Select Committee on Home Affairs Third Report


Supplementary notes by the Association of Chief Officers of Probation


It is proposed in the following to answer the questions raised whilst giving evidence and also to deal with some additional points.


  The Committee questioned the use of the term "client" within the probation service, referring to people under supervision. This term is used routinely by those in the legal profession and in social services, but its use is not encouraged in the probation service and never used by ACOP.

  Managers in the service have encouraged probation staff to be as precise as possible by using terms such as, "offender on probation", "offender under supervision", "released prisoner", or "offender on community service". Although the term "client" may not be extinct in the probation service, it is on the way out.

  On the day of ACOP's evidence to the Committee, Mr Mullin suggested that he had heard a probation officer using the term "client" on Radio 4's Today programme. We have investigated and established that the only law and order item carried on that day's Today programme did not involve probation. However, a Manchester psychiatrist, Dr Anne Jasper, was interviewed, talking about violence and girls, and she did use terms like "helping-agencies". It is our experience that others appearing on the broadcast media are often mistaken for probation officers.


  As Mr Hicks indicated in his evidence in a response to a question from Mr Hogg, there does not appear to be any substantive research into why the majority of people who appear before the courts do not return a second time. In the view of Dr Colin Roberts, a number of deterrent factors will operate in such cases, such as the fact of being caught in the first instance, the contact with the police, and the impact of the court appearance itself. Similar factors may well account for the fact that first time cautions have as good a success rate as first time court appearances.


  Mr Linton requested information on the actual figures being supervised by the probation service at any one time. The figures taken from the Probation Statistics 1996 indicate that at the end of December 1996 the number of persons supervised were as follows:
Probation order53,700
Community Service order 32,600
Combination order20,600
Children and Young Persons Act 1969 2,600
Money payment supervision orders 8,100
Young offenders post release 4,000
Adult statutory post release 7,700
Discretionary Conditional Release 1,200
Life licensees700
Pre release supervision—statutory 41,500
Pre release supervision—voluntary 3,600


  A question was raised by the chairman as to the availability of secure training centres for very young offenders. At present the only contract which has been let is for a centre for 12-14 year olds in Kent. This is going to be run by Group 4. It is ACOP's understanding that the remaining five contracts are not being actively pursued at this stage. ACOP considers that the money would be better used to develop the facilities that local authorities already have, thereby ensuring that young people are dealt with closer to their home, within a framework which offers control yet retains a level of care and education and operates policies which are consistent with the age of the offender, including, for example, child protection and anti bullying.


  Attached is a list of mediation schemes operating up and down the country[67]. This shows that there are at least 46 schemes operating in all parts of England and Wales. The establishment of victim offender mediation schemes is far more common than the Committee may have thought: we are delighted that the espousal of such schemes by the Thames Valley Police has at last attracted positive media attention! The results of such schemes are highly encouraging: recent evaluation of a scheme in Leeds has shown that 5 per cent fewer were reconvicted following mediation than was predicted. Of those reconvicted 54 per cent committed offences of a less serious type. Of 28 victim feedback questionnaires returned, 26 indicated that they were very satisfied or satisfied with the service and 21 were satisfied or very satisfied with the outcome. This is just one example of the many schemes which exist and to which visits can be arranged.


  In response to questions from Mr Allan, Mr Winnick, Mr Hogg and Mr Malin, more information is supplied on this area as requested. In a study undertaken by Roger Hood for the Commission for Racial Equality of sentencing in the Crown Court of Afro-Caribbean defendants, he found that ethnic minority offenders accounted for 28 per cent of all the men sentenced in the West Midlands Crown Courts in 1989. This was more than twice their proportion in the population at large (12.5 per cent). Afro-Caribbeans were 8.2 per cent higher than the proportion of whites sent into custody (56.6 per cent v 48.4 per cent). (Any differences related to previous convictions, nature of offence, etc. were controlled within the statistical analysis.) He also showed that black and Asian offenders were more likely to appear in court already in custody, to plead not guilty and to be without benefit of a social enquiry report (now pre sentence report). All three factors were associated with a greater probability of a custodial sentence and a longer sentence.

  The Probation Statistics 1996 provide a range of information on ethnic origin including the commencement of community orders by ethnic group and the percentage by probation area compared with census information. This shows for example that 10.2 per cent of offenders who commenced community service were from an ethnic minority group compared to 6.8 per cent of the resident population being from an ethnic minority group.

  In terms of staff, 8.4 per cent of all probation service staff come from ethnic minorities as do 12.8 per cent of volunteers. This compares to 6.1 per cent of the general population of working age, taken from the 1991 census figures.


  The probation service like many organisations has often been guilty of reinventing the wheel, however in 1996 HM Chief Inspector of Probation established jointly with ACOP a "What Works" project to provide best practice guidance to probation areas with regard to the effective types of programming appropriate for supervising offenders in the community. This report was published in January 1998 and was launched at a three day event in February attended by senior managers from the probation services across the country. This will be supplemented by an effective practice guide aimed at middle managers and practitioners. ACOP has worked very closely with the inspectorate and the Home Office Probation Unit on this particular project and will continue to do so. ACOP is also using a probation network of research and information staff to further disseminate good practice. ACOP contributes to the funding of the Probation Studies Unit at Oxford University because we are committed to developing the research base of the service, which has not been fully developed in the past. ACOP also fully supports, both on a regional and national basis, events which are designed to share good practice and has a member of staff on secondment, specifically dedicated to the development of effective practice.


