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Probation in Statistics

2 Dec

The Probation Service in England and Wales supervised some 234,528 people in 2011. This is almost three times the number of people in prison, yet probation achieved this huge scale of supervision with a relatively small number of staff. On 30th June 2012, the Probation Service employed a total of just 17,881 staff (this figure includes Chief Executives).

The number of probation staff is limited compared to (for example) the 134,101 police officers in post on 31 March 2012, or to the 45,576 prison service and NOMS HQ staff in post on the same day.

In addition, the total of 17,881 probation staff was 585 staff fewer than the year before.

Staff working in management roles in probation accounted for 11.87% of the total workforce (or 2,123 staff).

Probation: Providing Real Value

While probation does not always get a fair press, it provides immense value to the taxpayer, particularly when viewed in the context of the fiscal cost of imprisonment.

In 2011/12, the average cost for each Community Order/Suspended Sentence Order supervised was £4,135. The cost per offender supervised on licence post-custody was £2,380. The cost of writing a Pre-Sentence Report was just £215.

These figures compare very favourably with the average cost of providing a prison place for the year, which is £37,648.

As the shift to privatisation of a substantial proportion of the work of the Probation Service’s work flies, it is worth bearing the value offered by probation in mind.

Probation: A Representative & Diverse Service?

How representative of the wider population is probation? Women represented 71% of the probation workforce in post on 31 December 2011, whilst men were 29% of the total. The percentage of probation posts held by female staff has remained steady (hovering around 70-71%) since 2009, notwithstanding a 7% drop in the overall number of probation posts during this period.

The proportion of senior probation posts held by women rose by 5% between 2009 and 2011.

In terms of race and ethnicity, 14.1%  of probation staff were  from a Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BME) background on 31 December 2010.

Probation staff from a Black ethnic background represented 8.3%, those from an Asian background represented 3.5%, those of Mixed background were 1.8% and while those of Chinese or Other background represented 0.5% of the service.

The proportion of senior probation staff (that is, Chief Executives, Deputy Chief Officers, Assistant Chief Officers and Area/District Managers) from a BME background was 8%.

All of these figures suggest that probation has enjoyed more success in achieving diversity amongst its staff, including senior staff, than other criminal justice agencies.

At a senior level, 8.0% of staff identified themselves as from a BME background (up from 7.6% in 2009). Those from Black and Asian backgrounds represented 4.1% (up from 3.6% in 2009) and 2.5% (down from 2.9% in 2009) of senior level staff respectively.

Probation’s Caseload

The annual total probation caseload (court orders and pre and post release supervision) grew by 39% between 2000 and 2008, peaking at 243,434. It then marginally decreased to 234,528 in 2011.

The total of community orders fell by 8% in 2011 compared to the previous year.

Total of offenders under Probation Service supervision (at end of December), 1995-2011
Source: Offender Management Statistics Click on graphic to enlarge

Out of a total of 28,638 community orders which were terminated in the quarter ending on 30 June 2012, over two thirds (67%) were successfully completed or alternatively were terminated early for good progress.

According to the Ministry of Justice, the growth in probation’s caseload between 2000 and 2008 was propelled by

  • Introducing new court orders, in particular the Suspended Sentence Order (SSO) in 2005 (under the Criminal Justice Act 2003).
  • A rise in people receiving both pre and post-release supervision caseload due to:
    • An increase in the total of those serving prison sentences of 12+ months who need to be supervised following their release;
    • offenders who spend longer time on licence following release from prison with theCriminal Justice Act 2003

Supervision on Licence

Offenders serving a sentence of twelve months and over are released from prison (usually automatically, at the half way point of their prison sentence) and are subject licensed supervision by probation.

Between 1999 and June 2012, a total of some 590,000 offenders were released from prison on licence. Between April 1999 and June 2012, 143,000 of those released on licence were recalled to custody for breaching the conditions of their licence. This could be a result of various factors, including failure to report to their probation officer.

