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SPoC in the dock: is it time to beam CRC staff into court?

David Coley, KSS CRC Research Unit – first published in Probation Quarterly Issue 11

Transforming Rehabilitation may still seem to many probation staff like navigating a new universe. This can be especially so in the court environment as Community Rehabilitation Company (CRC) staff have no right of audience and any single point of contact (SPoC) in court is now that of their previous agency colleagues. Some feel this to be a system that was teleported from another planet and alien to best practice communication, with arguably the results being a significant loss of confidence in the imposition of community orders.  So should a new enterprise involve placing CRC staff in the shape of a SPoC in court, so as to boldly go where few CRCs have gone before?

In the summer of 2018, Kent Surrey Sussex CRC and its equivalent area NPS colleagues engaged in a series of five joint workshops to explore the issues of inter-agency work in relation to improving court practice and attendant court disposals. This included reflecting upon the significant reduction in the number of community orders being made in recent years and an apparent lack of confidence amongst Magistrates with regard to probation services (Crest, 2017; CJI, 2017, 2018).

HMIP reports (2017a; 2017b) had already highlighted challenges for the MoJ and their probation services with regard to enforcement and breach issues, Rehabilitation Activities Requirements (RARs), IT difficulties, and a general lack of inter-agency communication, with accredited programmes appearing to ‘wither on the vine’ (HMIP, 2017a).  Additionally within the joint workshops broader best practice issues from across the field of interventions by probation service providers entered the inter-agency debates as CRC probation officers, admin staff, programmes staff, SPOs, and CP supervisors, alongside NPS court staff, keenly debated the daily realities of their respective working lives.

Within workshop discussions global themes naturally surfaced that highlighted the scale of the challenges at hand. The Transforming Rehabilitation split and post TR landscape lead the way in terms of underlying structural difficulties, alongside cuts in funding over numerous years. These were followed closely by participant-identified difficulties regarding lack of staff in some areas, high caseloads and running to keep up with ‘speedy justice’ expectations. When these challenges are allied to additional influential factors such as the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014, Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, fewer Standard Delivery Reports (SDRs) being requested by sentencers, and magistrates’ training being reduced in recent years (Crest, 2017), the picture becomes more complex and nuanced. These are undoubtedly all issues that have influenced probation practice and outcomes over the preceding years, albeit issues that have emerged since 2010-11 and thus occurring either in tandem with, or subsequent to, the onset of the decline in community disposals. Correspondingly, issues of building confidence in community sentences are of course not new (Allen, 2008) and thus need to be placed in some broader context.

So what workshop themes emerged from the views of frontline staff, from both the CRC and the NPS court teams?  More importantly, what innovation emerged to address the difficulties with a view to seeking possible solutions? First and foremost it was acknowledged by both CRC and NPS colleagues that the judiciary perceive ‘probation’ as a single, distinct unit, not two separate agencies. As such, this provides an incentive to operate in a unified and cohesive way.

Furthermore, as stated in workshops, ‘it’s good to talk’ and colleagues identified more combined learning and developmental opportunities as important, including more cross-agency shadowing and observation of other stakeholder roles, shared training events and workshops, and an annual multi-agency best practice courts conference. The workshops were clear that programme staff must attend such events. Developmental events would encourage the improved construction of CRC court reports with a view to advancing staff skills in relation to risk analysis, describing progress within court orders, and understanding appropriate disposals. This is in part an effort to maintain report writing confidence levels amongst CRC staff who no longer routinely practice within a court setting. Shared events would address the misunderstandings surrounding the content of RARs and accredited programme schedules and completions, with a view to all agencies holding more realistic expectations surrounding the realities of imposing and completing community orders.

 

Court calling SPoC

A greater CRC presence in court emerged as a pivotal theme within workshops across the region.  CRC rights of audience in court were discussed at some length and whilst the principles underlying the lack of CRC voice in court were acknowledged, workshop participants defined the need for an increased CRC profile within court, primarily as a means to improved communication between all agencies and foster greater confidence. Currently available measures to be taken by CRC staff include working closely with NPS court staff through greater attendance at court hearings. This may be through an increase in staff attendance at both progress reviews of community orders and/or personal attendance at breach hearings.

