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, March 30, 2007

Division

Confirmation came yesterday that, as widely trailed over the last few months, the Home Office will shortly shed some of its responsibilities to the Department of Constitutional Affairs, which will become a Ministry of Justice. Probation, prisons and courts will be the principal elements to shift, though responsibility for policing, counter-terrorism and immigration will remain. However, there will still be a National Criminal Justice Board which will be jointly chaired by the Home Secretary, Lord Chancellor and Attorney General, which in effect means that the Home Office will still be keeping its fingers in the criminal justice pie. The Home Office's statement notes that some of these changes, including the creation of the Ministry of Justice, will take place in May this year.

The announcement attracted quite a bit of criticism, particularly as it was felt this was rushed out before the Easter recess, thus preventing a proper chance for debate. The main attacks have focused on the expense and effort involved in yet another change within the Home Office (the cost of establishing NOMS, which still as yet is not entirely functional and may still be contingent on the safe passage of the Offender Management Bill, is said to have been as much as the budget for the whole of the National Probation Service), and further fragmentation in a ministry that has been heavily criticised for poor internal communication. The former Home Sec Charles Clarke was particularly scathing, and I would think he could be forgiven for being a bit miffed about this, given that it seems that John Reid has surfed over just as many crises as Clarke did, but managed to dodge the flak.

Today's Guardian leader is very critical, speculating that the announcement is more about the political impact of being seen to be doing something (probably ahead of the local elections in May). The Times asks questions about how sections within the two departments will now be able to work with each other (particularly the police, who will remain under the Home Office), and Peter Riddell comments that Reid had to play the "terrorism card" in order to get his way.

In other news this week: a few days ago we saw the publication of the government's Security, Crime and Justice Review: I'll admit to not having read it in great detail, as I've been far too busy, but the impression I got was that it was high on headline-grabbing 'ideas' such as fingerprint-activated MP3 players to cut crime (a side effect of which would probably be an expansion of the fingerprint databases...) and low on anything really new (it mentioned continuing the Permanent Revolution in privatising criminal justice services - I may be paraphrasing). And later on today we'll hear what the new record number of prison places is.

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Politicking

Thanks to angrymammal for drawing my attention to this article in the Sunday Times - in the run-up to the Third Reading of the Offender Management Bill, the prisons minister Gerry Sutcliffe MP asked his officials to identify Chief Probation Officers who were for or against the legislation. Ostensibly this was to use those who were more in favour to act as 'champions' in persuading recalcitrant Labour backbenchers - clearly politicising civil servants - but there's also an obvious, threatening implication for the job security of those who have been more critical.

The Home Office reportedly insisted that "It is normal that the opinions of stakeholders are canvassed and assessed before a Bill is published as often they are on the front line delivering the policies" - unfortunately, whilst they did indeed consult when the White Paper was published, they chose not to listen to the 700+ respondents who criticised the proposals, compared to the 4 who were in favour. More meaningless guff from the Home Office. Still, it does at least show how frightened they were about the potential rebellion.

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Saturday, March 17, 2007

What do probation officers do? (1)

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 in 1995.

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.

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Monday, March 12, 2007

Prison experiences

Today's Guardian carries a mammoth set of articles about life in British prisons - from the guy on his first day of a 12 month sentence at HMP Wandsworth in south London, to Phil Weatley the director general and Anne Owers, the prisons inspector. Quite a read.

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Sunday, March 11, 2007

Sorry...

Apologies to anyone reading this via RSS feeds (hope I've got that right - I'm not sure how it works) for what probably looks like a whole lot of spam from me - I've been updating the labels for my archived posts and trying to get a little bit of consistency into this blog. Hopefully that's all now completed and I can just get on with writing rubbish about the criminal justice system.

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Courting trouble

The BBC quotes figures from the Magistrates Association, which record that in 2006, 8.2% of defendants did not turn up for their hearings, up to 150,000 out of the two million or more seen in court in a year.

The Magistrates Association are running a campaign called 'Cutting Costs, Jeopardising Justice' to highlight the impact that the widespread lack of resources will have on the ability of magistrates court to deliver fair and just outcomes. This is a timely reminder for me that there is a chronic lack of funding throughout the criminal justice system, and not just limited to one particular area. Problems in one part have a knock-on effect in other areas, and it's important to recognise that this will have an impact across the board in terms of our ability, as people working in this field, to do the work effectively.

