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.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Financial crisis

Yesterday the Guardian reported on a financial crisis in both the Prison and Probation Service, including the alarming suggestion that in the London Probation Area, probation officer grade staff delivering the domestic violence and sexual offending programmes may be redeployed as field probation officers to cover some of the huge gaps that exist in the capital.

Not a lot surprises me about the Probation Service these days, but this idea is so spectacularly short termist, and - as the manager quoted in the article quite rightly points out - liable to compromise the public's safety, that I find myself rather lost for words.

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Friday, September 15, 2006

Cher-ching!

On Wednesday the Guardian published this article by Alan Travis, the home affairs editor, about the Home Office's "privatisation prospectus" (something that I wrote about here nearly four weeks ago).

Yesterday we had the letters in response. There were four in total: one from Graham Beech of Crime Concern, who had been quoted in the original article - possibly misquoted, given the tone of his reply - and one from Dr Mike Nash of Portsmouth University (one of the biggest providers of Probation training in the country, my sources tell me). A third was from the "Chief Operations Officer" (whatever that means) of London Probation Area, Geraldine Gavin, who seems to have responded to a rather different article, since she talks about recruitment of additional staff and "an organisation-wide training programme on all aspects of offender risk assessment and management". It's a rather defensive letter, when the article itself had not been particularly critical, although I think most people in the Probation Service will understand where she's coming from, in getting the retaliations in first!

The fourth letter (the first to be printed) was always going to raise my blood pressure. Dr Neil Bentley, Director of Public Services at the CBI (an organisation that truly knows the price of everything but the value of nothing) was quick to point out that crime costs the country £60bn a year (how much of this was corporate fraud, he sadly didn't say), and that the Government's plan should be implemented swiftly because the miracle of greater competition will somehow tackle the problem of re-offending.

This case is one that simply has not been made: private sector involvement will be in those parts of Probation work that can be turned to a quick profit. This will be at the expense of staff's working conditions and terms of employment (the CBI is quick to point out the supposed benefits of the privatised prisons, where staff pay and annual leave entitlement have been eroded compared to those that remained in the public sector) and, no doubt, at the expense of the service delivered to offenders and the communities who want reduced re-offending.

Once these services are taken out of public hands, they will be subordinated to the demands of profit and shareholders, and lost to democratic accountability. Dr Bentley pays lip service to "the hurt and suffering crime causes"; how does he feel about making money out of that very suffering? He probably can't see it all too well because of the £ signs flashing in front of his eyes.

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Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Early intervention

If I were in a generous mood, I'd give the PM credit for the apparently good intentions in the recently announced idea of early intervention in hard-to-reach families (which have, inevitably, been dubbed "baby ASBOs". The aim of providing better-targeted support to tackle problems such as alcohol or drug abuse, inadequate housing and so on is a good one.

But I'm not, and this policy is clearly not about actually doing something effectively but grabbing a few cheap headlines to pull attention away from the succession problem. The idea smacks of being seen to do something in the short term, when the benefits of any intervention can only be seen 15 or 20 years further down the line, and dragging out the whole "respect agenda" a little bit further and a little bit thinner.

It will - or should - be spectacularly extensively opposed: there's ammunition in there for those who rail against the nanny state, those who oppose increased public funding, those who are against labelling and stigmatisation of the socially-disadvantaged... There is historical form for this type of thing though: I tended not to pay attention in RE lessons, but I do remember something about a King Herod who took 'early intervention' against first-born male children to avoid drastic consequences for himself...

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Friday, September 01, 2006

Enforcement

A report in yesterday's Guardian records that prison numbers in England and Wales have now reached another new record at 79,247, which is some 653 places below full capacity. The report identifies recent trends in tougher sentencing (contrary to the popular image) but also the part played in pushing up prison numbers by enforcement action taken by probation officers.

This can take two forms: anyone released part-way through their sentence can be recalled to custody for breaching the terms of their licence. This is sometimes because of the commission of other offences, often because of failing to attend appointments with their probation officer, but also sometimes because of unacceptable behaviour that suggests that they are at risk of offending or causing serious harm. This is an interesting and challenging area (particularly once the solicitors become involved) but one where the close co-operation between agencies, especially the police and social services, has really shown a benefit.

The other way in which probation enforcement drives up prison numbers is through breaching community orders. The Criminal Justice Act 2003 removed some of the discretion that courts and probation officers had in this area; prior to April 2005, when the Act came into force, breaches could be dealt with by small fines and allowing the Order to continue. This was used in cases where the offender had breached the terms of their Order but there were signs that they were still motivated to address their offending and were 'on the right path'; this was very much a judgement call by the individual probation officer, but in my experience was frequently supported by the courts. Since last April, this course of action is no longer an option: after any breach, a Community Order must either be revoked and the offender re-sentenced in another way, or the Order must be made more stringent (such as additional hours of Unpaid Work, or extra requirements).

The article quotes Juliet Lyon, the director of the Prison Reform Trust, who says that there "ought to be a more sophisticated way of ensuring compliance than just yanking them back to prison". Most probation officers would agree with this, in most cases. But the discretion has been taken away from us, as it has been from the courts, and we're now seeing the clear cost of that in intense pressure on the resources of the Prison Service.

It seems that the Home Office are now considering moves to release some low-risk prisoners 10 days early in order to free up some spaces. Presumably this will involve notifying the relevant Probation Areas well in advance so that arrangements can be made for their supervision, where required, but I'm not holding my breath (the Immigration and Nationality Directorate have no duty to inform us when they are a) detaining someone for immigration checks or b) about to let them go, so I have a sneaky suspicion that the rest of the Home Office will take the same approach and let us be the last to know). This will apparently create 500 more spaces, which is really just a drop in a very stormy ocean.

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