However, an overriding theme to emerge from the workshops was that of a CRC SPoC being placed in court or perhaps in a nearby CRC office setting. A central SPoC for groupwork programmes was also suggested as an alternative approach. Such a role would entail the direct channelling and focussing of information flows between agencies. Examples of SPoC tasks would include providing progress updates to NPS colleagues (or directly to the Bench/Judge if called into court by NPS staff); managing breach information; gathering CPS materials from court; speaking directly with service users appearing in court to clarify details of sentence expectations and requirements; providing immediate initial appointments; relaying sentencing outcomes; promoting programme availability with timely and appropriate usage; and, liaising directly with voluntary sector agencies in court. Ultimately this role encompasses building trust and confidence at the very start of CRC involvement in the community order process and individual desistance journey. Presumably the role would have to avoid undertaking any form of professional assessment of service user risks and needs or of providing the courts with professional proposals or recommendations, due to potential conflicts of interest. Nevertheless, the idea was understood by many workshop participants to be an obvious way forward to enhance communication between all court actors and supply information in a more immediate manner.  As some CRC workshop participants commented, ‘It’s a no brainer’!

It is, of course, of note that Magistrates and Judges, the NPS, CPS, voluntary agencies and all other court actors, would have to be consulted on this possibility within the KSS region. Public attitudes also come into the equation, as does the issue of Magistrates leaning towards the imposition of community disposals before those of short term imprisonment (Allen, 2008). Equally, it is suggested that more discussion, consultation and brief research exploration into this option would be required before having to live with the possible negative consequences of entering into a new adventure at warp-speed ten. Furthermore, as Gwen Robinson reminds us, ongoing NPS and CRC staff training is always required if we are to do more than just ‘paper over the cracks’ (Robinson, 2018). Additionally, the financial implications and precise aspects of the SPoC role would need in-depth consideration by CRCs. Nevertheless, an increased CRC profile in court is seen by many KSS CRC staff as a necessary and somewhat timely enterprise.

The MoJ has acknowledged the feasibility for such a role in its consultation paper, Strengthening probation, building confidence (July 2018) and in the Magistrates Association response the possibility of a tentative exploration of such a role is acknowledged (MA, 2018). The MoJ consultation paper and Magistrates Association cite the existing example of Durham Tees Valley CRC becoming co-located within the local NPS court teams via a dedicated staff member. This role is designed to better inform pre-sentence reports on the available interventions and services provided by the CRC.

It is recognised by the MoJ that current legislation prevents CRC staff from supplying advice to courts and that a paucity of immediate contact between CRCs and Magistrates is creating barriers to nurturing the confidence of courts with regard to probation service providers.  Likewise, the reinstitution by the MoJ of the National Sentencer and Probation Forum has occurred so that CRCs, NPS, court staff, prosecutors and others can better communicate and discuss the challenges at hand and opportunities for the future. A new Local Liaison Probation Instruction aimed at securing that CRCs participate in local discussions with courts about the services they offer has been issued. Additionally, the MoJ believes this will enhance the overall scope of the NPS Sentencer Survey and Sentencer Bulletin.

To boldly go

So does the idea of specialist CRC probation staff communicating directly within the court setting sound like a new voyage of discovery or an episode of science fiction?  The KSS CRC – NPS joint workshops certainly spoke creatively of mutual best practice approaches in court and beyond, including the touchdown of CRC SPoCs in court. Furthermore, shared developmental events are seen as an improved way forward to address all challenges within the current system.

This was especially so around communicating RAR difficulties, accredited programme completions, enforcement and CRC court report issues. As such, if a specific communication and coordination role for CRC staff within courts is seen within probation practitioner workshops as an obvious mission for the future, is now the time to start beaming CRC SPoCs down into court?

 

References

Allen, R (2008) ‘Changing attitudes to crime and punishment: Building confidence in community penalties’ Probation Journal, Vol. 55(4), 389-400.

CCJS (2011) Community Sentences: a solution to penal excess? Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, London, England.

CJI (2017) Community sentences across borders, Centre for Justice Innovation, London, England.

CJI (2018) Renewing Trust: how can we improve the relationship between probation and the courts? Centre for Justice Innovation, London, England.

Crest (2017) Where did it all go wrong? A study into the use of community sentences in England and Wales, Crest Advisory, London, England.

Crest (2018) Rewiring Justice: Transforming punishment and rehabilitation for the 21st Century, Crest Advisory, London, England.

HMIP (2017a) The work of probation services in courts: an inspection by HM Inspectorate of Probation, June 2017. Manchester, England.

MA (2018) Response to Strengthening probation, building confidence, Magistrates Association, September 2018.

MoJ (2018) Strengthening probation, building confidence. Ministry of Justice, July 2018. London, England.

Robinson, G (2018) Transforming probation services in Magisrates’ courts’, Probation Journal, Vol. 65(3), 316-334.