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Yet more on the Offender Management Bill

Some comments from a few blogs on the Offender Management Bill:

John McDonnell, rebel Labour MP and aspiring leader of the Labour Party, has a highly critical post and mentions that Gordon Brown intervened personally by calling individual MPs into meet with him about the Bill.

Graham Broadbelt of Demos argues that the bill represents action without insight - it will create an even more complex system without any real idea about what has an impact on reducing re-offending.

Not specifically on the Bill but here Trevor Philpott, who has considerable experience of voluntary sector engagement with offenders, puts the case for greater funding for charitable organisations seeking to get involved.

Bizarrely, the Home Secretary's blog, Reid My Lips, contains no references to his triumph whatsoever. Which makes me wonder about his priorities...

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Thursday, March 08, 2007

What the Butler saw

I've been meaning to post this for a few days but have been distracted by NOMS-related stuff. Recently the Butler Trust announced its list of award winners for 2007; their names can be found here, and well done to them all.

The Butler Trust, for those who don't know, was set up more than 20 years ago in memory of 'Rab' Butler, to recognise and promote positive, creative work going on in British prisons (I can't help thinking that the Howard, Blunkett or Reid Trusts might have a different flavour). Annual Awards have been given for some time to acknowledge particularly dedicated work by prison staff, and in 2005 this was extended to probation staff.

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Wednesday, March 07, 2007

More on the Offender Management Bill

In the run-up to last Wednesday's Third Reading of the Offender Management Bill, the prisons minister Gerry Sutcliffe was on the Today programme to support the legislation. The Probation Boards Association website has a transcript (a pdf file) of the piece, with Martin Sergeant of the PBA given a chance to have his say about the Bill.

As we have now come to expect from this Government, the minister rather disingenuously painted the Bill's opponents as being against any change of any hue, completely dismissing a number of very valid concerns about the proposed reforms. If he, or his boss, actually bothered paying any attention to the criticisms that have been levelled (something like 99% of the responses received to the White Paper were critical, let's remember), they would discover that actually there isn't a great deal of opposition to new ideas and new methods of working. Probation officers do actually want to try to prevent re-offending - that's why we're in the job - and the service has a proud tradition of innovative work with offenders. However, this has been lost over the last decade or so after a series of reforms brought Probation under much greater centralised control, and subject to National Standards, targets and so on.

This is, as I'm sure I've said before, precisely the problem with the Offender Management Bill. Yes, there are a good number of non-state organisations trying to do work with offenders, particularly in prisons. In the past I've mentioned St Giles Trust, and the Inside Out Trust are another good example of positive work being done in partnership with the statutory services.

However, the Government has completely missed the point that their work has been a success not because of central control, but because of individual governors and the organisations themselves identifying a need and finding a solution to it. The Offender Management Bill removes control of commissioning services from probation boards, and places it in the grasping hands of the Home Secretary, who then devolves it to the ten Regional Offender Managers. Neither NOMS nor the ROMS can possibly have any idea of what the problems are at a local level - the ROMS' responsibilities will cover vast geographical areas, lumping them all in together - and they will simply end up driving through Service Level Agreements with big private companies like Group 4 and Securicor, and the few charitable/voluntary sector organisations that can cope at that scale. Smaller and more specialised groups, which may have been operating very successfully for some time but on a very specific and localised level, will be squeezed out because of the competition; the playing field is only level for those with the biggest teams.

If this bill was genuinely about improving the work that is done with offenders, it would devolve more power to probation officers, not reduce it by centralising control, and give us more authority - and more money, of course - to identify services for offenders as individuals, rather than threaten our jobs and sap our morale. We want to innovate, we want to work with offenders in the most effective ways that we can to protect the public and to reduce re-offending; but we're constrained by inflexible central government targets and bureaucracy.

Despite all this, and contrary to the image that is put out by ministers, we still manage to perform well against those targets, and re-offending rates are coming down. I noticed a very even-handed report in The Economist this week: I'd expected it to be in favour of the bill and in competition in service delivery, and to some extent it was; however, it also puts forward a good case for holding back from further change in order to see whether the last set of reforms worked. The current data on re-offending rates dates back to 2003, so there is no actual way to see if all the money that has apparently been "thrown at" the Probation Service since then has had any impact. At that time, the last set of changes to hit probation officers were only just bedding down, and even according to those figures there is a 13% gap between the level of reconviction for community supervision and prison. So why the need for further measures, if not for ideological reasons?

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Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Early Day Motion 833

Early Day Motion 833 was introduced to the House of Commons back in February, and reads:

“That this House congratulates the National Probation Service on its 100 year anniversary, and its contribution to local communities in rehabilitating offenders; and believes firmly that it has a vital role to play as a properly-funded public service for the long-term future.”

