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The ‘Virtual Prison’ Trumps The Rehabilitation Revolution

25 Feb
David Cameron aims to make non-custodial  community sentences tougher. Downing Street, not the Ministry of Justice, is understood  to be the driving force propelling the proposed changes.

Changes are in the pipeline for community sentences. Downing Street’s support of Justice Secretary Ken Clarke’s rehabilitation revolution has been so lukewarm that it has found it itself in the position of having to deny reports that the Ministry of Justice is about to be axed.

This reflects attitudes which are widely held within some sections of the government. Last year the  Policy Exchange  (Cameron’s favourite think tank, according to the New Statesman) published ‘Fitting The Crime’, a report which asserted that public confidence in community sentences is low. Louise Casey noted in her foreword to the report:

“We need to change who will be in charge of overseeing these sentences, removing it from the Probation Service, some of whom see punishment at best as an optional extra and at worst as a dirty word.”

This perception that the community justice system is insufficiently punitive is echoed by the influential ConservativeHome blog, which quotes Rachel  Sylvester’s report:

“At one meeting, called to discuss improving non-custodial sentences, Downing Street strategists were horrified to see the civil servants from the Ministry of Justice wincing whenever the words ‘punishment’ or ‘retribution’ were used. Every time one of the department’s officials talked about ‘managing offenders’, someone from No 10 mentioned ‘punishing criminals’ just to make a point”.

According to the Evening Standard, Cameron is now “very clear” that he wants community sentences to be “tougher and command public confidence“.

The growing perception that the Conservative/LibDem coalition lack a coherent overall crime strategy appears to have been influential  in influencing Number Ten to propose changes in community sentencing to the Ministry of Justice. Like one of his predecessors, Tony Blair, Cameron may have concluded that being seen to be tough on crime has no electoral downside.

The media is awash with references to the imminent construction of what has been labelled a “virtual prison”. Offenders would be electronically tagged to guarantee their compliance with curfews for 16 hours a day. Breaching the curfew would mean a return to court, then to prison. Plans to confiscate offenders’ credit cards, driving licences and passports have also been mooted.

These developments appear to reinforce the suggestion that it is David Cameron rather Ken Clarke in the driving seat. The virtual prison, it appears, trumps the rehabilitation revolution.

Though the plans have yet to published and have not been definitively confirmed, a Ministry of Justice spokeswoman has stated:

“We want to reform community sentences to ensure that offenders are properly punished for their crimes and effectively rehabilitated and we are still considering a variety of options. We will publish a consultation setting out our proposals in due course.”

In the courts in England and Wales, community sentences are the most widely utilised sanction. The media context for the moves on community sentences are pretty clear. The Daily Star cuts to the quick with its typically nuanced analysis headlined: ” Worst Crims Being Let Off “.The article goes on to assure us that “Thousands of criminals with 15 or more convictions are being let off with a slap on the wrist.”

The Daily Mail weighs in by reassuring its readers that the criminal justice system is just as soft as the Mail has long insisted: “4,500 serial offenders are let off with caution despite committing at least 15 crimes each… as Cameron pledges tougher community punishments”. (This continues  in the grand tradition of “Criminals ‘laughing’ at community sentences ” which was reported by the Mail some 3 years ago, and confirms that the middle-market tabloid is at least consistent in its analysis).  More on the Mail’s uniquely balanced reporting on probation here.

There is already evidence that existing community sentences are effective. According to evidence given the the House of Commons Justice committee last year by Juliet Lyons of the Prison Reform Trust:

“Community sentences are outperforming short prison sentences by 8%, which is an achievement, but if the mechanism is not there to promote that and to provide more opportunities for the courts to have those community sentences available to them, you could argue that Government are not capitalising on their success.”

Neither the mechanism nor the political will appears to be there. Populist punitivism means there will be no hesitation in allowing the electoral advantages of a tougher community sentencing policy to take precedence over the hard evidence of its (lack of) penal effectiveness.