Of all those recalled to custody, only 976 had not been returned to custody by 30 September 2012. Of the 976 individuals, 117 were originally serving a jail sentence for offences involving violence against the person and an additional 33 people for sexual offences.

Probation is sometimes stereotyped as a service which is not sufficiently ‘tough’ on offenders.During the quarter ending June 2012, a total of 4,052 offenders had their licence revoked and were recalled. By 30 September 2012, 3,975 of these recalled offenders had been returned to custody. However, 77 had not been returned to custody.

Overall, around three quarters (76%) of orders and licences were successfully completed in 2011/12.

Probation & Community Payback

The Probation Service has operated offender behaviour programmes (for example, on domestic violence, sex offending, drug and alcohol treatment and thinking skills) for more than two decades. In addition, unpaid work is one of 12 possible requirements that may be attached a Community or Suspended Sentence Order.

While unpaid work is officially viewed primarily as a punishment, but may also fulfil the sentencing purposes of reparation and rehabilitation. The unpaid work element is known as Community Payback (previously Community Service). During 2011/12,  approximately 8.3 million hours of Community Payback work were undertaken by offenders.

The government estimates that, calculated according to the National Minimum Wage, the annual value of Community Payback work to the community is over £50 million.

Should an individual fail to comply with the terms of their community sentence, ‘National Standards for the Management of Offenders’ require the supervising probation officerto take appropriate and timely breach action.  In 2011/12, almost 95% of breaches were initiated within 10 working days.

To conclude the snapshot of probation in figures, it is worth recalling an earlier post on this blog:

“The Probation Service is one of the UK’s most vital public services, and it is high time we recognised the huge contribution that it makes to our national life. For one hundred years, the service has helped damaged and vulnerable people rehabilitate themselves and rebuild their lives, while reducing reoffending and protecting society.” – Brendan Barber, General Secretary, Trades Union Congress (Boroughs et al. , 2007:86)

Women In The Criminal Justice System

25 Nov

Interested in the representation of women and men in the criminal justice system, whether as victims, offenders or practitioners? The Ministry of Justice has published the latest edition of  its biannual report on “Statistics on Women and the Criminal Justice System”.

The main focus is on the year 2011, but  data is also considered for the previous 5 years where possible. The Ministry publishes the report as a requirement of  Section 95 of the Criminal Justice Act 1991, which imposes a duty on the government of the day to publish statistical information to assess whether discrimination exists in the criminal justice system:

“The Secretary of State shall in each year publish such information as he considers expedient for the purpose… of facilitating the performance of those engaged in the administration of justice to avoid discriminating against any persons on the ground of race or sex or any other improper ground.” (Section 95)

The figures should be considered in the context of the most recent mid-year population estimates for 2011 quoted in the report, which show that of the total of 49,509,747 population of England and Wales who are aged over 10 years, women comprised 51% of the population, while men accounted for 49%.

It may not come as a surprise that the figures confirm that there are significantly fewer women than men both subject to supervision in the community and also locked up in prison. More women, too, serve shorter sentences than men.

Some of the key findings in the report are summarised below.

Women as victims of crime

There were differences evident in the level and types of victimisation between women and men. According to the 2011/12 Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) – previously known as the British Crime Survey – 3 in every 100 adults were a victim of violent crime that year. A smaller proportion of women than men interviewed reported being victims of violence (2% women and 4% men).

Women who reported being a victim of violence were most likely to be  victimised by someone with whom they were already acquainted. For men, it was more common to be on the receiving end of violence perpetrated by a stranger.

A greater percentage of women (some 7%) interviewed for the CSEW reported being victims of intimate violence (partner or family non-physical abuse, threats, force, sexual assault or stalking) than men (at 5%).

Prevalence of intimate violence in the last year among adults aged 16 to 59, 2011/12 CESW

Fewer women (201) than men (435) were murdered in 2010/11. With regard to murder, a greater percentage of female victims than male victims knew the principal suspect (78% of women victims of murder as opposed to 57%of male victims of murder).

