Determining Pre-Sentence Reports — Probation Instruction 4/2016

This was finally issued in January. It has been a long time in gestation, having originally been sent to the unions for consultation a year ago. Napo’s Professional Committee submitted a detailed response last April (P16/15).

For the sake of clarification regarding Napo’s position over the preparation of court reports, here are extracts from our response:

Complexities of process have been heaped on what was once a relatively straightforward matter. In addition, certain targets have gained ascendancy and these have increasingly masked important aspects of Pre-Sentence Reports.

Whilst there is undoubtedly a place both for FDRs (Fast Delivery Reports) and oral reports to court, in Napo’s view, these report forms have become far too prevalent at the expense of SDRs (Standard Delivery Reports). What suffers as a consequence? Thoroughness, checks (Safeguarding, Domestic Violence etc), proper argument in sentencing proposals aimed at achieving the most appropriate sentence commensurate with the seriousness of the offending , the prison population – as a consequence of PSR authors not being able to present and argue credible non-custodial alternatives and the ‘felt fair’ factor for offenders – compliance rates are likely to be higher where offenders are properly engagedin the process and where they accept the ‘justness’ of sentencing,which partly revolves around having the process and the options properly explained to them.

PSRs used to focus attention on each individual case to explore the best way forward to reduce risk of harm and risk of reoffending. The new speed driven PSR process moves us further from looking at the individual and fast forward toward a tick box/form filling mentality where the defendant is simply a commodity to be processed. Professional integrity is compromised and the role of the PSR in facilitating post-sentence work, endorsed by the court through their sentencing, is lost in the midst of ever more opaque assessment forms that are barely understood by probationpractitioners let alone service users or courts.

The PI makes no reference to the Workload Management Tool.… Napo would like to see more reference to realistic timings and consequential resourcing implications in the document. … The PI fails to take sufficient account of the Specifications, Benchmarking & Costings (Project) work. This, for example, in the Operating Model, gives an estimated 30% as the number of reports that would be written as full SDRs on 15 day adjournments. Napo would question whether even this figure was an appropriate assessment of the number of reports that should be compiled in this way. But the PI moves much further from this figure through use of language such as only in ‘exceptional’ circumstances.

For some years, the court system in England and Wales has sought to become more efficient so as to dispense justice more quickly – generally speaking a laudable intention, though one which has increasingly come into conflict with the principle of thorough forensic assessment , particularly in the sphere of risk – and thus ultimately with public protection. These conflicting principleshave been magnified considerably by the new assessment and case allocation systems introduced into Probation for use at and immediately after sentence. Throughout the PI, there is evidence of confusion regarding what assessment should be done pre and post sentence. In Napo’s view, it is to the advantage both of defendants as well as providers of probation services, and importantly the courts themselves, for proper assessment to be done pre-sentence – hence the original purpose of Pre-Sentence Reports. At the point of sentence, the court was able to pass the appropriate sentence in full possession of both facts and advice. The court was thus in control of the process as quite rightly it should be. The defendant knew from the outset what was expected of him or her and, where engagement with Probation was to be the outcome, the ‘contract’ between supervisor and supervisee had been considered carefully before it became binding by sentence.

A number of Napo’s concerns, as expressed in our response to the draft PI had also been voiced by HMIP in their report on Transforming Rehabilitation. It seems unlikely that any of our concerns were heeded since little change has been made to the document beyond a re-ordering of paragraphs. Indeed it is probable that our response wasn’t even read as even highlighted typos remain.

Who does the work?
There are linked implications within this Instruction for the court delivery workstream within the E3 programme.The Instruction makes the following statements:

1.19 NPS managers must ensure that the delivery of PSRs is undertaken by staff with suitable qualifications and/or levels of competence …
&
1.24 A number of NPS Divisions have reconfigured their staffing profile to mixed grade teams to ensure more cases are dealt with on the day and avoid unnecessary delays in sentencing. Reports should be completed by staff that are appropriately trained, with varying levels of training required, in particular more specific training provision for offences where additional assessments are required such as for cases of domestic violence or sexual offending.

The E3 Blueprint says “PSOs will form the majority of staff within the court teams, with PSRs reserved to POs only in certain specified circumstances”.

The debate as at what “specified circumstances”are has yet to be had, certainly with the unions. This applies equally to the meaning of suitable qualifications, levels of competence and appropriate training.

The backdrop to the issue of appropriate training is that the NPS has provided very little continuous professional development (CPD) since its inception, beyond ARMS (Active Risk Management System), having been preoccupied with providing training for new PQF learners. On behalf of its members, Napo will seek to resist any further pressure to undertake additional and more complex and challenging tasks without appropriate qualifications, competencies and training.

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