and the prison estate is already creaking. The Times reports that there are only 1,715 spaces free at the current time, and the population has been rising at 148 a week since May, leaving around three months before capacity is reached. Overcrowded prisons means staff have to spend more time on containment and less time on doing things that can reduce the risk of re-offending on release. St Giles Trust is an organisation operating in a number of jails that trains long-term prisoners to assist short-term inmates to maintain their tenancies despite their incarceration. But when prisons get full and there aren't enough staff to cover, everything gets shut down and such programmes suffer. That's the future if numbers keep rising - and the current situation is such that anything to cut those figures is not politically feasible.

The premise behind Custody Plus is not a bad one. But it can't possibly work in an ever-more punitive environment, and without properly-resourced services to deal with the implications.

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Saturday, June 17, 2006

Judgement

And now there's a whole other furore in the criminal justice system! We are no longer talking about knife crime (Polly Toynbee in The Guardian had a look at the statistics and showed that, actually, there aren't any more murders involving knives than in previous years, they're just being more widely-reported) because the press has a new punch-bag: our friends on the bench.

Most of what I would want to say on this issue has already been said elsewhere by commentators much more informed than I, so I will restrict myself to saying two things.

  1. you can't restrict the sentencing powers of judges with increasingly prescriptive guidelines, and then criticise them when those very guidelines are followed to the letter, but don't produce a result you want (or you can, if you're the Home Secretary or Prime Minister, but it just makes you look stupid and leads the former chief inspector of prisons to tell you to shut up). The problem is with the guidelines and the legislation, not those applying them. I sometimes disagree with the sentences passed in the cases I deal with (too short as well as too long, in case you're wondering, I'm not a complete woolly liberal), but I have to accept that they're applying the rules of their trade as laid down by the law.
  2. someone needs to explain what life sentences actually mean, and what tariffs are, as this all seems to have been lost in the last week or so.

Thanks to Bystander for flagging up this article from last Sunday's Observer (when The Enforcer was having some possibly-well-deserved R&R), about a day (or two weeks, in this case) in the life of a Crown Court judge.

Incidentally, it seems that the knife amnesty is collecting some interesting finds...

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Saturday, June 03, 2006

Action

The mother of Naomi Bryant, the woman killed by Anthony Rice, is reported to be suing the Home Office under human rights legislation for the failures and errors in Rice's release and supervision on parole licence. She has the support of Liberty in this, which may be an indicator that her case will get further than most. Something to be watched.

Knives

The last couple of weeks have seen a spate of reports about people being attacked with knives - I say "a spate of reports" because I'm not 100% clear whether this is a new trend in crimes being committed, or whether they're simply being reported with greater frequency.

Either way, knife crime is clearly a big political issue at the moment. The Home Sec is looking at raising the maximum penalty for possession of a bladed article from 2 to 5 years (despite voting against a Tory amendment to the Violent Crime Reduction Bill six months ago that would have done just that), but as with all sentencing reform, this is discussed in isolation from a) the impact it will have on the criminal justice system, particularly prison numbers which are expected to hit 80,000 later this year and b) the wider social context.

Esther Addley in today's Guardian makes an attempt to engage with b), and finds that knives are an every-day experience in London (no doubt in other major cities as well). Thursday's Independent carried an article along the same lines, reporting a Home Office study of gang culture which found one in eight children between the ages of 10-19 had carried a knife, and that they were doing so, and joining gangs, because they felt safer doing so.

I must admit, I hadn't previously thought about this (I'm not going to call it a sociological phenomenon, but the thought was there) before in much detail, but a large number of the offenders I work with have previous convictions for Possession of an Offensive Weapon or Possession of a Bladed Article. Now, they probably sound like terrifying offences to the average member of the public, and they do count as 'violent convictions' for the purpose of our actuarial risk assessments, but they don't usually attract particularly severe sentences: normally around the conditional discharge/fine level. It's quite rare for a full pre-sentence report to be requested on such offences, so we don't often ask in much detail about the circumstances, but when we do, the answer is usually "for self-defence". Obviously this is disingenuous; no-one carries a knife to try to disarm someone else - if you wanted to protect yourself you'd wear body armour, right? (and plenty do...). But the thinking seems to be that the knife can be produced in a threatening situation to make an aggressor back down - even though, it seems to me (in my middle class way) that this is more likely to escalate the situation. It's this attitude - and the feeling that people, particularly young people, aren't safe on the streets without taking such extreme steps to 'protect' themselves, that needs to be challenged.

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Thursday, June 01, 2006

Other side of the fence (sorry, story)

Obviously the foreign prisoner fiasco is still bubbling along nicely, alongside immigration officers who might be illegal immigrants and whose offices are being cleaned by illegal immigrants. Less has been said about those actually caught up in the wave of swoops, arrests, clampdowns, seizures or whatever you want to call them.

Yesterday the Guardian ran this lengthy article by their prisons correspondent, Eric Allison, which goes some way towards redressing the balance. I keep hearing stories of people who've been in this country since the 1970s being issued with restriction orders (requiring them to report weekly to various Home Office buildings), tales of people born in this country to foreign-born parents being issued with deportation papers, and accounts of people born abroad but to British parents being hassled. None of these cases is simple - I don't pretend to know any immigration law, but there's no automatic right of any of these people to stay, as far as I'm aware - but the whole Home Office is jittery.

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This appealed to my sense of the ridiculous: the other day I was having a conversation about Big Brother with a prisoner.