Overall Arrests by Offence Group and Gender

Percentage of overall arrests by offence group and gender, 2006/07-2010/11 (Source: Ministry of Justice (2012), ‘Statistics on Women and the Criminal Justice System 2011’)


Theft and handling stolen goods (which includes shoplifting) was the most common indictable offence group for which both women and men were sentenced at all courts between 2007 and 2011 (this applied over half of all women sentenced (52%) but only a third of all men sentenced (33%) for indictable offences in 2011).

Overall, a higher percentage of men(10%) than women(3%) were sentenced to immediate custody in 2011. Women also were more likely than men to be fined (77% of women as opposed to 61% of men).

Men also received longer sentences. The average custodial sentence length for all indictable offences was consistently higher for men than women. This applied throughout the period 2007-2011. In 2011 in particular, the average custodial sentence length for indictable offences was 17.7 months for men  compared to 11.6 months for women.

Average Custodial Sentence Length in months by offence group (indictable offences), 2007-2011 Source: ‘Women in the Criminal Justice System 2011’

The only indictable offence group for which females consistently received a higher average custodial sentence length than males between 2007 and 2011 was criminal damage (in 2011, 25.8 months for women as opposed to 18.2 months for men).

The percentage of both women and men sentenced to an immediate custodial sentence rises with the number of previous cautions or convictions. In 2011, 39% of men and 29% of women with 15 or more cautions or convictions were sentenced to immediate imprisonment.

A greater percentage of women in custody who had received an immediate custodial sentence were serving shorter sentences (12 months or less): 21% of women as opposed to 10% of men in 2011. For women serving prison sentences of 6 months or less,  accounted for 15% as opposed to 7% for men.

Women Subject To Supervision In The Community

In 2011, there were fewer women than men under supervision in the community. A total of 19,018 women and 106,916 men were subject to supervision as a result of a community order or Suspended Sentence Order (these are the two most common types of community sentence). Women comprised 15% of those under supervision in the community as a result of community and Suspended Sentence Orders.

The average length of community and Suspended Sentence Orders was shorter for women in 2011. In addition, women who started such supervision were commonly subject to fewer requirements to comply with than their male counterparts. In terms of order length, 14% of women supervised under a community order were supervised for less than one year. For their male counterparts, the corresponding figure was 7%.

Both women and men supervised on community orders and Suspended Sentence Orders in 2011 had different age profiles. A greater percentage of women commencing community orders (55%) and Suspended Sentence Orders (58%) were aged 30+years when compared with their male counterparts (48% for both community orders and Suspended Sentence Orders).

In 2011, a greater percentage of women completed both community orders (70% for women as opposed to 65% for men). This also applied to Suspended Sentence Orders.

Women In prison

On November 23, 2012, there were 4,174 women in prison in England and Wales. The number of women prisoners increased during the decade ending in 2010 by around 27%. On 30 June 2011, women represented 5% of the total prison population of 85,374 inmates. According to the Prison Reform Trust, over half (51%) of women leaving prison are reconvicted within one year. For those serving shorter sentences (less than 12 months) this rises to 62%.

Population in prison establishments under immediate custodial sentence by gender, as at 30 June 2007–2011 Source: ‘Women in the Criminal Justice System 2011’

In 2011, there were 24,648 incidents of self-harm in prisons. The rate for female self-harm in prison continues to register more than 10 times higher than the rate for men.

In addition, women who self-harmed in 2011 did so more often than men (an average of 7.1 incidents compared to 2.8 incidents for each individual self- harming), though incidents of male self harm were more likely to result in hospitalisation.

There are 630 women prisoners in England and Wales who are foreign nationals. They represent approximately 15% of the women’s prison population. On 30 June 2011, a larger percentage of foreign national women prisoners were incarcerated for drugs offences (39%) and fraud and forgery (14%) than British national women (18% and 3% respectively).

