IN discussion

 

Changing lives for safer communities

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The Probation Board for Northern Ireland hosted a discussion on the strategic role of probation in the rehabilitation of offenders through problem-solving justice and how community sentences can lead to less reoffending.

 

How does probation fit into the problem-solving approach to justice?

Nicola Carr
There has been a lot of focus on problem-solving, with the Assembly’s justice committee making it a key part of its overall agenda and this approach is focused very much on the outcomes from the criminal justice system. As an organisation Probation is inherently a problem-solving organisation. It is focused on problems people present at their door which lead them to offend in the first place. Its problem-solving approach is focused on outcomes, rehabilitation and what is going to lead to better lives for those subject to court proceedings and for those who have been victims. It assesses people who come before the courts and deals with them in a holistic and individual way.

Geraldine Hanna
From a victim’s perspective, there is perhaps a limited awareness of what a problem-solving court means at this stage. There are certainly opportunities to raise awareness of what the aims are. Without a proper understanding of the desired outcomes there is a fear that some members of the public, and victims in particular, may see it as another initiative that is focused just on offenders. However, with proper education and awareness, and understanding of the benefits and the positive outcomes for victims in particular, problem-solving courts are something the public could get behind.

Vilma Patterson
The Probation Board is regulated and inspected regularly. The Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice has issued a number of reports on probation services in Northern Ireland and launching a report in 2013 on community sentencing he said it was one of the most positive reports he had produced. He fully endorsed the process by which we work with service users and the measures we have put in place to get the best outcomes by addressing the issues and the drivers that took them into crime. This all contributes to reducing re-offending and ultimately fewer victims.

Some of those on probation supervision have chaotic lives and often have multiple issues such as poor mental health or addictions which affects their behaviour. We address these issues through partnering with other organisations in various programmes. A key aspect of our work is also looking at the impact on the victim. PBNI has a victims’ unit within the organisation that works directly with victims and includes a victim information scheme.

PBNI has a tried and tested model but we need innovative methods to ensure we are effective for the 21st Century. Evidence shows that those who go to prison and come out again without any probation supervision are more likely to go on to reoffend than those who come under probation supervision. Those offenders who are in community service are also less likely to go on to reoffend. The community service aspect of any sentence is reparative and victims can have an input into what service they would like that offender to undertake – that can be very successful. A number of those on probation supervision carry on volunteering after their community sentence has finished because they understand the impact of their crime and become engaged with what that organisation is trying to do. It is all part of successful reintegration, rehabilitation and resettlement.

Nicola Carr
There has been a lot of consideration of what works within criminal justice over many years. Most recently the focus has been on desistance – the reason why people cease offending and that’s focused on things like improving people’s social connections, social bonds and key aspects of life transitions such as employment and employability and building family and community relationships. It also focuses on identity, moving from a focus on a person as an ‘offender’ to viewing people as citizens. That involves working individually with people, understanding the context of their lives and where necessary targeting interventions, towards specific issues.

Has probation often been labelled as a soft option?

Nicola Carr
Historically, probation has struggled with that ‘soft option’ perception. It is inevitably contrasted with prison and I don’t think that is a helpful contrast. I was involved in a European project that looked at the experience of offender supervision in several different countries and the offender’s journey and the process of change they have to go through in the community. We under estimate the difficulties of that, particularly the issues around the stigma of being an offender. Alistair Ross MLA, former chair of the Assembly’s justice committee said that the talk of softer or harder justice is unhelpful and we need to talk more about smarter justice and what is effective. There are lots of studies that have looked at reconviction rates for probation compared to prison. Studies that have looked at people’s process of change and desistance demonstrate that prison has a negative impact. The question of softer or harder gets us down into a worm hole that doesn’t help.

Vilma Patterson
First of all let me say that prison is necessary in society because there are people that pose a serious danger to society and therefore need to be in prison for a period of time. It is one of the necessary tools within criminal justice. But in many cases, particularly where people are sent to custody for short periods of time, other approaches may be more effective. Probation is absolutely not a soft option. People on probation will often say: “My probation officer is doing my head in, in holding me to account. Just put me in a cell and I’ll do my time.” Being challenged by what they have done and seeing the impact on the victim can be very difficult for them. Being held to account and unpacking the reasons why someone has carried out a crime is part of that process and requires a specific skill set – and that is where the social work aspect of our work is key. You are much more likely to get a result of someone changing their ways with that holistic and personal approach.

Geraldine Hanna
From a victim’s perspective it can be perceived as a soft option. Again this is often due to a lack of understanding as to what is involved. For victims that do engage with some of that reparity work with offenders there is a sense they are getting their voice heard in a way that the traditional criminal justice system doesn’t enable them to, particularly in restorative practices where there is a face-to-face meeting. Victims who engage in this report to having a more positive experience. Whilst not everything is made better as such, they have had an opportunity to explain the impact and to look the offender in the eye and hear an apology – whether they accept that or not, they have had the opportunity to put forward the impact of the crime on them.

