Saturday, 31 January 2015

Probation’s February Revolution: Enter the Rugged Tablets

It’s a big week for penal policy. All prison sentences of two days or more imposed for offences committed from 1st February onwards will be followed by a mandatory period of supervision after release. Although this will include what a senior NOMS official described at the CLINKS AGM last week as a “rehabilitation offer”, it’s pretty much an offer you can’t refuse.   When the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) assessed the likely impact of the underpinning legal provisions, they admitted that there will be policing and court costs associated with breaches of the new supervision terms and costs of providing sanctions for those breaches. 

The MoJ hope of course is that the new Community Rehabilitation Companies that start being paid next week will prove successful in bringing down the re-offending rates for this group of offenders thereby offsetting any short term increases in imprisonment. One of the companies, MTC Novo, was also represented on the podium at CLINKS. Their Chief Operating Officer apologised for not having got back to some of the voluntary organisations who have offered to work with them in London and the Thames Valley. She was admirably frank in admitting that they are still understanding the operating environment. The pressures it seems of the mobilisation phase (since contracts were signed on 19th December) mean that some fairly basic steps have been deferred to the transition phase which lasts from now until May.

I’ve never really understood how, with the same overall budget, the new CRC’s can be expected to supervise and rehabilitate 25 per cent more offenders than the Probation Trusts they've replaced. The MoJ expected the competition process to produce a significant downward pressure on unit costs, illustrating what they hoped to achieve by reference to the benchmarking process in prisons. Chris Grayling aside, everyone recognises its impact on performance as little short of disastrous.  It’s possible that innovative use of technology could improve the efficiency of community supervision. But rugged tablets will not provide a miracle cure for the deep seated problems faced by offenders with complex needs who move in and out of prison.  

The MoJ also identified a risk that the changes to custodial sentences of less than 12 months could lead to changes in how courts use them. By this they meant presumably that courts might be more attracted to a sentence promising not only punishment via the clang of the closing prison gate but some help when it opens again.  In such circumstances one might expect the Sentencing Council to produce guidelines on how courts should reflect the increased punitive weight of short sentences in their decision-making. I’ve not seen anything yet but perhaps it is being mobilised or even in transition.

If not, the Council’s been negligent. Additional population pressures from petty offenders being recalled to custody is not what the prison service needs just now. When the Offender Rehabilitation Bill was being debated in parliament, prison numbers were projected to fall. The latest estimates, published in November, predict substantial increases.  The whole Transforming Rehabilitation agenda has neglected one of the key principles of government: expect the best, plan for the worst and prepare to be surprised.

Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Is Working to Reform the Saudi Prison System Such a Bad Thing?

I don’t normally shy away from dishing out criticism to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) but the current row about a possible training project with the Saudi Prison Service seems overblown to me.

I need to declare an interest. I make a living in part from consultancy work on criminal justice and prisons. Over the last ten years or so this has included work on a range of international projects funded directly or indirectly by the UK government.  Inevitably perhaps, most have been in countries with bad human rights records including Russia, China, Libya and Turkmenistan. The work has for the most part involved organising seminars and study visits, training and policy development. Its aim has been to spread and apply knowledge of international standards and best practice and has often included current or former prison staff from the UK as consultants and trainers.

None of the work has been for Justice Solutions International (JSI), the recently created arm of the National Offender Management Service (NOMS). Indeed JSI is probably a competitor for independent consultants like me. But I think the provision of practical expertise to prison systems around the world is much needed.  Capacity building  - for example by the training of staff on human rights, the development of  needs and risk prisoner assessment and classification systems and technical assistance with updating prison law rules and regulations – is an essential part of the framework for prison reform developed last year by Justice and Prisons.

Is this something the MoJ should be doing itself? Bringing about improvements in overseas prison systems can reduce the risk of torture and ill treatment among detainees, a good thing in itself and part of our soft diplomacy. More instrumentally, it can also make it more likely that efforts to extradite or return foreign national prisoners will succeed. 

Other countries deploy their prison expertise in similar ways. Civipol, the consulting and service company of the French Ministry of the Interior has been active in assisting the penitentiary system in Algeria, a country where prisons do not meet international standards or allow any independent inspection  . In the UK the College of Policing and its predecessor bodies have long provided training courses for senior police leaders. The fact that its website includes a brochure for its International Leadership Programme in Arabic suggest it is targeting the Middle East and Gulf countries for customers. If those countries have resources, there seems no reason why they should not pay for the services they receive. Indeed they would expect to do so.

Of course, undertaking prison reform work in “countries of concern” requires particular care and a need to ensure that there is at least some level of committment to change.  Making clear that certain penal practices are repugnant and breach international norms is essential. But so too is imparting knowledge and technical skills about how to operate criminal justice and prisons in compliance with them. Human Rights Watch argue that “quiet training programmes are not a substitute for active British engagement with the Saudi authorities on human rights abuses in the justice system”. But I believe that they can complement it and make it more likely to have an impact on the ground.

I would like to see a greater reference to international human rights standards in the JSI prospectus. The MoJ might also consider introducing the equivalent of Leahy vetting- the process by which the US government vets its assistance to foreign security forces, to ensure that recipients have not committed gross human rights abuses.