British national women prisoners wee more often incarcerated for offences of violence against the person (29%) or robbery (10%) than foreign national women prisoners (for whom the respective figures are 13% and 3%).

Of the the total of  329 self-inflicted deaths in prison in England and Wales between 2007 and 2011, the vast majority (95%) were men and five per cent (or 15) involved women). This, however, mirrors the gender representation in the prison population.

In 2011, women prisoners were more likely to be subject to the disciplinary process than men. The rate of offences punished in prison establishments was higher for females (130 offences were punished per 100 female prisoners)than for males (with 106 offences punished per 100 male prisoners.

In conclusion, it should be noted that the government qualifies the report by noting that:

“The identification of differences should not be equated with discrimination as there are many reasons why apparent disparities may exist.”


MINISTRY OF JUSTICE (2012), Statistics on Women and the Criminal Justice System 2011 London: Ministry of Justice.

Community Sentences: A Problem With Perception?

18 Mar

“For too long community sentences have been seen as, and indeed have been, a soft option. This government wants to change this and make them a proper and robust punishment.” – The Prime Minister, March 2012

English: David Cameron's picture on the 10 Dow...

Prime Minister David Cameron

The government has announced more details of their plans to ‘toughen up’ community sentencing options. The ‘virtual prison’, as this blog has observed, trumps the ‘rehabilitation revolution’. New measures are now imminent, and may be formally announced in the Queen’s speech in May. They are reported to include:

  • Hi-tech electronic ankle tags (so-called “sobriety bracelets”) that can confirm whether the wearer has been drinking alcohol by measuring the wearer’s air and perspiration.
  • Electronic tags using GPS satellite technology which will monitor the exact geographical location of offenders using electronic tags, 24 hours a day.

These moves reflect an increased emphasis on punishment, with American style surveillance & control to the fore and rehabilitation being de-prioritised. The Prime Minister explicitly stated that community sentences lack ‘toughness’.

Probation could arguably do more to ensure that its public and political image accurately reflects the high quality and effectiveness of its intervention. Probation minister Crispin Blunt delineated the problem with his observation in February 2012:

“There is an issue around public confidence in community sentences. The public may feel that a person has got away with it with a community sentence.”

This, the minister argued, was not primarily about the reality of community sentences, but rather about how they are perceived. He qualified his comments by stating that:

“Community sentences can be extremely intensive and very demanding”.

While Blunt focused on the perception of community sentences, Prime Minister David Cameron concluded that community sentencing’s image was not just a product of perception, but also a reflection of reality:

“For too long community sentences have been seen as, and indeed have been, a soft option. This government wants to change this and make them a proper and robust punishment. Criminals given a community punishment should not just be able to enjoy life as it was before [doing] their sentence.”

This government strategy is not new. It was presaged by a 2010 report by the Policy Exchange (reputedly David Cameron’s favourite thinktank), which portrayed community sentences as the “weak link in the sentencing chain”. According to the report:

“… community sentences fail because they are fundamentally flawed, poorly administered and confused in their purpose. To be made better, community sentences first need to be refocused back to their core function of punishment and then radically reformed to improve compliance and administration.”

Top civil servant Louise Casey argued in the foreword to this report that it was “imperative” that community sentences were radically overhauled. She wrote:

“Central to this is the need to ensure that one of the foremost tenets of sentencing is no longer ignored in community sentences – and that is punishment. How on earth can we expect victims of crime and the public at large to back such reforms if they, rightly, have little confidence that community sentences actually punish wrongdoers?”

Casey even went so far as to suggest that some probation staff “see punishment at best as an optional extra and at worst as a dirty word”.

Society’s need for credible and effective community sentences has never been greater. Today, we have 87,870 people in prison in England and Wales. We imprison proportionately more of our citizens than any other country in Western Europe. The probation service supervised a total of 232,862 people on 30 September, 2011 – over two and a half times as many people as we imprison.

