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For those of you who follow changes in the Criminal Justice System (CJS) or have studied Crime and Justice, you will be aware that current probation arrangements are based on the notion of contestability, made possible by the Offender Management Act 2007 and fully enacted under the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014. What this meant in practice was the auctioning off of probation work to newly formed Community Rehabilitation Companies (CRCs) in 2015 (Davies et al, 2015). This move was highly controversial and was strongly opposed by practitioners and academics alike who were concerned that such arrangements would undermine the CJS, result in a deskilled probation service, and create a postcode lottery of provision (Raynor et al., 2014; Robinson et al., 2016). The government’s decision to ignore those who may be considered experts in the field has had perilous consequences for those receiving the services as well as the service providers themselves.
Picking up on @manosdaskalou’s theme of justice from his June blog and considering the questions overhanging the future sustainability of the CRC arrangements it is timely to consider these provisions in a little more detail. In recent weeks I have found myself sitting on a number of probation or non-CPS courts where I have witnessed first-hand the inadequacies of the CRC arrangements and potential injustices faced by offenders under their supervision. For instance, I have observed a steady increase in applications from probation, or more specifically CRCs, to have community orders adjusted. While such requests are not in themselves unusual, the type of adjustment or more specifically the reason behind the request, are. For example, I have witnessed an increase in requests for the Building Better Relationships (BBR) programme to be removed because there is insufficient time left on the order to complete it, or that the order itself is increased in length to allow the programme to be completed. Such a request raises several questions, firstly why has an offender who is engaged with the Community Order not been able to complete the BBR within a 12-month, or even 24-month timeframe? Secondly, as such programmes are designed to reduce the risk of future domestic abuse, how is rehabilitation going to be achieved if the programme is removed? Thirdly, is it in the interests of justice or fairness to increase the length of the community order by 3 to 6 month to allow the programme to be complete? These are complex questions and have no easy answer, especially if the reason for failing to complete (or start) the programme is not the offenders fault but rather the CRCs lack of management or organisation. Where an application to increase the order is granted by the court the offender faces an injustice in as much as their sentencing is being increased, not based on the severity of the crime or their failure to comply, but because the provider has failed to manage the order efficiently. Equally, where the removal of the BBR programme is granted it is the offender who suffers because the rehabilitative element is removed, making punishment the sole purpose of the order and thus undermining the very reason for the reform in the first place.
Whilst it may appear that I am blaming the CRCs for these failings, that is not my intent. The problems are with the reform itself, not necessarily the CRCs given the contracts. Many of the CRCs awarded contracts were not fully aware of the extent of the workload or pressure that would come with such provisions, which in turn has had a knock-on effect on resources, funding, training, staff morale and so forth. As many of these problems were also those plaguing probation post-reform, it should come as little surprise that the CRCs were in no better a position than probation, to manage the number of offenders involved, or the financial and resource burden that came with it.
My observations are further supported by the growing number of news reports criticising the arrangements, with headlines like ‘Private probation firms criticised for supervising offenders by phone’ (Travis, 2017a), ‘Private probation firms fail to cut rates of reoffending’ (Savage, 2018), ‘Private probation firms face huge losses despite £342m ‘bailout’’ (Travis, 2018), and ‘Private companies could pull out of probation contracts over costs’ (Travis, 2017b). Such reports come as little surprise if you consider the strength of opposition to the reform in the first place and their justifications for it. Reading such reports leaves me rolling my eyes and saying ‘well, what did you expect if you ignore the advice of experts!’, such an outcome was inevitable.
In response to these concerns, the Justice Committee has launched an inquiry into the Government’s Transforming Rehabilitation Programme to look at CRC contracts, amongst other things. Whatever the outcome, the cost of additional reform to the tax payer is likely to be significant, not to mention the impact this will have on the CJS, the NPS, and offenders. All of this begs the question of what the real intention of the Transforming Rehabilitation reform was, that is who was it designed for? If it’s aim was to reduce reoffending rates by providing support to offenders who previously were not eligible for probation support, then the success of this is highly questionable. While it could be argued that more offenders now received support, the nature and quality of the support is debatable. Alternatively, if the aim was to reduce spending on the CJS, the problems encountered by the CRCs and the need for an MoJ ‘bail out’ suggests that this too has been unsuccessful. In short, all that we can say about this reform is that Chris Grayling (the then Home Secretary), and the Conservative Government more generally have left their mark on the CJS.