At the time of blogging there were 81 signatories; you can see the names here, and it's an encouraging mix of parties and political persuasions. If your MP hasn't signed it yet (and I don't think mine has, so that's one less Christmas card!) why not drop them a line?

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Monday, March 05, 2007

Offender Management Bill passes Third Reading

So the Offender Management Bill made it through its Third Reading last Wednesday night, but not without a couple of scares. The Government's majority was cut to 25, and John Reid was forced into making a number of concessions, principally that the writing of pre-sentence reports would be retained within the public sector (thus avoiding a situation where pressure might be placed upon the writers of court reports to favour one particular disposal over others for commercial reasons). A guarantee to keep offender management in the public sector for at least three years also appears to have been extracted.

Neil Gerrard MP, chair of the All Party Parliamentary Justice Unions Group and a key figure in the Labour opposition to the Bill, proposed an amendment that would have excluded a number of probation functions from the legislation entirely; 51 Labour MPs voted against the Government on this, but it was defeated, largely due to Conservative abstentions. The Home Secretary even seems to have been sufficiently worried about the result to have baited Conservative MPs about their wanting to inflict a defeat on the Government, rather than support legislation that is not all that far away from their own views about private and voluntary sector involvement in public sector work. Though of course he'd probably have done that anyway, just for kicks.

All now rests on the House of Lords to deal with this ill-thought out, unnecessary, unsubstantiated and ideologically-motivated legislation. According to NAPO's Stop The Bill page, the First Reading was last Friday and in all likelihood it will be formally debated within the next two to three weeks. It now seems unlikely that the Bill will be 'defeated' per se, as the Lords tend to accept that the Commons carries a greater weight of public legitimacy; however, there will be excellent scope for further amendments that can begin to rescue this legislative mess.

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Sunday, March 04, 2007

Women in prison

Today's Observer carries this article about the state of women's prisons in England and Wales, with a government review, due in the next week, or so expected to conclude that there are too many vulnerable and mentally-ill women in custody.

Working with women is a particular challenge for probation officers. I'm not sure of the exact figures but would guess that less than 10% of our caseloads are women (at the moment, I have 0 out of a total caseload that veers between 45-50 at any one time). However, they are usually very demanding cases with high levels of need and necessitating large amounts of time-consuming work with multiple agencies. The sense of "where do I start?" is a very common one.

What is usually clear, though, is that prison is normally the worst place to be putting female offenders, since there are very few who pose more than a minimal risk of harm - to anyone other than themselves. Homes are lost, children are taken into care, mental health problems and substance abuse are exacerbated; all these problems are compounded by sending women to prison. This isn't to say that there aren't people trying to help: in my experience, women's prisons have a very high proportion of committed staff and a considerable number of innovative ways of working (which are often absent in the male estate). However, this is often a matter of trying a number of approaches just in case one of them works, with the priority simply about making someone manageable whilst under the duty of care of the prison authorities.

Women are treated differently by the criminal justice system: they don't offend nearly as often or as seriously as men, but frequently attract harsher punishments - see this story from the Times, picked out last week by Bystander, a clear case of tackling the symptoms, rather than the disease.

A different approach is clearly needed - but no resources are forthcoming, and in a punitive climate, any efforts to 'help' are likely to be publicly scorned as soft. The Observer article makes the point that the new indefinite sentences are effectively targeting those with mental health problems whose disorders make them unpredictable, and thereby filling the gap where the Government obviously hopes its draconian Mental Health Bill will ultimately go.

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Where was I?

Erm... hello everyone. It's been rather a long time since I last posted here, hasn't it? The reasons behind this can best be explained with a list of acronyms: PSR, LSP3E, C-SOGP, NOMS, LSP1F etc etc etc - I rather drowned in work for a while and blogging just had to take a back seat.

In fact, I logged into Blogger this morning with the intention of deleting the whole shebang (there's nothing sadder than an out of date blog...), but have been swayed against it by discovering that there were a number of comments that - for some reason - I had completely failed to see! In the absence of any more concrete evidence, I'm going to blame my technological ineptitude! Anyway, consider yourselves all published now - and to those of you who were trying to make contact with me via the comments, please try again! You'll probably understand why I don't publish an email address here...

I have plenty to say on the subject of the NOMS Bill, which passed its Third Reading earlier this week, though I've drunk too much coffee this morning and I'm not sure my blood pressure would cope. Maybe later on.