Community sentences are widely used by the Courts in England and Wales. In the year ending September 2011, no fewer than 178,763 people (or 13.6% of all those sentenced) were given a Community Sentence.

Thirteen in every hundred people sentenced at magistrates’ courts during this year were given a community sentences. Eighteen in every hundred people sentenced at Crown Court were also given a community sentence.

The fiscal case for community sentencing is strong. The average annual cost of imprisoning one inmate, according to Hansard,  is approximately £45,000 per annum. We can supervise up to 15 people on probation for a year for same cost. Probation’s domestic violence courses, for example, cost under £6,300 but help achieve a reduction in reoffending of up to one third.

A successful community sentencing policy, therefore, will not just safeguard society by significantly reducing reoffending. It will save taxpayers a huge amount of money.

The evidence suggests that community sentences are effective in reducing reoffending, particularly when compared to shorter prison sentences. Providing factual, accurate information about such sentences helps build greater public confidence in our justice system.

A well-informed public is less likely to automatically assume that community sentences lack toughness, or that community disposals are, in effect, a ‘let off’ for defendants. This public view of probation was confirmed by my own 2002 analysis of how public perceptions of community sentencing were constructed during one particular high profile example involving the footballer Jonathan Woodgate.

When Woodgate received a community penalty, the press (broadsheets included) were unanimous in equating the sentence to “walking free from court”, “escaping a prison sentence”, “avoiding prison”, receiving a “paltry” sentence, and so on. The exhaustive press coverage left the public in blissful ignorance of what community sentencing actually involved, other than the offender being freed.

Presumably, headlines such as “Committed probation staff deliver evidence-based intervention to reduce offending and safeguard the public” would were not thought to be sufficiently circulation boosting.

Probation is a key statutory justice agency but despite the scale of its endeavour, its impact on public awareness is limited. The average person in the street is mainly unaware of the scale of its essential contribution to public protection and rehabilitation.

This is not a new problem. I remember Beverley Hughes, then probation Minister in Tony Blair’s Labour administration, delivering her keynote address in 2001 to the new National Probation Service in London. I recorded her words for a piece which was published in the Probation Journal:

‘Public credibility is crucial to our success. Only if, together, we can convince communities of your role and your reliability will you be able to do your important job effectively’.

This remains true today. Perceptions of probation will only begin to advance when the political and public understanding of probation starts to echo its success in practice.

Prison And Probation In America

1 Mar

America locks up over two and a quarter million of its citizens – a greater proportion than any other country. What is less well known is that almost five million people are also subject to probation and parole supervision.

America leads the world in imprisonment.  The nation’s 5,000 plus jails and prisons incarcerate over two and a quarter million people. It remains a paradox that the planet’s richest nation, the ‘land of the free’, locks up a quarter of all the prisoners on planet earth. This means that one in every 100 adult American citizens is behind bars.

These statistics, which reflect America’s umbilical attachment to incarceration, are well known to criminologists the world over, yet they still maintain their capacity to shock. The USA’s imprisonment rate is up to 10 times greater than that of most developed, industrialised countries.

Republican and Democratic governments alike have turned to imprisonment as their penal policy of first resort. Key factors that have contributed to imprisonment’s relentless rise include:

  • longer prisons terms as part of the war on drugs;
  • ‘three strikes’ laws, which mean long mandatory prison sentences for those convicted of a felony at least three times;
  • mandatory minimum sentences, which leave no room for judicial discretion in imposing lengthy prison sentences.

At the end of 2010, the prison population very slightly declined (by 0.6 percent). This however, was the first fall in the total population behind bars in nearly four decades, and a decline in prisoners has yet to establish itself. American remains the incarceration nation.