The Daily Mail On Probation

17 Feb

“A significant proportion of a largely uninformed public has always held the service in contempt, branding its officers as naive do-gooders.”  – A probation officer, now retired, with 31 years experience (Golby 2007)

If we consider a cursory selection of probation-related headlines from the Daily Mail (a middle-market tabloid which is the UK’s second biggest selling newspaper, and now also the world’s most popular news website) over the last 5 years, it may help to illuminate why the public may misunderstand or undervalue probation.

Reflecting how public perceptions, punitivism and the popular press may combine to construct a particular view of community justice, a recurring theme for the Mail is the multiple errors that probation are perceived to have made, particularly in the area of offenders on either probation or licence who go on to reoffend:

“Almost 100 murders by offenders on probation in the last two years” Daily Mail 05/12/2006

Home Office figures had indicated that there had been 98 murders by offenders out on licence from 2004-6. In the Mail’s view this represented a “significant surge in killings by criminals”. When probation was supervising over 220,000 people (on probation, parole and suspended sentence) and 14,000 of them were considered to be high or very high risk to the public, just 0.6% were involved in a further serious offence.

This may have reflected the reality that serious offences have always been committed by people on parole or on probation and indeed this is not unexpected given their conviction history. On this occasion, at least, Napo’s Harry Fletcher was quoted to balance the Mail’s account.

“Criminals freed on probation commit a murder a week” Daily Mail 13/12/2007

Over a 3 year period, 158 murders and 54 manslaughters had been committed by offenders who were on licence.These were, wrote the Mail, “committed by convicts supposedly being monitored in the community”. Norman Brennan, director of the Victims of Crime Trust, is quoted:

“… to have hundreds of rapes and hundreds of murders is catastrophic and completely unacceptable. It is clear the Probation Service cannot cope… The police service are in despair, the victims of crime are in despair and the public is living in a fear not known since the Second World War.”

 “One ‘killer’ in seven is on probation for another crime, figures reveal” Daily Mail 15/06/2009

Ministry of Justice statistics had shown that 107 people were charged with murder or manslaughter while under probation supervision in 2007-08.

“Probation Service overhaul after criminal on early release kills taxi driver” Daily Mail 07/11/2006

The then Home Secretary John Reid had announced a review of probation by the probation inspectorate after an offender killed a taxi driver after being released on licence.

The Mail observes that “probation officers had been warned repeatedly about his killer” and observes that the death was “one of a raft of new public protection scandals – which also included paedophiles being allowed terrifying access to young children”. In addition, the paper reports, the then Home Secretary had labelled the probation service “poor or mediocre”.

“It’s cheaper to let thugs out to commit crimes than to keep them in jail, says probation boss” Daily Mail 12/07/2010

In fact, this was not a ‘probation boss’ as the Mail suggested, but the independent chief inspector of probation, Andrew Bridges. What Bridges actually said in the context of the economic crisis was, ‘At a time when public expenditure is under especially close scrutiny it would be wise to consider the price paid for this rather drastic form of crime prevention, both financially and otherwise.”

‘Early release prisoners allowed foreign holidays while on probation’ Daily Mail 18/06/2006

Home Office minister Baroness Scotland had removed overall travel restrictions for offenders released on licence. Previously, they had been allowed to travel abroad only in exceptional compassionate circumstances. Restrictions were still in force as those on licence still required permission from a senior probation officer before travelling, and this permission would only be granted after a detailed assessment of whether they would present a risk to the public while abroad and whether or not they would return to the UK.

“’Sexual predator’ on probation raped teenage girl” Daily Mail 07/12/2006

A sex offender who at the time of the offence was subject to supervision had raped a 17 year old female.

These representations of probation in the press may reflect what a probation officer (talking to the The Guardian, rather than the Daily Mail) suggest was inevitable. Probation attracts no media interest unless something goes wrong: “Our job is strange in that when it goes right, nothing happens. But when it goes wrong, then it’s a big media situation.” (Benedictus 2010)

The Mail has also reported with particular relish on probation officers who have themselves committed offences:

“Probation officer responsible for setting up sex offender database jailed for possessing 3,800 obscene images of childrenDaily Mail 16/05/2008

The man referred to was an IT expert who had been responsible for setting up ViSOR, a national database of offenders. He had previously been a probation officer, though he was, in fact, no longer one. The Mail story also, somewhat gratuitously, mentioned that his wife was a probation officer.