  The main criticisms and ideas on the probation service put forward by Mr Coad fall into four categories:

    —  the overselling of probation based on false or misleading statistics;

    —  influencing sentencing patterns to suppress the use of prison against the interests of the public;

    —  allowing criminals to continue offending whilst under probation supervision; and

    —  the idea that probation services' energies should be restricted to offenders who are motivated to change.

  The comments ACOP would wish to make on these points are as follows:

Overselling of community sentences, based on false or misleading reconviction data and success rates

  All information used by the Association of Chief Officers of Probation (ACOP) is either drawn from Home Office statistics, from reputable research staff within local probation services or from academics studying the work of probation services. Naturally we have always sought to draw attention to our "good news" but the suggestion of deception cannot be sustained by anyone who has studied the published figures.

  The Committee will be aware of the inadequacies of generalised reconviction rates and will know that they are disappointingly high for all types of sentences, except those used on low level or occasional offenders (cautions and fines). ACOP has never resisted this point but has encouraged the study and dissemination of the programmes that show signs of success in reducing crime.

  ACOP does not subscribe to the idea that community sentences are somehow in competition with custody. Alongside our colleagues in the prison service, we believe that probation and prison services are partners in providing sentences for use by the courts. Our joint aim is to make these sentences effective and appropriate, and to protect the public in the short- and long-term. In criminal justice practice there is no ideological turf war between the use of prison and the use of probation-run sentences. The notion of an "anti-custody" stance within the probation service is outdated. It was fostered by some during the "prison works" policy phase of the previous Government.

  ACOP acknowledges and supports the use of custody as a means of punishment and public protection. However very few go as far as Mr Coad in seeing prison as the panacea to this country's complex problems of law and order: and fewer still see it as an affordable panacea.

The probation service is responsible for exerting undue influence over sentencers, either by anti-prison propaganda or through pre-sentence reports

  This is very far from the truth. Judges and magistrates are neither slaves to PSRs nor are they the type of people who would unquestioningly follow imaginary probation propoganda. Mr Coad's view that they are somehow under the spell of the probation service is a slur on their integrity.

  In writing pre-sentence reports Home Office National Standards require probation officers to propose community disposals where they consider it appropriate. Their assessments must also include assessing risk to the public of further offending and the impact of the crime upon the victim. According to Home Office research (Home Office Research and Statistics Directorate research study No 48), based on a 1995 survey, only 7 per cent of magistrates' "found PSRs (were) seldom or not at all useful". Following intensive work by ACOP, HM Inspectors and the Magistrates' Association, ACOP believes that this figure has probably dropped still further.

  Probation practice and operations are monitored by its Inspectorate and regulated and directed by the Home Office and Government Ministers. The suggestion that the probation service is involved in some type of a conspiracy is firmly rejected.

Community sentences allow offenders to continue offending whilst under supervision

  While under supervision in the community some offenders can and do re-offend. This does not mean that the probation service tolerates or condones offending. Community sentences are passed when a sentencer considers they fit the crime and that reoffending can be curtailed or suppressed to a greater degree, or for a longer period, than a prison sentence can achieve. Mr Coad fails to understand the task required of sentencers in taking a range of different factors into account when choosing a sentence.

  Strict procedures exist for enforcing the requirements of probation-run orders. Breach procedures have been significantly tightened in recent years and any offender not complying with their order is dealt with according to Home Office national standards. Depending on the type of order they are on between one in five and one in three offenders who breach their order will face immediate custody.

  It is universally agreed that prison can have a damaging effect on some people, confirming or deepening their criminal behaviour. This particularly applies to young people; a point amplified by several recent reports by Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons. Magistrates and judges take this into account when passing sentence and seek to strike a balance. Again, Mr Coad fails to understand this and appears to believe that the experience of prison has no potential to worsen, rather than improve, future behaviour.

  ACOP is actively involved in relieving the plight of victims of crime. The service undertakes direct work with the victims, or relatives of victims, of serious violent and sexual crimes. These are aspects of probation work that have been introduced within the past five years which may account for Mr Coad's inaccurate analysis of our position. All of the criminal work of the probation service is aimed at reducing offending for the benefit of actual and potential victims.

Probation supervision should be restricted to offenders who are motivated to change

  This is a sentimental plea for the probation service to return to its roots when it operated more as a social welfare service. Nowadays the probation service is a professional and sophisticated discipline that has developed well-recognised expertise in working with difficult offenders and assessing the risk they pose.

  Techniques used by supervising probation officers, and as part of groupwork programmes, are very often "motivational". These can turn an offender from somebody who does not want to change, or denies the need to change, into somebody motivated to stop offending. This often applies to persistent offenders, for instance drug using offenders responsible for hundreds of acquisitive crimes, or young men with a compulsive habit to take cars. This contributes significantly to making the public safer; for instance in the cases of intransigent violent and sexual offenders. Abandoning this would be illogical and irresponsible; decreasing, rather than increasing, public safety.

March 1998

67   Not printed. Back

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