 Community Orders typically lasts for 12 months but can run for 24 months. The BBR programme runs over a number of weeks and is often used for cases involving domestic abuse.
Davies, M. (2015) Davies, Croall and Tyrer’s Criminal Justice. Harlow: Pearson.
Raynor, P., Ugwudike, P. and Vanstone, M. (2014) The impact of skills in probation work: A reconviction study. Criminology and Criminal Justice, 14(2), pp.235–249.
Robinson, G., Burke, L., and Millings, M. (2016) Criminal Justice Identities in Transition: The Case of Devolved Probation Services in England and Wales. British Journal of Criminology, 56(1), pp.161-178.
Savage, M. (2018) Private probation firms fail to cut rates of reoffending. Guardian [online]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/feb/03/private-firms-fail-cut-rates-reoffending-low-medium-risk-offenders [Accessed 6 July 2018].
Travis, A. (2017a) Private probation firms criticised for supervising offenders by phone. Guardian [online]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/dec/14/private-probation-firms-criticised-supervising-offenders-phone [Accessed 6 July 2018].
Travis, A. (2017b) Private companies could pull out of probation contracts over costs. Guardian [online]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/mar/21/private-companies-could-pull-out-of-probation-contracts-over-costs [Accessed 6 July 2018].
Travis, A. (2018) Private probation firms face huge losses despite £342m ‘bailout’. Guardian [online]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2018/jan/17/private-probation-companies-face-huge-losses-despite-342m-bailout [Accessed 6 July 2018].
Another broken promise – Ministry of Justice announcement to postpone plans to reduce female prison population
The plight of women in prison aptly demonstrates some of the issues I have with our current government. There seems to be a pattern of u-turns, postponing on strategies and little remorse or concern shown for the impact of these decisions. Now I don’t know if this is to do with focus on Brexit, or some other reason that only those in the corridors of power can know. What I am concerned about is the cavalier way this government back tracks and displays levels of incompetency that anyone else would be sacked for. I am concerned because these tactics affect lives, they impact on people’s health wellbeing and survival. Women in prison suffer disproportionately compared to men, and it seems, they are easy target to disregard. They are also a prison population which is predominantly low risk and would benefit from assistance, welfare and support, much more so than punishment and retribution. By the way, I also firmly believe there are plenty of male prisoners and young offenders in the same boat – as do others. Women in prison, including those who are also mothers (up to 66%) (Epstein, 2014) do however face greater impact for a variety of reasons. It is these reasons which make the recent announcement by the Ministry of Justice to postpone plans to reduce the female prison population all the more galling.
An article in the Guardian states ‘women account for 5% of the prison population of in England and Wales but have much higher rates of deaths, suicide attempts and self-harm than men’ (Syal, 2018). The focus of the multimillion pound government strategy to reduce the number of women being imprisoned for non-violent offences was to set up community prisons and provide more support for female offenders. The postponement was reported to be due to spending pressures, which is also affected spending on the prison system more widely. This is a strategy which has been developed over several years and this postponement must surely test the patience of those reformers who have campaigned for this change. Indeed, Peter Dawson, the director of the Prison Reform Trust has expressed disbelief that a strategy which had widespread support is being treated in this way. He also added that to cite the postponement as an issue with cost is contradictory, given better support in the community and the aims of the strategy to reduce the numbers of women in prison would actually reduce costs to the Ministry of Justice. Women prisoners have complex needs, with mental health issues, abuse, debt, homelessness, poor education as well a significant number having child care responsibilities and with a prison sentence, facing the very real prospect of losing their child to the social care system (Baldwn, 2017).
