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.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

It's all the fault of probation officers, of course

Today's Guardian reports that the Prison Governors Association are blaming the unsustainably large number of prisoners on two things: the inexorable rise of the indeterminate sentence for public protection, and prisoners being recalled to custody for breaching their licences. You don't have to be as paranoid and hassled as I am to spot the implication: it's those bloody wishy-washy liberals in the probation offices, who've suddenly decided to get steel toecaps for their sandals and get tough.

The point about licences being breached is old hat, really, and pretty vague with it. Yes, prisoners are recalled to prison for breaching terms of their licences - and isn't that what's supposed to happen? I'm told that Inside Time, the magazine written by and for prisoners, regularly carries stories of prisoners having been recalled for being a few minutes late for their appointments. I very much doubt if this is much more than an urban myth - recalls happen when appointments have been missed completely and earlier warnings have not been heeded, or when further offences have been committed, or when there are good grounds to believe that the risk of harm to others is increasing, not just because someone arrives half an hour after their allotted time. But of course we're now being criticised for over-enthusiastically enforcing orders and licences!

I think the point about IPP sentences is a valid one, though I do object to the article's assertion that these are being passed without "proper risk assessment" - they almost always are based on risk assessments which are called pre-sentence reports... But again the blame is being placed on the wrong people. A judge is required to pass a sentence of imprisonment for public protection if the offence is on a list of "serious specified offences" and he or she considers the offender to pose a serious risk of harm to the public. If that offender has a previous conviction for a specified offence (a wider definition but also including the serious specified offences), then the judge must presume that they do pose a risk, unless it would be unreasonable to presume otherwise. I've written reports in cases where it's been very clear that the judge has carefully considered all factors before making a decision, but in reality they are extremely constrained in terms of what sentences they can or cannot pass.

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Sunday, April 01, 2007

What do we do?

As widely predicted (even by me), prison numbers hit new heights on Friday. Some will no doubt say, so what? Well, higher prison numbers means more time has to be spent on containing those who are there, rather than making efforts to rehabilitate them, provide education or training, facilitate family visits and so on. It also means a greater likelihood of prisoners harming themselves as, according to a BBC report, apparently happened in London last week.

So, what to do? Lord Falconer, keeper of the brand, shiny new office of Secretary of State for Justice (an excellent title) has been out and about talking about possible solutions, from an early release scheme for non-violent offenders (I can sense tabloid editors already writing their stories for when the first such prisoner re-offends after release). Hidden amongst all of that is a promise to make community penalties tougher - because of course the presumption is that "tougher" means "more acceptable" to those voters who can swing elections. Nowhere is there any mention of any serious attempts to make community sentences more understandable to the general public - to explain what goes on, what being "on Probation" really means, and what probation officers really do, except drink our camomile tea and scratch our toes through our sandals. And I blame the Probation Service for this, just as much as I blame other parts of the Home Office - there hasn't been a concerted effort to provide leadership in this area on a national basis, although a search through local newspaper headlines shows that there is some very good work going on at a local level.

So why is this? Probation work has a very solid values base, backed up by decades of criminological research, backed up by extremely committed front line staff. But why do we never hear anything other than the story that "Mr X walked free from court" rather than "Mr X received a community sentence"?

Yesterday's Guardian had this interesting piece tracing back the roots of increasing use of custody, and an ever-more punitive sentencing climate to the early 1990s and the killing of James Bulger. The article quotes David Blunkett as describing the individualism of the 1980s that caused a social breakdown, and the massive influx of crack cocaine in the 1990s as further key factors in this shift - what a shame he didn't seem to show that sort of insight as Home Secretary. It's a little beyond me on a Sunday night to push all of this into a coherent framework - there's probably a postgraduate thesis in there somewhere - but what seems to me is that there will not be an end to prison overcrowding until there's a greater acceptance that non-custodial measures can be - and are - effective in cutting crime. Tougher community sentences will only lead to more breaches, and yet more prisoners.

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