Ultimately, what the majority of victims say is that they do not want this to happen again. What victims want is what works. Research shows that custodial sentences do not always work, particularly short-term sentences where there is little time of rehabilitative work. Where there is a reduction in reoffending that is a success for victims – they do not want this to happen to someone again.

Is the balance between rehabilitation and punishment right in Northern Ireland’s justice system?

Nicola Carr
There are lots of different impetuses behind our criminal justice system including sentencing, which serves lots of different aspects. When a court sentences someone there is an element of punishment attached whether that is deprivation of liberty with a prison sentence or liberty being restricted with a community sentence. But if you want something purposeful to be achieved and to be effective there has to be an emphasis on rehabilitation. The two can go side by side and to different degrees. This aspect of problem-solving justice, and particularly problem-solving courts, is about energising that whole notion of rehabilitation. There is clear evidence that rehabilitation can work. One aspect that needs looking at in Northern Ireland is criminal records. The legislation in the UK is quite restrictive in terms of erasing criminal records. There is a much more liberal regime elsewhere in Europe that allows criminal records to be expunged or not disclosed after a certain time period. The framework here is very restrictive and the expungement of criminal records should be looked to in a wider rehabilitation context to facilitate the reintegration of someone back into society.

Vilma Patterson
There is an old saying that people are convicted as punishment and not for punishment. Whatever the outcome is the person should address the causes behind their crime. We have already spoken about some of the more successful ways of doing that but one particular innovation worth mentioning is the Enhanced Combination Order (ECO) which is currently a pilot scheme. The courts were seeing a lot of repeat offenders who were being given sentences less than 12 months. The ECO scheme currently has 127 people on it who normally would be in prison. There is a range of interventions for each individual offender and these address issues such as somewhere to live, addictions and mental health issues. They are held to account and they meet their probation officer regularly. The evidence to date shows successful outcomes and it is being delivered for a significantly reduced costs to the alternative of a custodial sentence. It is clearly a win-win and fits the problem-solving approach. It also fits with the Government’s outcomes-based policies and is more likely to result in fewer victims.

Geraldine Hanna

Geraldine Hanna

“Where there is a reduction in reoffending that is a success for victims – they do not want this to happen to someone again.”

Nicola Carr

Nicola Carr

“If you want something purposeful to be achieved and to be effective there has to be an emphasis on rehabilitation”

Does that approach require additional collaboration?

Geraldine Hanna
There is fairly good collaboration at present but there could always be more. PBNI engages a lot with Victim Support NI. The Victim Information Scheme within PBNI links in with ourselves and if the victim doesn’t want to engage directly they can work through ourselves. There are a lot of groups, statutory and voluntary, that are working together on the Victims’ and Witnesses Strategy which has fostered good collaboration. The ECO scheme has also led to more collaboration and we have been closely involved with the scheme, which includes a restorative element which the victim can have some input into. PBNI is always keen to engage and that was recognised in the Criminal Justice Inspector’s report.

Nicola Carr
One of the striking things about the Northern Ireland criminal justice system is the strength of the NGOs and the interconnection between organisations such as Probation and the NGOs. Another innovation is the Reset Mentoring programme that supports people as they come out of custody with a mentor. At the higher strategic level there are challenges, particularly around health care in justice. With prevalence of mental health and drug issues there are good working relationships at an operational level but the strategic matching is a big challenge as it is also for education and employment services. The Justice Committee’s report and other strategies, such as the Youth Justice strategy, talk about a whole government approach but the challenge will be around the implementation of that.

Geraldine Hanna
One of the potential challenges with the problem-solving court is that if we get it right but it is done in isolation to the rest of the departments, then if you are an offender you will have better resources behind you than if you grew up in that community and haven’t offended. Justice needs to work hand-in-hand across government as it can’t be pushing forward with those innovative solutions without looking at the wider societal issues such as mental health and substance abuse. Indeed, prevention at an early stage could reduce the numbers going into the criminal justice system in the first place – by the time they are in the criminal justice system we have already failed to a degree. That whole government approach is a really big challenge.

Vilma Patterson
Probation partners with a wide range of organisations many of which are outside the criminal justice system. This is a challenge with a reducing budget. It also doesn’t reflect the reality of investing in probation services which will save a lot of money later as well as reducing the number of victims in the future. 
A relatively small investment in probation services can go a very long way. We deal with people society would rather not know about and on any one day we supervise around 4,300 offenders. We partner with other parts of the criminal justice system – the police, prisons, through the public protection arrangements for high risk offenders – but our work with the voluntary and community sector is also important.

Nicola Carr
The Reset Mentoring programme is worth highlighting. It is a pilot programme between PBNI and NIACRO to support people during the transition from custody by providing mentorship. It recognises the needs and potential vulnerability of people leaving custody. For many there is a dichotomy between victims and offenders – and I can understand that – but we need to recognise people’s support needs particularly in that period in transition from custody and to support people to prevent them reoffending and the Reset programme has shown promise in achieving that.