The MoJ strategy embraced multi-agency working and even found a way to navigate achieving its aims under the current Transforming Rehabilitation arrangements, with the National Probation Service working with the police, mental health charities and courts to co-ordinate better support services and better arrangements to help women due for release. The need for this was clear as a report by Inquest (2018) showed that 116 women died post release during 2010-11 and 2016-17. In addition to increased incidences of self-harm and suicides, and given that 84% of women are imprisoned for non-violent offences (ibid), it was clear that not only should something be done, but also that something could be done. The benefits were evident in saving money, reducing risks to women prisoners and not compromising on public protection. The report by Inquest (2018) also shows that the disproportionate number of women on short term sentences (62%) reiterates the need to reduce this, given the disruptive effects on housing, jobs and childcare. Deborah Coles of Inquest suggest this postponement by the MoJ will costs lives and that the harms of the justice system to women need to be acknowledged.
This need for change is also supported by the Magistrates Association, who also report that help and support is much more effective than short term sentences. Given this arena is where the decision to sentence occurs, it is an important move to get magistrates thinking differently about the delivery of justice. This is not just about considering community sentences, but also to consider how the court room can be a place for different approaches to those offenders – male or female – who present complex needs, experiences of abuse and discrimination and who require more than stern words and retributive acts of punishment.
There have long been concerns about the rising numbers of female prisoners, given that this is attributed to increasing punitiveness in sentencing decisions (Hedderman, 2004). There is a strong case for using community sentencing where this is appropriate (Corston, 2007; Prison Reform Trust 2011; Baldwin, 2015), i.e. for non-violent and low risk offenders. This is evidence from campaigns (e.g. from the Howard League for Penal Reform, the Prison Reform Trust, Women in Prison, Make Justice Work) to reduce the use of custody more generally, but especially for women and mothers who break the law. A recent edited text on the plight of mothers in prison further emphasises the need for a different approach (Baldwin, 2015). It collates contributions from academics and practitioners working within the prison system, managing the needs of mothers and mothers to be, as well as those research these issues (e.g. Baldwin, 2015; Epstein, 2012; Minson 2014). A core theme is that short term sentences create a narrative of continuing disadvantage, felt for generations (Baldwin, 2015). It also demonstrates the long-term effects of the imprisonment of mothers, as a ripple effect which impacts the mother, their child, other family members for a length of time way past the length of the sentence – what Baldwin (2015) has referred to as a ‘sentence which keeps on punishing’. This text reiterates the potential for change starting with the courts, where different approaches would have a lasting impact and lead to more positive outcomes.
This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of evidence which shows a different way to deal with offenders is possible, the evidence is there, the options are there and until recently, some degree of political will and investment was also there. I hope this is a postponement and not just another broken promise. This seems to be a pattern for this government, and there seems to be no one holding them to account when such decisions are made. It may well be because the prison population is a group we can all too easily disregard. However, given that these are people who have faced a life of disadvantage and whose reformation would benefit all of us who wish to feel safe in our communities, this view is misguided. The problem is, it seems it is all too easily accepted.
Senior Lecturer in Criminology
Baldwin, L. (2015) Mothering Justice: Working with Mothers in Criminal and Social Justice Settings, Waterside Press.
Baldwin, L. (2015d). Rules of Confinement: Time for Changing the Game. Criminal Law and Justice Weekly, 179 (10).
Corston, J. (2007). The Corston Report: A report by Baroness Jean Corston of a Review of Women with Particular Vulnerabilities in the Criminal Justice System. London: Home Office.
Epstein, R. (2014). Mothers in Prison: The sentencing of mothers and the rights of the child, Howard League What is Justice? Working Papers 3/2014, Howard League for Penal Reform.
Hedderman, C. (2004). The ‘criminogenic’ needs of women offenders. In G. McIvor
(ed) Women Who Offend: Research Highlights in Social Work 44. London: Jessica
Inquest (2016) Still Dying On The Inside: Examining deaths in women’s prisons (see https://www.inquest.org.uk/Handlers/Download.ashx?IDMF=8d39dc1d-02f7-48eb-b9ac-2c063d01656a)
Minson, S. (2014). Mitigating Motherhood: A study of the impact of motherhood on sentencing decisions in England and Wales, Howard League for Penal Reform, London.