As George W. Bush blithely asserted in his gubernatorial campaign in Texas prior to his presidency, ‘Incarceration is rehabilitation’. The Orwellian clarity of this statement neatly summarises the entrenched perspective on penal policy within the Republican party. (If Texas was an independent country, it would boast the world’s highest imprisonment rate – not to mention the most frequent use of the death penalty in any US state.)

While academic attention has long focused upon America as the global leader for incarceration, less criminological notice has been taken of the widespread use of probation intervention.

Almost 4.9 million people were supervised in the community on probation or parole at the end of 2010. This staggeringly high figure is is the equivalent of probation supervision for 1 in every 48 US adult citizens. It also helps explain why America employs  over 93,000 probation officers and correctional treatment specialists.

Though probation was traditionally regarded as most appropriate for low-risk offenders in the USA, probation staff have begin to supervise offenders who pose a higher risk, both of reoffending and to public protection.

The maximum duration of a period of probation supervision is five years. Officers with caseloads of 200-300 clients are no longer unusual, which clearly limits the work that may be done to address the mix of complex issues which many contribute to reoffending. The average person on probation may have no more that 15 minutes contact time with their supervisor.

This reflects penal priorities  in the USA; over nine tenths of the correctional budget is spent on imprisonment, despite the fact about around 7 in every 10 offenders are in the community. People on probation (4,055,514 in total) account for the majority (83%) of all of those subject to community supervision. Parolees (840,676 in total) accounted for a smaller share (17%) of those on supervision.

As with the prison population, the number of people on community supervision population is now beginning to very slightly decrease. The number of people on probation fell slightly, though the number of parolees increased. People who breached the conditions of their probation during 2010 were incarcerated at rate of 5.7%.

About threequarters of people on probation were male, and a quarter were female. Over half of the probation population was white, while 30% was black and 13% was Hispanic. Both black people and Hispanic people are disproportionately represented in the probation population (just as they are in the prison system).

Around three quarters of people on probation and four fifths of parolees are on ‘active probation’. The means that they must report in person on a regular basis to a probation or parole authority in person (or sometimes by telephone or email).  Property offenders make up 28% of those on probation, while drug offenders comprise over a quarter of probationers. Just under a fifth of people on probation are supervised for a violent offence.

One area in US probation would be unrecognisable to UK probation practitioners: the collection of ‘user fees’. Charging the user for the privilege of being supervised is growing in popularity in America. Some American probation services users have to pay a supervision fee of up to $100 per month.

This is not new; Michigan was charging fees to users as early as 1929, and more than half of all US states were collecting fees by 1990. In the state of Texas in 1990, probation supervision fees charged to probation service users raised a total of $57 million, which was more than half of the entire supervision budget.

Probation service users who are already coping with a range of problematic social issues in their lives, finding $100 to pay for their next probation appointment is often not prioritised. Failure to pay can mean a return to court, and then incarceration. The imperative to collect fees may also impact on probation staff’s capacity to support rehabilitation.

Many American probation officers now carry guns. While firearms are not universally used, most US states have provision for armed officers. Within the federal justice system, too, most districts allow federal probation officers to carry guns.

The harsh economic climate has hit US probation hard. Some 31 states made cut their corrections budgets in 2010. This has hit programmes geared at changing offenders’ behaviour hard.

Nevertheless, probation still enjoys substantial political and popular support. It remains the preferred sentencing option in the US criminal justice system.

Further reading:

Teague, M. 2011. Probation in America: Armed, private and unaffordable? Probation Journal, 58. pp.317-332

Curated web resource on US prisons

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.

Probation: An Invaluable Public Service

17 Feb

“The Probation Service is one of the UK’s most vital public services, and it is high time we recognised the huge contribution that it makes to our national life. For one hundred years, the service has helped damaged and vulnerable people rehabilitate themselves and rebuild their lives, while reducing reoffending and protecting society.” –
Brendan Barber, General Secretary, Trades Union Congress (Boroughs et al. , 2007:86)

Probation staff currently supervise 241,500 individuals, a significant proportion of whom are high risk individuals and therefore pose public protection issues. They do so not just by containing and monitoring them (difficult enough in itself), but also by directly engaging with them in a bid to lessen the risk that they pose, and reduce the risk that they might reoffend.

