Criminology, probation and stuff

Some musings on criminology with a focus on probation

NAPO call for abolition of NOMS

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Yesterday, NAPO published a press release calling for the abolition of NOMS. They make a strong case for this based on the fact that NOMS was introduced without consultation and before any evaluation of the then recently created National Probation Service had taken place. They argue that although prison and probation work complement each other, they are not the same and should not have been ‘wedded together in a ‘coerced union’ created on the erroneous basis that the two organisations perform the same tasks.’ They also make the case, similar to my point about Phil Wheatley retiring, that NOMS is dominated by prison staff and expertise- this is most obvious in the fact that no heads of units have a probation background. It is important to remember that probation have contact with considerably larger numbers of people than prisons and that only one third of people on probation have been in prison whereas the vast majority of people in prison have had contact with probation- through a PSR, sentence plan or parole application at the absolute minimum.

NAPO state that they predicted that the creation of NOMS would lead to ‘a huge increase in bureaucracy, the disappearance of Probation as an entity and a sharp deterioration in the quality of supervision and court report writing’ and that, ‘sadly these predictions have proved to be the case.’ I expect most probation staff would agree with the first prediction and, at a strategic level, the second. However, I don’t think they would be too happy about their union saying that the quality of their work has deteriorated, even if it is for potential future gain. I think that NAPO is treading a fine line between supporting its staff and campaigning for change and doing exactly what it accuses NOMS of doing later in the report when it states that ‘NOMS criticises and undermines its Probation staff, when it is they who know all about and understand the job’. Some of the comments on a cultural clash between prisons and probation are the most powerful, with this paragraph effectively illustrating some of the problems associated with merging two very different institutions:

All existing templates are from the Prison Service and have not been altered to take account of the nuance and different culture of the service offered by Probation, to the detriment of the service and the disadvantage of the public.  Even Probation Circulars have now been turned into ‘Instructions’ mimicking established Prisons practice without any consultation. The Prison Service management ethos of centralised control and command is not appropriate to the Probation Service, which has been managed historically on the basis of consultation and wherever possible consent, achieving staff investment and commitment to the organisation’s aims.

So, what do NAPO suggest instead of NOMS? They refer to the Scottish model which allows information sharing and decision to take place at a local level with less accountability to national government and a reduced focus on contestability. Scotland has, according to their consultation, been resistant to a merger of prisons and probation and therefore England and Wales should learn from Scotland’s experience. True, the Scottish experience has resulted in a more locally delivered probation service but, as the report itself states, probation in Scotland is still delivered by social work departments. This schism between Scotland, and England and Wales, goes back a long way- it was in 1962 that probation in England split from social services and so trying to impose a Scottish model on the structure already in place is probably a bit too idealistic. Having said that, it is important to look north of the border, as well as to other countries to see how they are managing such problems.

NAPO suggest that a Directorate of Probation be created in order to reduce bureaucracy, minimise the number of requests for data, and, crucially in my opinion, ensure that supervision remains (or, arguably, re-emerges) ‘at the heart’ of probation practice. They make a strong statement that:

Offender Assessment, Community Supervision and Stakeholders [should be] at the heart of Probation practice, as one of the Service’s key functions is to assess and manage risk in order to protect the public and reduce re-offending. This team is the centrepiece of the new structure as its functions bind together those of the other teams.  It will take the lead in developing policy and practice on the provision of court reports and the management of offenders who are subject to court orders or who have been released from prison on licence

Seeing supervision and assessment as the glue which holds probation together is a nice analogy which allows other things like punishment, victim services, reparations, monitoring and research to be important and present but not precedent. Unfortunately I don’t think their ‘atrium’ model really does justice to this idea because it gives all units of the Directorate equal footing which isn’t the feeling I get from their proposal:

Whether anything happens as a result of this call is doubtful. Nevertheless I do think that the role of NOMS should be looked at with proposals made for change and this idea from NAPO is one that should definitely be given careful consideration. Probation could be seen to be at a crossroads where it may be subsumed completely into ‘NOMS-the-pseudo-prison-service’ or it could raise its voice and reassert itself as important, necessary and deserving of attention. Having said that, it shouldn’t get complacent and adopt a sense of entitlement- probation practice effectiveness is still up for debate and so the need for research is all too important (yes, I’m trying to make sure there’s still a job for me when I graduate!)- to revert to the 1960s where casework was considered to be effective despite a lack of evaluation would not be a good move. Because of the massive structural change imposed on the Service over the last ten years or so the need for change doesn’t just fall at the level of practice as seen in the 1970s and it is good to see that NAPO recognises this and is advocating change.

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Written by criminologyandstuff

January 20, 2010 at 12:11 pm

Posted in criminal justice

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