Prison Reform Trust (2011). Reforming Women’s Justice: Final Report of the Women’s Justice Taskforce. London: Prison Reform Trust.
Syal, R. (2018) Ministry of Justice postpones plans to reduce female prison population, The Guardian, 2 May 2018.
The recent reforms to the probation service were examined in the BBC Panorama programme ‘Out of Jail: Free to Offend Again?’ The title of the programme struck me with a clear sense of ‘we told you so’ given the warnings and concerns raised by those working within the probation service and colleagues in criminology departments. Just look at #faillinggrayling on twitter – there you can chart the anxiety as the reforms were proposed and then implemented.
The programme began with the case of Connor Marshall who on a night out with friends was attacked by a stranger, David Braddon who had a history of violent offending, along with alcohol and drug misuse. Sadly, Connor died in hospital a few days after the attack and then, the details of David Braddon’s circumstances were revealed, during the review into Connor’s death. David was on probation, under the supervision of ‘Working Links’, a private consortium who took over running of probation for most of Wales, under the new Transforming Rehabilitation (TR) arrangements in 2015. TR promised radical reforms which would privatise the probation service for low and medium risk offenders, with high risk offenders still being managed under the National Probation Service (NPS). Ian Lawrence, General Secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers (NAPO) spoke on the programme about how they warned the government about the risks, due to the extensive re-organisation, costs to the taxpayer and crucially, the impact on public safety. In addition, an internal memo from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) gave explicit warnings about the danger of the TR failing, citing that an ‘unacceptable drop in operational performance which might lead to delivery failure and reputational damage.’
Connor’s case was described in the programme as an ‘early failure.’ The phrase reminded me of the cold and calculated response when we are told the casualties of war are ‘collateral damage.’ There was a sense of acceptance of failures, given the extent of the reforms. David Braddon had a catalogue of missed appointments and non-compliance, along with becoming increasingly withdrawn, all of which should have been flagged up by those supervising him, and action taken. This reminded me of another pivotal case in probation, which highlighted the impact of over-loading probation officers and not responding properly to those offenders who are clearly at risk and not complying with their supervision. In 2008, Dano Sonnex and Robert Falmer killed two French students in south east London, in a violent attack. The Serious Case Review, focusing on Dano Sonnex, revealed a catalogue of errors, resulting in part from caseworkers in probation being overloaded and inexperienced in dealing with someone with such complex needs as Sonnex. The fact that this occurred in London was worrying when the presenter presented the views of a whistle-blower, working for MTC Novo, a company who was now delivering probation services for low and medium risk cases in London. The premise of TR was that ‘Community Rehabilitation Companies’ (CRCs) would take on expanded caseloads from widening the net for supervision to those on short term sentences, where re-offending rates are particularly high. MTC Novo and Working Links are just two examples of new CRCs now responsible for low and medium risk offenders. The programme then examined the experiences of probation, from the perspective of a service user, probation officers and those involved in inspecting the service.
Sean Grant, out of prison and living with friends reported he had very little contact with MTC Novo, his first appointment took 3 weeks to set up after his release and he had no support to get stable housing in place. He also reported his view was that the service had not improved, compared to his previous contact, and later in the programme, it transpired he was at risk of recall, due to missed appointments which he knew nothing about. This was particularly galling since he had secured work and seemed to be doing everything he needed to do to prevent re-offending, albeit with little help from the probation service.
This experience chimed with the views then given by a ‘whistle-blower’ from within MTC Novo, who reported that the company was now employing fewer fully qualified probation officers, and his caseload had risen from 50 to 76, including some vulnerable offenders who were not getting the intervention they needed. They also cited the problems associated with not having time to build a rapport, with monthly meetings of 20 minutes, asking ‘how will you open up? I don’t know them, they don’t trust me.’ It seems the long held and valued principles of the probation service to ‘advise, assist and befriend’, already eroded by risk management and efficiency drives, were now being further undermined by TR. More worryingly, the probation service as an effective means to reduce re-offending was also undermined, when the same whistle-blower referred to an ‘explosion in re-offending’, including violent offences. For others outside London, probation had become a service which staff described as a ‘mess’ and time spent with clients had fallen from 15 to 2 hours a week, and was also characterised by division and in-efficiency.