Vilma Patterson
The Reset programme has been formally evaluated and has demonstrated that it has been very effective. It is an intensive resettlement programme that matches a mentor to someone leaving custody for 12 weeks – that is the most vulnerable period when someone is more likely to reoffend or be recalled to prison because of their behaviour. The mentor manages the most basic things in life from trying to get somewhere to live, access to benefits, medication that they might require to ensure that person’s life can be stable coming out of custody. The programme has shown that there were significantly fewer people recalled back to prison than would have been without the scheme.

Nicola Carr
A key issue underpinning all of our discussion is around the legitimacy of criminal justice for those who have experience of it and people who have been victims and the wider public. A key aspect of this is communicating what the criminal justice system is about. PBNI has been actively engaged in trying to communicate those messages to the public. Research on public perceptions of community justice has shown that when you explain how this works and how it can prevent people becoming involved in crime there is support for those type of interventions.

Vilma Patterson
We will be launching our Corporate Plan shortly after a period of review, research, planning and consultation. The issue of public confidence in the criminal justice system has come up frequently during the consultation process. We now need to start that wider public discussion about what we are trying to do.

Geraldine Hanna
That debate has been lacking. The media is very reactionary, usually after a violent incident. There is also a general lack of understanding of the issues around sentencing, what prison is actually for and what community service is. That debate needs to be calm and rational. The public need to support the aims of the Criminal Justice System if they are to have confidence it in.

Vilma Patterson
Probation is an area that is less well understood, whether through lack of awareness, as we are less visible to the public than other parts of the criminal justice system or perhaps because the public are less comfortable with what we do. With increasing pressure on budgets we need outcomes that work best for the public purse. Over the past year we have engaged a lot with stakeholders and public representatives and have tried to underline the value of community sentences. We want to emphasise and explain someone does not get off because they got a community sentence but it is actually a challenging process which works to reduce reoffending and seeks compliance through interventions led by the skills and expertise of the probation staff. Probation does what it says; we change lives for safer communities.

 


Vilma Patterson MBE

What is the role of the Probation Board for Northern Ireland?

The Probation Board for Northern Ireland (PBNI) is a non-departmental public body with a community based board. It is the lead organisation in Northern Ireland with responsibility for supervising convicted offenders in their community setting and rehabilitating and resettling them within the remit of the Probation Order (NI) 1982. The strategic aim of the Probation Board is to change lives for safer communities, which is challenging with a reducing budget. We have an annual budget of £16.5 million and approximately 360 staff. Probation officers in Northern Ireland are all social work trained. In England and Wales they did away with this requirement and now seem to be regretting it. We work with people to tackle the causes of crime, addressing the behavioural aspects and drivers that have put them on the path to crime. We address those issues and reintegrate them back into society and try to make them better citizens. If this is achieved the potential outcome is fewer victims of crime and everyone would welcome that.

How has your private sector background shaped your approach to your role as Chair of PBNI?

From a business perspective you want to get the best outcomes and the best service you can provide for the budget that you have. You are always looking for ways to innovate, to develop your business model that will lead to better outcomes. That has fitted in well with how PBNI goes about its work delivering its services to and on behalf of the public as a whole. For example as Board Chair I recently oversaw the implementation of an organisational development programme to ensure that probation’s systems and structures were effective and that the service being delivered was modern, fit for purpose and value for money.


Participants

Nicola Carr

Nicola Carr
Dr Nicola Carr is an Associate Professor in Criminology in the University of Nottingham. She previously worked in Queen’s University Belfast and has written and researched extensively on probation and community supervision. She was a management committee member of a COST Action on ‘Offender Supervision in Europe’ and is the editor of the Probation Journal and an editorial board member of the Irish Probation Journal.

Geraldine Hanna

Geraldine Hanna
Geraldine Hanna has been the Chief Executive of Victim Support NI since February 2015 and in February 2016 was crowned the Best Newcomer of the Year in the CO3 Leadership Awards. Geraldine has 15 years’ experience in the victims sector and been the driving force in establishing the Witness Service in courts across Northern Ireland. She has been integral in the development of key initiatives to improve services for victims and witnesses of crime including the Victim’s Charter, Achievement of Best Practice Guidance and Registered Intermediaries. She is passionate about the rights of victims of witnesses. Geraldine regularly volunteers with SOS BUS NI, helping vulnerable people on the streets of Belfast.

Vilma Patterson MBE

Vilma Patterson MBE
Vilma Patterson is Chairman of the Probation Board. She has been a private sector Director for over 30 years of John G Duff (Annadale) Ltd construction contractors. Interested in skills development for the industry, Vilma is a past member of the Training Committee for the Construction Industry Training Board for Northern Ireland and worked with Constructionskills to form the Women in Construction Network. In 2002 she was the founding Chair of the Women in Business Network and was a Board member of Women on the Move Network. She was a member of the Independent Monitoring Board for Maghaberry Prison and Chair of the Northern Ireland Association of Members of Independent Monitoring Boards. Vilma was also formerly a member of the Parades Commission from 2006-2010. She was a Board Member with PBNI 2009-2012 and has been Chairman since 2012. She was a Civil Service Commissioner for Northern Ireland 2009-2015 and was previously a Non-Executive Member of the Audit Committee with the Office of Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland from 2010-2015. Vilma is currently a member of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body.

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