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.


  1. Well said Rob - part of the problem is the diminished of the importance of magistrates, whose engagement with probation officers at least up to the 1980s was the relationship that drove the advance of probation and social work in the courts - adult, juvenile and domestic.