Dr Lawrence Burke, Ian Lawrence and Dame Glenys Stacey all agreed that the calls for a rethink on TR were growing louder, the service was in danger of becoming de-stabilised and of putting lives at risk. This feels very much like reform which was imposed on a service which was functioning relatively well – not perfectly – but which is now facing significant issues, all of which were meant to be addressed by TR. The harrowing cases, while still rare events, can cite the failings of probation as contributing to the serious crimes which occurred and therefore, the key aim of the service, to protect the public, is not being met. The rising prison population and especially the continued use of short term prison sentences means the service will continue to be overloaded, while CRC managers continue to cut costs to keep solvent. Therein lies a fundamental problem – making a profit through the management of offenders is not viable, sustainable, advisable or safe. The probation service, much like the NHS, the police and other public services can deliver well and do good work when it is not diverted by concerns over cost savings and trying to deal with increasing workloads.
Senior Lecturer in Criminology
Following the apparent growth in acid attacks the suggestion from Amber Rudd on a potential means of tackling the problem has all the markings of another knee-jerk policy that lacks careful planning and application. The proposal is to restrict the sales of corrosive substances and introduce new, specific legislation for possession and use of such substances against another person. The justification for these suggestions is based on the doubling of attacks between 2012 and 2016-17. Furthermore a 6 month review by National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC) report 400 acid or corrosive substance attacks between October 2016 and April 2017. The impact of such attacks is long lasting and without question, a horrific life changing experience, however is this reaction the right one for all concerned?
The plan to ban the sale of corrosive substances to under 18s in itself may be a sensible idea, if there is careful consultation on what substances are to be included in this blanket approach. A similar approach already exists with the sale of knives, tobacco and alcohol yet the extent to which these policies are a success is a moot point. Policing such an approach will also be considerably challenging because there is currently no clear outline of what the government intends to class as a corrosive substance. If the suggestions that bleach will be on the list then this may prove very difficult, if not impossible to police. Many of the corrosive substances being used today are household names readily available in most local shops and supermarkets, not to mention the internet. When purchasing items subject to restriction on the internet, the only check of age is you clicking a button to confirm it and maybe adding a date of birth, neither of which are particularly secure.
Taking this a step further the other suggestion is the creation of a new offence; possession of a corrosive substance in a public place. Such legislation is modelled on legislation already used to tackle knife offences and offensive weapons whereby a prison sentence of upto 4 years can be issues for possession, with intent to carry out an attack. However, why is such an approach necessary when perpetrators of acid attacks can already receive a life sentence under existing legislation. Is it because of the tremendous success of the approach taken to knife crime? Unlikely, if you consider the resistance by the judiciary to use such an approach which would inevitably lead to much higher prison numbers than we already have. In short, the ‘do it again…threat’ is highly unlikely to act as a deterrence when deterrence as a reason for punishment has long been questionable.
Is this another knee-jerk reaction to media hype? Evidence of another poorly considered policy response driven by political self-interest and the desire to be ‘seen to be doing something’. Many of these attacks have been linked to societies folk devils; youth or personal vendetta’s therefore rather than creating new policy, why not focus on existing measures using them to their full force and improving the services offered to the victims of these heinous crimes. Under existing legislations those convicted of an acid attack can receive a life sentences so why new legislation. Survivors also get a life sentence so surely the more appropriate response is to focus on victim’s needs (physical and psychological) rather than the creation of unnecessary legislation
Recent months have seen a rebirth in drug related news stories, often linked to the death of young people or babies or the dealing of drugs by youth and gangs. This led me to consider the place of drugs in British Society, not in terms of their distribution, production, cost, but the reasons why illicit drug use continues to be prominent in UK society. There is plenty of research on this topic and considerable political commentary on the problem, however is drug use really a problem or are we simply more aware of illicit drug use and more open to discussing it? There are certainly arguments for both sides but neither address the reason why drugs are in our society and this led me to consider the speculative argument that cocaine use is increasing, or at least shifting to a newer market.
