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If January is anything to go by 2020 is going to be a significant year for Probation. Following on from a rocky couple of years which saw the collapse of one of the CRCs and the announcement that the CRC contracts would be ended early and that Offender Management would be integrated into the NPS ahead of new contracts being let we have started the year with a damning HMIP report linking staff shortages and dire premises with a lack of quality in Probation practise and lowering morale. Added to these significant issues a series of high profile and very tragic cases have illustrated in a very real and distressing way the ultimate consequences of failings in the system. It was therefore inevitable that we would see some response from the new Government setting out a response to all of these issues.
I must start with the positives. We naturally welcome the steps taken to integrate Offender Management in Wales into HMPPS and although there are understandable issues relating to the rushed nature of the transfer this is a real indicator that the new Government intends to follow through on the commitment made last year to do the same in England which is an important step towards Napo’s stated aim of full reintegration of Probation Services (including interventions and unpaid work which HMPPS currently intend to re-let contracts for against all of our representations and campaigning).
Next we have two announcements made this week on justice policy. First the suggestion from the Home Secretary that those convicted for terror related offences will face tougher sentences and closer supervision including polygraph testing. Alongside this is the promise of additional Probation staff trained to manage terror related cases. Members will have a mixture of views and feelings about polygraph testing, one the one hand recognising it as simply another tool to gather intelligence in managing a case but on the other hand a punitive measure based on theories that some view to be flawed that damages rather than assists the working relationship between Probation staff and their clients. Most will welcome additional staff and training for those working with clients convicted for terror related offending and this is to be welcomed but there is a serious question to ask about the resource required. There is a staffing crisis across Probation and the HMIP report cites over 600 vacancies in NPS for Probation Officers. Members report little access to genuine opportunities for continuing professional development that offers more than the standard mandatory learning. These genuine development opportunities take time and resource which are in desperately short supply at the moment.
In addition we must always question the context of the changes in direction we are asked to adopt. People who commit terror related offences often feel marginalised and excluded and with the recent revelation that many organisations are now considered to be extremist (such as Greenpeace, Unite Against Facism and others) many trade union members will be wondering where the line really is. In order to properly assess and monitor risk and to work in a positive way you need to develop a useful working relationship with your client. Being seen as perpetuating a system which further ostracises and marginalises your client can have the opposite effect to the one you are working for.
Introducing polygraph testing may seem “tough” or “positive action” but in reality the solution to the problem is far more complex. What we all know is needed is greater investment in staffing and staff development with a focus on creating space for quality practice rather than headline grabbing gimmicks.
Next we have the announcement of a change to the automatic release of those serving a determinate sentence of seven years or more for an offence where the sentencing range includes life. In practise this means the most serious violent and sexual offences.
This will only apply to a relatively small number of cases. It “will change the release point for those serving standard determinate sentences of 7 years or more where the maximum sentence is life to the two-thirds point.” And importantly “In 2018, there were over 4,000 Standard Determinate Sentences imposed for sexual /violent offences which carry a maximum penalty of life. There were around 250 Extended Determinate Sentences, and 400 life sentences for such offences.”
The concern is that we may see up-tariffing of sentences for violent and sexual offences on the basis that the sentencer wants to be seen to do the right thing for the victim by giving the sentence that will fit into this category. So instead of maybe 70 to 80 months they will make sure they give 84 months or more to hit this rule change.
Can prisons cope with the additional demand for space? There are serious overcrowding issues already but more longer sentences and those prisoners staying in prison longer will have a huge impact. Apart from the physical space there simply aren’t the prison staff to manage this safely. There’s also the intention expressed in the sentence “The Government will change the release point to two-thirds for certain serious offenders which will allow for a greater period of rehabilitation in prison as they prepare to resettle into the community.” Prison is a place to prepare for rehabilitation and in a small number of cases genuine rehabilitation is achieved but cuts to budgets and staffing mean little proper rehabilitative activity for most prisoners. Rehabilitation is about more than just getting some basic qualifications and preparing for employment, complex underlying issues such as mental health, substance misuse and ingrained attitudes and beliefs need to be addressed as well. Overcrowded prisons without enough staff where people are locked up in a cell for most of the day with little intervention and lack of access to family and other supportive networks destroy any motivation to change.
Then we get to Probation who have to manage the sentence while in prison and make the plans for release. Our staffing crisis and the move to OMiC has caused serious pressure in terms of managing the case in custody so this would only make it worse, putting more pressure on staff working in prison to conjure up rehabilitative activity where it just doesn’t exist. Then the ominous promise “Instead they will be made to spend two-thirds of their sentence in prison, before being subject to strict licence conditions upon release.” This suggests more pressure to impose restrictive licence conditions on release which we all know means more work for Probation who monitor and manage those conditions. HMIP have already evidenced that Probation staff don’t have the time to properly supervise clients due to excessive workloads caused by staff shortages.
These initiatives, added to others recently announced such as 20,000 extra Police Officers and 10,000 extra prison spaces suggest a focus on justice that is leaning towards the punitive and can only increase workloads for Probation staff. Napo will be raising the issues in our engagement with NPS and HMPPS senior leaders and the Minister, to ensure that our voice is heard.