In terms of its effectiveness compared with prison, reconviction rates following a prison sentence are 66%, whereas from probation orders without requirements reconviction rates drop to 50%. They drop further, to 34%,  for people on probation with a condition of a community programme.

The skills and abilities of frontline probation practitioners mean that – when they are successful – communities benefit and further victims are prevented. In addition, the lives of many probation service users are irrevocably changed for the better. This is undeniably crucial work, of immense social value.

The breadth and scale of the task that frontline probation staff face should not be underestimated. The Social Exclusion Unit gave a flavour of the immensity of that task when they observed that

“The failure of mainstream agencies to deal with… social exclusion means that the Prison Service and Probation Service are in many cases being asked to put right a lifetime of service failure.” (Social Exclusion Unit 2002 p.18)

Even if we consider only the fiscal realities, which will always preoccupy governments and (some) taxpayers, the service manages a very substantial caseload of offenders, at a cost which, offender for offender, represents a huge saving on the cost of imprisonment. Depending on the type of probation supervision, around fifteen people can be supervised on probation for the cost of imprisoning just one inmate.

The Conservative-Liberal coalition government has stated that it values the social contribution made by probation. The prisons and probation minister Crispin Blunt, who addressed probation staff at the Napo (National Association of Probation Officers) conference in Scarborough on October 8th, 2010, said that he wanted to clarify:

“… my attitude to the probation service as a whole. I recognise and celebrate the highest level of public service that motivates the members of the probation service. Day in and day out, you manage some of the most damaging and damaged members of our society on behalf of the rest of us. You do it in our interest, but also in their interest. I hugely appreciate what you do… I need no convincing of your economic and social value to the country.  Your profession, on both counts, plays an essential role in our society.” (Blunt 2010)

The government minister with responsibility for probation may well publicly “celebrate” the job done by probation staff (though the immediate ironic standing ovation from the audience of around 600 probation practitioners which greeted this paean acknowledging their social contribution indicated that practitioners were less than convinced of the wholeheartedly sincerity of Blunt’s endorsement. In any event, the warmth quickly dissipated when the minister laid out his plan for the de facto privatisation of  parts of the services delivered by probation. Y He  could have been left in no doubt that they felt undervalued and unappreciated.

While Blunt may have needed “no convincing” of the value of probation staff, practitioners that I spoke to as part of my research on probation culture (coming soon) were not so sure that they were highly valued in the popular consciousness. A recurring theme in my research with probation staff was the disconnect between how they believe they are perceived by the public and portrayed in the media, and the content of and value of the work which they do. There was a widely held sense of being misunderstood and undervalued, despite the demanding and potentially risky nature of probation intervention that they undertake on a daily basis.

Blunt, too, acknowledged that the public remains for the most part unaware of the invaluable contribution made by probation. He reflected on probation’s public and media image, and the (sometimes unachievable) expectations that are projected onto probation by politicians:

“At times misunderstood and under-valued by the public, too often misrepresented by the media, and mistrusted by previous generations of politicians who seemingly wouldn’t grasp the basic fact that you can never completely manage away risk. And so much of what you do is about risk management.” (Blunt 2010 p.2)

Blunt suggests that probation is “at times misunderstood and under-valued by the public”. In the course of my interviews, the Daily Mail was frequently mentioned by probation staff as a paper which in their view misrepresented the work of probation and was also perceived to report crime inaccurately. A typical comment came from a London probation officer with 25 years of experience who told me, in a tone of weary cynicism:

“You’ll get one side of the story from someone who writes the Daily Mail. You don’t get many other sides of the story.”

In my next post, I look at how the Daily Mail has portrayed probation.