Cocaine, historically the drug of choice for celebrities and the wealthy is now spreading across society to a wider social demographic by why? The main argument produced by the ACMD is that there is a two-tier market based on purity, the more pure and thus more expensive continues to be used by celebrities and the wealthy but a less pure, cheaper version is now available for those less affluent. I don’t doubt the validity of this argument but I think there is more to this than simply price and purity. Historically, drugs that are now illegal were widely available and staple part of people’s daily lives helping to mask the harshness of life or facilitate their functionality within working and social environments. Has much changed? The political drive to make us do more for less is certainly evident in modern society as is the harsh effects of poverty and deprivation, both of which can lead to drug use, albeit these once legal substances are now illegal.
In addition, developments in technology and globalisation have significantly increased the pace of life for most people; we work longer hours to survive or because it is demanded of us, we juggle more commitments than ever before, we are expected to absorb and process huge amounts of information instantaneously all of which has sped up our lives to the point of sensory overload but are our bodies and minds really designed to cope with this long-term? When I was at university I studied during the day and worked nights so the maximum amount of sleep I would get in any 24 hour period was about 4 hours and this was broken sleep, usually between 4pm and 8pm. At that time the drug of choice was pro plus and without it, I would not have been able to sustain this lifestyle for three years. I’d like to say this was just a small period in my life that such actions were needed to follow my dream but the reality is that as the work-life balance blurs and demands on our time increase, time to sleep erodes and our bodies are not designed to operate well on minimal sleep. This naturally leads to the inclusion of stimulants in our daily lives to help us to function, whether that be caffeine or cocaine is a personal choice but potentially a necessary evil if we wish to survive.
That is not say that I condone the use of illicit drugs but that does not mean that I can’t see the potential benefits of such substances. There are numerous documentaries highlighting the use of uppers to stay awake and downers to sleep amongst the celebrity population whose lifestyles can be chaotic. The question is, has this chaos now spread to wider society as the cost of living increases and the political momentum for us to ‘do more’ continues to grow? If it has, then illicit drugs will remain a staple part of societies coping mechanism, whether that be too dull the harshness of daily life or enable us to survive in a changing environment.
The academic year is almost over and it offers the time and space to think. It’s easy to become focused on what needs to be done – for staff; teaching and marking assessments, for students; studying and writing assessments – which leaves little time to stop and contemplate the bigger questions. But without contemplation, academic life becomes less vibrant and runs the risk of becoming procedural and task oriented, rather than the pursuit of knowledge. Reading becomes a chore instead of a pleasure, mindlessly trying to make sense of words, without actually taking time out to think what does this actually mean. We’re all guilty of trying to fill every minute with activity; some meaningful, some meaningless that we forget to stop, relax and let our minds wander. Similarly, writing becomes a barrier because we focus on doing rather than thinking. With this in mind what follows is not a reasoned academic argument but rather a stream of thought
As some of you will remember, a while ago Manos and I had a discussion around words in Criminology (Facebook Live: 24.10.16). In particular, whether words can, or should, be banned and if there is a way of reclaiming, or rehabilitating language. Differing views have emerged, with some strongly on the side of leaving words deemed offensive to die out, whilst others have argued for reclamation of the very same terms. Others still have argued for the reclamation of language, but only by those who the language was targeted toward.
All this talk made me think about the way we use language in crime and justice and the impact this has on the individuals involved. This can be seen in everyday life with the depiction of criminals and victims, the innocents and the guilty, recidivists and those deemed rehabilitated, but we rarely consider the long-lasting effects of these words on individuals.
The recent commemoration (27.07.17) of the fiftieth anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act 1967 brought some of these thoughts to the forefront of my mind. This legislation partially decriminalised sex between men (aged 21 or over) but only in private, meaning that homosexual relationship were confined and any public expression of affection was still liable to criminal prosecution. This anniversary, coming six months after the passing of “Turing’s Law” (officially, the Policing and Crime Act 2017) made me think about the way in which we recompense these men; historically identified as criminals but contemporaneously viewed in a very different light.