Much has rightly been made of the appalling use of corporal punishment in Saudi. Yet it has developed innovative ways of seeking to de-radicalise prisoners, which Gordon Brown saw in 2008. With the EU Counter Terror chief calling for rehabilitation not punishment for returning jihadis, there may be something to learn from the Saudi approach.

Indeed in  prison reform, lessons can be learned from the most unlikely quarters. Even perhaps from the Ministry of Justice.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

Pre-Sentence Reports are Essential for Rehabilitation: Why does Leveson want to Reduce their Use?

When I became a member of the new Youth Justice Board in 1998, the top priority was to halve the time from arrest to sentence for persistent juvenile offenders. This had been one of the five pledges made by New Labour before the 1997 election. Millions was spent on management consultants who produced countless plumbing diagrams to show the points in the process where delays could be reduced so that the magic 70 day target could be met before the next election. The consultants must have jumped for joy when they saw that three weeks or more was often used up in adjournments after the young person had been convicted. It took much persuasion to show them that the preparation of a pre- sentence report was not some bureaucratic hurdle that could simply be dispensed with in the interest of efficiency and speed. Rather it was a key to enabling the court to impose a sentence which would be most likely to meet the overarching aim of  youth justice - the prevention of offending by young people.

I thought of this experience when I read that Lord Leveson has recommended that the adult courts should ask for fewer pre sentence reports. He writes that “although greater use can and should be made of the discretion to dispense with reports, and an increased use of oral (“stand down”) or previous reports, consideration should be given to providing Judges with greater flexibility not to order reports. It is at least arguable that the presumption that a report will be obtained should be removed.”

This seems particularly foolhardy at the current time.  If the rehabilitation revolution is anything more than a slogan , it will require mechanisms through which the courts and other decision-making bodies have access to expert advice about what is needed to help offenders desist from crime. The process of social inquiry , historically the core of report writing, will be more important than ever.

PSR's will also be particularly important after the introduction of supervision after release from short prison terms which is likely to have an impact on the custodial threshold which courts consider before sentencing someone to prison . The additional punitive weight of such sentences should require a higher level of seriousness than at present before they are imposed. Yet many commentators feel that the clang of the prison gate (for as little as two days) followed by up to a year’s supervision will prove attractive to sentencers in a wider range of cases. In this context, pre- sentence reports will assume a greater significance in assisting courts to determine whether individual offenders lose their liberty or can instead undertake a suitable programme of supervision, treatment or reparation in the community. 

Allowing courts to dispense with PSR’s may appear to make the system more efficient but it may well be at the expense of effectiveness in terms of rehabilitation and economy because yet more offenders will go to prison. Management consultants might not recognise that but a senior Judge should know better.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Don't Bring Back Borstal; But We can Learn Something from It.

Stimulated by ITV’s new series  Bring Back Borstal,  I spent a couple of hours yesterday at the National Archives in Kew reading annual reports from the 1930’s and 1940’s of the  Borstal Association- the organisation  responsible for the after care of boys (and later girls) leaving borstals.  The reports describe the aims and routines of what was described by Sir Alexander Paterson in 1947 as “one of the great Christian adventures of British education”… a chain of very happy uphill schools where the stronger men want to help and teach and train the weaker boys”. The adventure spread across the Empire. In 2011 I visited Kaduna borstal in Nigeria where young men continue learn a trade and work instead in a much more purposeful environment than prison.  Yet graffiti around the place showed that the lads could not wait to get out.

Former Borstal assistant governor David Wilson- the brains behind the TV series – thinks the approach could work with today’s British tearaways.  I have already expressed my doubts about a) whether Borstals were as successful as claimed b) the comparability of inter war borstal boys with today’s young offenders and c) the encouragement of a dangerous narrative that sees the answer to youth crime as lying in closed institutions which however benign in intent almost invariably involve sub cultures of violence and brutality. The borstal at Chelmsford,- for those whose post release license had been revoked-  actually set out to provide a “life of Spartan discipline”, providing …”a shock to the lad which was both stern and salutary.”

On effectiveness, Wilson reports that in the Thirties, 70 per cent of those who underwent a borstal sentence never reoffended. In fact the Borstal Association report for 1947 gives a detailed table showing that between 1936 and 1946 the percentages of those discharged who were not reconvicted ranged from 53.8% to 63%. Interestingly the commentary states that “if those who are reconvicted once and then settle down are included as potential successes, it may fairly be said that out of every ten persons discharged some seven or eight appear to be restored to good citizenship”.

This early adoption of a desistance approach is a surely a credit to the Borstal Association but it complicates comparison with present day evaluations of success and failure. So too perhaps does the observation from the Director of Borstal Administration in 1947 that “a certain number abscond and when as sometimes happens they also break into neighbouring houses, there is natural public indignation.” That certain number (“small” according to the Director) appears to have averaged at more than one escape or abscond attempt a day among a population of 1800.

