Written evidence from Dr Matthew Cracknell, Middlesex University

Outline:

I’m Dr Matthew Cracknell, lecturer at Middlesex University, and former probation practitioner.  I recently completed my PhD, which was based on the Transforming rehabilitation reforms, and the implementation of the Offender Rehabilitation Act (ORA) 2014.  My thesis featured empirical research from a Category B ‘resettlement’ prison and the corresponding community rehabilitation company (CRC).  I carried out 35 interviews in total, including prison and probation practitioners, as well as individuals serving short sentences.  I have also published findings from my PhD, most recently in the probation journal. 

 

I would like to briefly outline my research findings that chiefly consider three areas of improvement for the through-the-gate reforms and the role of post sentence supervision (PSS) in the future of the probation service.  I would also like to briefly make a suggestion for strengthening community orders.

Evidence for through the gate and post sentence supervision

1. Issues within the prison

-the basic custody screening tool (BCST) that is completed in prisons and sent onto CRCs is often of poor quality and superficial in scope.  In many cases probation practitioners note they do not receive the form, or when they do, they are of poor quality.  This undermines the joined-up ethos of through-the-gate, and often means no pre-release planning is done for the individuals release into the community.

-A joined-up computer system between prison and the community, might help to ensure the BCST is passed over in a timely manner to community-based staff, instead of relying on a fax machine.  I further suggest that the prison have a clear set of guidelines and priorities for effective work to be completed while the individual is in prison.  These could include: ensuring each person released from prison has a bank account set up, has applied for benefits (where relevant), has appointments set up with their local GP/mental health team/substance misuse/job centre/local housing authority, etc (where relevant). 

-Most importantly is housing, with clear shortfalls in this area.  Making sure each individual has an appropriate address to go to on release, should be a clear priority for any future through the gate reform.  Many individuals often reoffend at the first hurdle after release, because they are released without housing or access to benefits.  Too often forms like the BCST have been about completing inputs to meet targets, and not sufficiently geared towards meeting practical and important outputs.  Focusing on these core issues, will help ensure individuals do have basic resettlement needs in place.

 

2. Issues through the gate and the licence period in the community.

-Many probation practitioners noted that individuals – particularly those on short sentences – were not allocated an officer prior to release, and often the initial appointment a person has on the day of release from custody was with a duty officer and not an allocated probation officer with prior knowledge of the risks and resettlement needs of an individual.  Officers also noted confusion and uncertainty regarding the role of the custody cohort team.

- The future of probation practice, should ensure all individuals are allocated a probation upon sentencing, to ensure pre release planning can take place.  The strategy should also further clarify the role of the custody cohort team and explain how this will work in conjunction with prison-based through-the-gate staff and community-based probation officers.

 

3. Issues with post sentence supervision.

- The area where research took place for this study, had a third sector organisation who took charge of the supervision of individuals subject to PSS.  This system was widely accepted as not working effectively.  There was confusion regarding the transfer process from licence to PSS, confusion of the enforcement procedures, ambiguity concerning the ‘rehabilitative’ ethos of PSS and uncertainty over the efficacy of the third sector staff.  For service users, this often meant starting again, with transfer to yet another practitioner, with no continuity of service.  This disrupted the professional relationship between service user and practitioner and was a frustrating experience for all concerned.  Lastly, once on PSS, there was a great deal of uncertainty regarding what ‘light touch’ supervision consisted off.

-PSS could be improved by ensuring that each individual is allocated to one single probation officer, who will supervise them throughout the duration of their sentence.  This will ensure greater continuity and a more holistic focus on tackling reoffending.  Third sector organisations can and should play an important role in resettlement, but they should not be directly involved in the supervision of individuals.  Furthermore, greater clarity is needed regarding what is meant by the rehabilitative focus of PSS.

-Light touch supervision needs to be carefuly clarified and full guidance set out, which does provide flexibility for the officer to decide on the intensity of support, but doesn’t allow for a huge disparity in how light touch is currently interpreted.  

 

Strenghtening community sentences:

 

A focus on strengthening Community Orders is a very important issue that should be central to the next probation strategy.  However, I hold concerns that the government might decide that community sentences need to be seen as sufficiently onerous in order to retain the confidence of the courts, with swift punishment for non-compliance - as has previously been suggested by the policy advisor group Crest - (Du Mont and Redgrave, 2017).  In my view, to go down this route of ‘tougher’ community penalties would be a mistake and inevitably lead to individuals entering the prison through the ‘back door’ of non-compliance.

 

Furthermore, there have been numerous failed attempts to make community sentences sufficiently legitimate and punitive in order to replace short sentences by making these orders increasingly onerous (Mills, 2010).  Instead of fighting a losing battle against the prison to be the toughest, significant funding needs to be given to probation services and related community services including those concerned with housing, mental health and substance use, to make Community Orders more attractive and viable to sentencers

 

One recent initiative to address this has been the Community Sentence Treatment Requirement Protocol (Ministry of Justice, 2018c).  This pilot programme recognises that mental health and substance use are prevalent issues amongst offenders, but that suitable community requirements have been significantly underused, primarily due to barriers to accessing these services and a resulting lack of confidence amongst sentencers.  To mitigate these issues local panels of psychologists and health experts sit alongside sentencers to improve collaboration.  Initial results from these pilots suggest they have been successful in reducing the use of “ineffective” short sentences and as having led to lower rates of re-offending (Ministry of Justice, 2018c, paragraph 2).  This suggests that extending the use of the Community Sentence Treatment Requirement Protocol nationally may help to encourage the use of community sentences over a short prison sentence and as a result, reduce some of the pressures on the wider prison estate.

Publications:

Cracknell, M. (2020) Post-Sentence Supervision: A case-study of the extension of community resettlement support for short sentence prisoners, The Probation Journal

Cracknell, M. (2018) Post-release reforms for short prison sentences: Re-legitimising and widening the net of punishment'. Probation Journal, Volume 65, Issue 3, pp. 302-315  

Cracknell, M. (2016) Reflections on Undertaking the Probation Qualifying Framework (PQF) scheme during the Transforming Rehabilitation Changes, The Probation Journal, Volume 63, Issue 2, pp. 211-218

 

Accepted / forthcoming:

Cracknell, M. & Trebilcock, J. (Forthcoming/2021) Transforming Rehabilitation: A failed experiment in throughcare and offender reintegration.  In: Birch, P. & Sicard, L. (Eds) Prisons and Community Corrections: Critical issues and emerging controversies. (Routledge Innovations in Corrections) Routledge.

 

 

7th September 2020