I view the gist of “Turing’s Law” as generally positive, offering the opportunity for both the living and dead, to clear their names and expunge their criminal records. After all it allows society to recognise the wrongs done in the name of the law to a not unsubstantial group of citizens. For me, where this legal righting of wrongs falls down, is in the wording. To offer someone a pardon suggests they are forgiven for their “sins” rather than acknowledging that the law (and society) got it wrong. It does not recognise the harm suffered by these men over the course of their lifetimes; a conviction for sexual offending cannot be shrugged off or easily explained away and leaves an indelible mark. Furthermore, whilst the dead are to be pardoned posthumously, the onus is on the men still living, to seek out their own disregard and pardon.
Helen is an Associate Lecturer teaching modules in years 1 and 3.
Earlier this year, the Prison Service announced that the Core Sex Offender Treatment Programme and the Extended Sex Offender Treatment Programme would be withdrawn with immediate effect. Offenders in the middle of programmes would be able to complete, but no new programmes would start. No explanation was given. A new suite of programmes, focussed on building strengths for the future rather than analysing past offending, had already been developed but a gradual roll-out had been planned rather than a sudden switch. There were many murmurings among Parole Board members. Why the sudden withdrawal? How would sex offenders now be able to demonstrate that they had reduced their risk? Where was the evidence that the new programmes were any better? We suspected that there had been an unfavourable evaluation, but no one had seen the research.
The truth came to light via The Mail on Sunday on 25th June. There had, indeed, been an unfavourable evaluation of the Sex Offender Treatment Programme (SOTP). When compared to matched offenders who had not completed treatment, those who had done so were more likely to re-offend. The Ministry of Justice had withdrawn the programme but had not published the research. They finally did so on 30th June.
The decision to sit on the research was not helpful. The first information we received about it was filtered through the eyes of The Mail on Sunday. They claimed that “Prisoners who take the rehabilitation courses are at least 25% more likely to be convicted of further sex crimes that those who do not.” This is not true. Of the 2,562 treated sex offenders included in the study, 10% went on to commit another sexual offence. The figure for the matched untreated offenders was 8%. 90% of sex offenders, treated or untreated, did not reoffend within the follow-up period (average 8.2 years). But it is true that treatment made people worse. Two percentage points is a small difference, but with such a large sample size it is significant. The research is robust and well-designed. A randomised control trial would have been more robust, but the matched comparisons in this study were done thoroughly and every attempt was made to take account of possible confounding variables. You can read the study for yourself here:
and the Mail‘s interpretation of it here:
So why did treatment make offenders more likely to reoffend? At this stage we really don’t know. The authors of the research make some suggestions but they are only speculating. Perhaps talking about sex offending in a group setting “normalises” offending. Perhaps groupwork provides offenders with opportunities to network. Perhaps these programmes promoted shame in offenders which ultimately reduced self-esteem and self-efficacy and reduced the chances of building a positive and fulfilling future. The new programmes draw more from the desistance literature. They include much less offence analysis and are more focussed on building strengths for a positive future. They may be more likely to succeed but we will not know for several years until we have had the chance to evaluate them.
So where does that leave the offenders and staff who have worked hard on these programmes over the years? Sex offender treatment is expensive, tiring and takes a psychological toll on those delivering it. A prison officer once told me that delivering SOTP was the best and most fulfilling thing he had ever done, but also the most damaging. A couple of weeks ago, I was talking to a former colleague who used to run SOTP and we reflected, “Was all of that effort for nothing?” We have to take the research seriously, learn the lessons and move on. There is no denying the findings. But perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. SOTP was based on the best research available at the time. It was modified and developed over the years in the light of emerging research. It might have “worked” for some participants, even if it made others worse. We assessed and came to understand a large number of sex offenders. As a result of that work and this evaluation, we now have a better understanding of what might work to reduce reoffending in the future. Of course, there is an argument that all attempts at rehabilitation are futile, that people choose to behave as they wish and we should not try to manipulate them to change. But perhaps that’s a subject for another blog!