I remember many years ago hearing ex prisoner turned probation officer Bob Turney explain the difference in the response to missed probation appointments in the UK and US. In the States, he said, a probation officer would go armed to their errant client’s home and arrest him. In England and Wales, he’d send him a letter. The caricature summed up how probation here was about keeping people out of prisons while in the US it was about getting people into them.
While dealing with breach has become a lot tougher since then, the British Government
is being urged to go further down the American road. Today’s Centre for Social Justice Report is the latest to favour a more robust approach to those who fail
to comply with community sentences. Threatening Americans on probation with immediate
short spells in prison has apparently reduced the numbers not only of those who
miss appointments but also who fail drug tests and who re-offend. The mantra of
swift and certain punishment is becoming a new orthodoxy in probation,
promising to make community sentences both more effective and more credible. As
our friends across the pond might say, “What’s not to like?”
Three things actually. First, those with long memories will recall how the
fruits of North American research have been touted as the saviour of probation once
before. The overblown claims made by proponents of accredited programmes in the
early 1990’s took community based supervision down a psychology dominated road that
many have come to regret. At the very
least some British pilots are needed to see whether the admittedly impressive
results reported in Hawaii are replicated here and whether it is in fact the deterrent
threat of prison which makes the key difference.
Second in the UK putting people into prison for short periods is generally
agreed to be a problem not a solution. This is partly for practical reasons. Intermittent
custody was quietly abandoned in 2006 in part because courts were reluctant to
use it and in part because the prison service could not manage it. Today’s
report seems to envisage failing probationers being held in police cells for
several days at a time, a role for which many police stations are simply not equipped.
Finally the automatic unleashing of custodial sanctions on people who fail to
comply offends both the values and evidence base for probation. It’s true that
the European Probation Rules say that where offenders fail to comply with conditions,
probation staff should respond actively and promptly. But they go on that “the
response shall take full account of the circumstances of the failure to comply”.
Swift and certain imprisonment comes close to violating this requirement as
well as the rule that in gaining the offenders’ co-operation, probation staff should
not rely solely on the prospect of sanctions for non-compliance.
Moreover swift and certain punishment seems to fly in the face of the growing acceptance
that giving up drugs and going straight involve a process of desistance. In
encouraging desistance, using authority is a crucial part of a probation
officer’s role; but effective supervision demands very much more than the
policing function envisaged in the simplistic and punitive approach put forward by CSJ.