“Drink-drive probation officer escapes jail after she’s caught over limit twice” Daily Mail 09/08/2007

This referred to a senior probation officer who was responsible for delivering rehabilitation courses for drunk drivers.

Even the language used by probation staff in the course of their professional assessments is picked over:

“A wife’s a wife, not a partner, judge tells probation officer” Daily Mail 24/10/2009

The Mail’s concern was focused on the perception that “The trendy term (i.e. ‘partner’) downgrades marriage” (in keeping with its often expressed outrage at what it labels as ‘political correctness’). Judge George Bathurst-Norman, who at the time was dealing with the case of a man accused of breaching an order not to molest his wife, was concerned with the language used in a probation report. Bathurst-Norman had previously distinguished himself by arguing that undermining the public’s faith in the judiciary would eventually lead to “anarchy and… in due course for the equivalent of a police state.” 

“Probation offenders let off with community service commit 1500 serious crimes a year” Daily Mail 06/06/2009

This was arguably more a criticism of the courts than probation. The indignation is summarised by the notion then that offenders sentenced to community sentences are being “let off” and have in some way escaped the consequence of their actions.  These were “shocking new statistics” in the perception of the Mail.

“Probationers ‘commit 10,000 crimes a month” 14/05/2006

The Mail notes that 10,000 crimes a month are committed by offenders who are subject to probation supervision. Any mention of the vastly greater number of offenders who do not commit offences on supervision is conspicuous by its absence.

In a particularly creative example of guilt by association, the Mail links a sexual attack by a rapist with the fact that the rapist’s probation supervision had ended six weeks earlier. The conclusion was not that the probation supervision had been of such high quality that he not offended while under supervision. In any event, the supervision commenced and ended in accordance with the direction of the court, not the probation service.

“Rapist attacked schoolgirl six weeks after his probation ended” 12/01/2007

The contested nature of the Mail’s depiction of probation and the tensions surrounding this area are illustrated by the text of a letter which Andrew Bridges, who was then HM Chief Inspector of Probation, sent to the Mail following a leading article which they had published on April 17, 2006. The article rather ludicrously insinuated that he was proud of the offences which had been committed by service users who were subject to probation supervision, and even complacent about them:

“Your front page article and leader on 17 April puts an incorrect interpretation on my comments about the 100 serious crimes per year committed by people on Probation supervision. Far from saying anything about being “proud” of this figure, I made the point myself that every one of these crimes is a major personal tragedy for those affected.”

“My point in quoting what a “tiny percentage” they were of the 200k people under Probation supervision at any one time was to emphasise what a difficult problem this is to tackle. And my aim is precisely to drive up the quality of this work.”

“Far from being complacent on this matter, the Probation Inspectorate has striven in the last two years to redress the balance by ensuring that proper priority attention is given to the Probation Service’s public protection responsibilities. On behalf of the taxpaying public we will continue to work hard to achieve this.” (Bridges, 2006)

Penal Populism and Popular Culture

The Mail’s representations of probation fit neatly into a context of penal poupulism and penal culture. The UK’s adversarial political culture arguably promotes a need for politicians of every hue to justify punitive responses to criminal and community justice, and reinforces a climate of populist punitivism. It fits well with Green’s analysis that

 “media representations (emphasising the most extreme, sensational crimes, often failing to contextualise the particular offence in question, and focusing on the emotional impacts of crime from victims’ points of view) compete with the more rationally and systematically accumulated criminological knowledge – those concerned with questions of crime causation, prevention, and the effectiveness of penal sanctions.” (Green 2008 p.95)

Certainly, there is virtually no exploration of – or indeed explanation of – the effectiveness of probation intervention in the Mail’s portrayal. Attempts to contextualise the offences are limited.

While research on the media and public image of probation is relatively limited, the evidence that we do have suggests public understanding of the role of probation ( its breadth, its scope and its effectiveness) are relatively limited (for example, Allen and Hough 2007; Teague 2002). Whether the Mail’s coverage accurately reflects the invaluable work done by probation for the social good of all is a question which remains.