Complicating as well is the question of the nature of the young people being sent to institutions. In 1938, the boys at Rochester are “in the main …of a type who have not gone very far towards a life of crime. The large majority responds to training almost at once.” Feltham catered “for lads not too experienced in crime”. By contrast, the most recent inspection of Feltham’s young adult side found more than half of the young offenders had already been in custody at least once. At Rochester it was two thirds.

The fact that today’s YOI offenders are very much more challenging than their borstal counterparts of yesteryear is not only a problem for comparative research. It throws into question whether key parts of the borstal philosophy could conceivably be implemented safely when risks of bullying and absconding are likely to be so much higher, levels of mental health problems more widespread and gang affiliation more common.

And yet there are some things that our youth system could learn from the past. Some are specific. At borstals, the governor wrote to the parents of each young person telling them about the establishment and asking for their cooperation in the work with their son.  Surely with today’s technology such communication should happen as a matter of course. At North Sea camp “staff and lads eat the same meals at the same tables”, something I saw in a German youth prison in 2012 but would be deemed impossible in the UK. Others lessons are more general;  the focus for example on learning vocational skills and doing paid work; the range of sporting and cultural activities on offer. After care combining official supervision and befriending from local voluntary committees seems to have been vigorous, practical and supportive; finding lodgings and a job and providing tools and companionship. In 1936 more jobs were reportedly found than there were lads under supervision- a major achievement, if true, in the year of the Jarrow crusade.
While much of the activity carried on in the daily life of the borstal - which we will no doubt see over the course of the series- may seem dated, irrelevant and middle class, the principle of helping young people to change should perhaps not be so easily discounted. Paterson wrote in 1947 "the borstal boy, right or wrong weak or foolish, nuisance or danger is still a british boy".

Omit the "british" and such a principle still has value,as much perhaps  to those working with young offenders in the community as those in custody. Inspiring young people to change is something best done outside institutions.   So let’s not Bring Back Borstal but instead apply the optimism and purposefulness of its proponents to work in a more suitable setting.

Saturday, 3 January 2015

Bring Back Borstal : Serious Policy or Punishment Porn?

As a student in the early eighties, I remember showing a group of young offenders the film “Scum”, the violent drama set in a borstal institution.  The idea was to stimulate a discussion about what might help our intermediate treatment group to put their offending behind them. We were aghast when after a graphic scene of racial violence, an Asian young man said that now he understood why we were showing it. He more than implied that we were somehow endorsing   brutality as a way of dealing with delinquency and even worse approving of the way a white gang had beaten up a black one.

Maybe part of our thinking had been to concentrate the minds of the lads about the reality of custodial sentences from which they had for the time being been spared- after all it was said that everything in the film had actually happened sometime and somewhere.  But our alternative to prison project was all about keeping young people out of custody, applying a social work approach through community based supervision and tackling the racial discrimination which was increasingly coming to light in criminal justice.

This sort of fundamental misunderstanding must be a risk in Professor David Wilson’s television project Bring Back Borstal which starts on primetime ITV next week.  I was surprised to read in the Daily Mail that the former vice chair of the Howard League  believes cold dormitories, icy showers and scrubbing floors can rehabilitate young offenders better than today’s soft young offender institutions.  We’ll have to wait until Thursday to see if that really is his view. But presumably by going to the effort of recreating a 1930’s institution and recruiting troubled young men to experience its regime for a month, he believes at least that there may be something to learn. While I will reserve judgment until I've seen the first episode at least, I have serious doubts about whether there’s anything that we can or should apply from such a bygone era.

For one thing, there’s a question about how successful borstals actually were in rehabilitating young offenders. A leading study of the system reported in 1973 that “during the 1930's Borstals appear to have enjoyed outstanding success, rehabilitating a claimed 70% of trainees”. But the claim of "phenomenal" results is not referenced, other than to figures from the Borstal Association- an organisation providing after care support to those released from the institution- not perhaps the most objective source of data .

Even if re-conviction rates were comparatively low, they  may well be the result of  selection effects. Borstal training was always one of several custodial sentencing options designed for those individuals deemed most likely to respond to the training on offer. Comparing the success rate to the 70% failure rate in today’s institutions which take allcomers, is looking at apples and oranges.

It’s also true that re-offending rates among borstal leavers increased substantially between the 1930’s and 1970’s, in large part because, according to the 1973 study of a “deterioration in the quality of boys”. This unhappy phrase alerts us to the fact that the very welcome decline in the use of custody for young men in recent years has meant that those who do continue to be locked up present many more challenges than the borstal boys of yesteryear. Levels of drug and alcohol misuse, mental health difficulties, and gang affiliations make the idea of reinstating dormitory accommodation in young offender establishments irresponsible if not dangerous. A much more realistic set of recommendations are found in Barrow Cadbury's 2013 report.

But the bigger problem is that programmes like this give succour to those who want to roll back the clock to a purported golden age where simple virtues of exercise, hard work and strict education could allegedly knock yobs into shape. It’s a dangerous fantasy – or as the Guardian TV guide puts it - punishment porn. This would be bad enough in itself , but with the government on the verge of creating a so called secure college which almost every expert thinks a disaster in the making , it could have a highly damaging impact in the real world.