By Professor Anne Worrall
The former Chief Inspector of Probation, Rod Morgan, said in The Guardian today (5 June 2009) that the killing of two French students had become the ‘Baby P of Probation’. What did he mean? In the past few years, probation officers have been subject to the kind of media attention that was previously reserved for child protection social workers. When known offenders, under the supervision of probation officers, commit what are termed serious further offences, there is an understandable public demand to blame someone (other than the offenders) for not doing their jobs properly. This has been happening to social workers for decades ever since the death of Maria Colwell at the hands of her stepfather in 1973. But until recently probation officers have escaped this scrutiny because, historically, their job has been viewed (inaccurately) as being more about ‘advising, assisting and befriending’ offenders than about controlling them and protecting the public from them. Probation officers have always attempted to balance the ‘care’ and ‘control’ aspects of their work but the emphasis on ‘control’ has increased sharply in the past 10 years and particularly in the past 5 years since the formation in 2004 of the National Offender Management Service, which has combined the Prison Service and the National Probation Service in an attempt to provide ‘end-to-end’ or ‘seamless’ management of offenders through their imprisonment and eventual release on supervision in the community.
When this ‘seamlessness’ unravels so dramatically as it has done in the Dano Sonnex case, it is right that we should ask how this ‘was allowed’ to happen and how these crimes might have been prevented. There have been several reports on the case (see the Ministry of Justice website) and they point to a number of errors of judgement and poor communications. Sonnex went to prison in 2003 for a violent offence and was initially considered to be very disruptive and dangerous. He applied for parole (early release) twice and was refused twice by the Parole Board. He was released at the latest possible legal date and subject to a licence supervised by the Probation Service. But by that time he had calmed down in prison and, on release, was assessed as being of medium risk to the public. If he had been assessed as high risk, he would have received more intensive supervision under ">Multi Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA) but that didn’t happen. Nevertheless, his probation officer became sufficiently concerned about his behaviour that she initiated procedures to have him recalled to prison for breaching his licence. Her managers delayed signing this off as they wanted more information and, meanwhile, he appeared in court for a relatively minor non-violent offence. The magistrates had to adjourn the case because it was not ready to proceed but they thought he would be recalled to prison that day anyway, so granted him ‘technical’ bail. But the recall papers weren’t ready and he went free. When the recall papers were eventually completed, the police delayed acting upon them and failed to arrest him until it was too late. As one report points out, if any one of these errors had not happened, the French students would probably still be alive.
But this is not the first time this has happened to the
Probation Service. In 2005, two cases with similar characteristics to the Sonnex case resulted in similar media coverage – the case of Damien Hanson and Elliott White (who killed John Monckton while they were on prison licence supervision) and that of Anthony Rice (who killed Naomi Bryant while he was on prison licence supervision). All these cases raise serious questions about how realistic it is to aspire to the ‘seamless’ management of offenders. They raise questions about communication between various criminal justice agencies, about resources, about training and about the nature of risk assessment. But, more fundamentally, they raise questions about the overloading of our penal system with thousands of relatively minor offenders, resulting in the system being unable to devote sufficient attention to the few highly dangerous offenders who fall through the cracks with tragic consequences. As Rod Morgan says, ‘The big lesson from the Ferez and Bonomo case is that the attention of penal services needs to be reserved for offenders who merit it. The system is overloaded with offenders who don’t.'