This occasional series (exactly how occasional remains to be seen) was inspired by a comment posted here several months ago from someone who was considering applying to become a Trainee Probation Officer
, and wanted to know what the job entailed in practice. I'll try to write a bit about all of the different aspects of the job as I see it, though please bear in mind that this is only a view from the desk of one particular probation officer. If any of my PO colleagues would like to comment and add their experiences and opinion to what I've got to offer, I'd be very pleased to hear from you.1: Court work and Pre-Sentence Reports (PSRs)
It's probably best to begin at the beginning. A defendant appears in court and pleads guilty or is found guilty of an offence, and the court requests a PSR
to assist it in passing sentence; when you read newspaper reports of trials that say the case was put off for 'reports', this is usually what is meant. The court is not obliged to ask for reports (I think - please correct me if I'm wrong here), particularly in cases where the offence is "so serious" that only a custodial sentence is justified, but they frequently do, and especially when the offence falls on the cusp between a community penalty and a custodial sentence. Somewhere near 250,000 PSRs are written each year.
The defendant is interviewed by a probation officer, who then writes a report for the next hearing. The report contains an offence analysis, which looks at the motivation behind the offending (might be money, drugs, alcohol, anger control problems and so on), the effect of the offence on the victim(s), and any pattern of offending behaviour. This last element is usually based on previous convictions, which are (or should be...) supplied to the report author by the CPS
at the court, but can also be based on police intelligence. This is quite a sensitive issue, because obviously the defendant will only be sentenced on the basis of the offence for which they have been convicted. However, and particularly in cases involving domestic violence, where there might be a long list of police 'callouts' to an address that have not resulted in arrest or charge of the offender, this can be relevant in terms of an assessment of where the offence fits into an overall picture of that person's activity.
The analysis should also contain an account of the defendant's attitude towards his or her offence, including towards the victim(s), and any expressions of remorse that they may have made during the PSR interview. This is another tricky area; unbelievably, it's not unknown for someone to fake remorse in order to try to con the PO into giving them a 'better' report... Actually, we're pretty good at spotting where this is the case, and the court itself should have an overall picture of the offence anyway, so this is not really as big a problem as it might seem.
After the offence analysis comes the 'offender analysis'. Back in the good old days, PSRs were known as Social Enquiry Reports, and contained an examination of the defendant's personal circumstances that might be relevant for the court in passing sentence. A wide range of potential information can fall into this section: family history, education, drug or alcohol abuse, mental health problems, employment... each case is different though this section should give a broad range of coverage. This is potentially tricky, because - particularly in cases where the defendant has not been involved with the Probation Service in the past - they are usually the primary source of this information. Again, we can check with the police, Social Services and other statutory agencies, as well as family members if relevant, but PSRs are done to quite strict deadlines so any information in the offender analysis must be seen as coming with a 'health warning' in terms of its sources.
Following the offender analysis is a section on risk assessment and risk management. I'll be writing a separate post on this, because it's such a major component of working in the Probation Service, but suffice it to say that this looks at the likelihood of that person harming others or themselves, and the chances of them committing further offences. This section first became a requirement
Finally, there's a section where a recommendation to the court is made. This tries to encompass any statements made by the court about the level of seriousness of the case (which they are obliged by the Criminal Justice Act 2003
to give to the Probation Service, though in practice this does appear to be rather patchy), and the view of the author on what the key issues are in reducing the risks of harm and re-offending. A suggestion is then made of what an appropriate sentence might be, which could include a community order, a suspended sentence order, or a custodial sentence (it might also even be a recommendation for a fine or a conditional discharge).
If a community penalty is recommended, the author should recommend requirements chosen from the 'menu' of 12 possible requirements contained in the CJA 2003
, the overall number of which should reflect the seriousness of the case (usually no more than three on any one order). This might include supervision by a probation officer, up to 300 hours of unpaid work, an offending behaviour programme or a curfew. The author might also recommend that the case be adjourned for further information, such as a psychiatric report or an assessment of the suitability for a Drug Rehabilitation Requirement, which would be done by a specialist drugs worker.
If a custodial sentence appears to be the only appropriate disposal, the PSR may not contain recommendations for particular work to be done in custody, but they are increasingly used by prisons as a basis for sentence planning, and courts are now able to recommend particular licence conditions for when a prisoner is released from custody.
Basically, that's what all PSRs should contain. However, there are some differences between reports written for particular courts. Crown Court PSRs, because the offences are more serious, often contain an assessment on 'dangerousness' (more on this when I talk about risk assessment), and there are fewer recommendations for community penalties. Magistrates Courts are usually offered a choice between 'standard' reports, done during an adjournment of usually three or four weeks, or 'fast delivery' reports, done in a much shorter period and sometimes even on the same day. Fast Delivery reports should really only be done in the least complex cases and where there are no suggestions that the defendant poses a risk of harm, though these guidelines are, unfortunately, not always strictly adhered to.
Labels: community order, courts, CPS, Criminal Justice Act 2003, offending behaviour programmes, police, PSRs, Trainee Probation Officers, Unpaid Work, what do probation officers do?