Yesterday (27th June 2023), three of Revolving Doors’ lived experience members – Ayesha, Caroline and DeQeon – went to the House of Lords to give evidence to the Joint Justice and Home Affairs Committee’s inquiry into community sentences. Joined by our Chief Executive, Pavan Dhaliwal, our members stressed to the Committee the importance of prioritising community sentences and the support that they can deliver, but urged that community sentences be delivered in a person-centred, timely, and supportive manner in order for them to be successful, highlighting the crucial role that probation officers play.
Sitting in a Committee room in the House of Lords, our members and Pavan spoke to the Committee for two hours, to peers including former Home Secretary the Rt. Hon the Lord Blunkett, Baroness Meacher, former social worker and former Acting Chair of the Police Complaints Authority, and Baroness Prashar, former Chair of the Judicial Appointments Commission.
All three lived experience members conveyed very different experiences and outcomes of community sentences, with sentences undertaken including Mental Health Treatment Requirements (MHTRs), Drug Rehabilitation Requirements (DRRs) and Rehabilitation Activity (RA) days. A common theme expressed by all three was how important it was for probation practitioners to be compassionate, understanding, and to take the time to work with the individual, rather than just treating their case as a tick-box exercise.
Caroline, who had a good relationship with her probation practitioner whilst undertaking an MHTR, felt the experience was integral to her recovery and a move away from reoffending.
I actually had a very good relationship with my probation officer, and that was new for me … She really listened to me, really focused on helping me. I’ve never had that before. One thing that really stood out for me was that she believed in me, which empowered me to make positive changes.Caroline, lived experience member
On the other hand, Ayesha felt that her relationship with her probation worker during her community sentence was purely transactional, and did not feel that it helped her on her journey.
After appointments, I always felt it was just for ticking the box that they had seen me.Ayesha, lived experience member
DeQeon had one very positive relationship with a particular probation officer, who changed his life, but found the others fell short in terms of support.
She was like my mother, we just connected. I don’t think I’d be sitting here right now if it wasn’t for her, I actually got involved with Revolving Doors because of her … The other probation officers I had after her, were not as good. I feel like a lot of people who work for probation have no life experience, they don’t relate with the person they’re talking to.DeQeon, lived experience member
Due to high caseloads and staffing issues within the Probation workforce, this is not an uncommon sentiment – as can be seen in Revolving Doors’ lived experience Probation Inquiry – and we continually state that an urgent priority for the Probation Service should be the recruitment and retention of more probation practitioners.
Another key sentiment reflected by all members was the need for community sentences to be well-rounded, timely and include many forms of support in order to be effective. Caroline had a strong example of an array of support received during her community sentence that helped her.
My probation officer referred me to [a] domestic violence advocacy [service] on release. That service was really prompt, which made a difference in starting my recovery. I was also referred to a peer mentoring service, and referred to the thinking skills programme (TSP). I started this when my MHTR had finished. The TSP was 16 sessions for 2 hours each week, and the sessions helped me to develop my problem-solving and interaction skills and identify patterns in my behaviour which contributed to my offending … I think this worked after the mental health treatment because I was able to put the skills and coping strategies that I had learnt into practice.Caroline, lived experience member
For Ayesha, the lack of support she received when undertaking a DRR, despite experiencing problems with drugs and adjoining issues at the time, meant that she relapsed, breached her sentence conditions, and was sent to prison. The group work sessions she was given as part of the DRR were inadequate for her recovery, and she felt an in-patient rehabilitation centre would have been more effective. It was only when engaging with a different drug agency that she moved towards recovery.
For Caroline, although her MHTR was effective, she felt that an Alcohol Treatment Requirement (ATR) combined with the MHTR would have helped her even more, as issues with alcohol were a key driver of her getting caught up in the criminal justice system, and this was not being addressed. The delay in starting her MHTR was also a difficult time for her.
I had the MHTR, but what I felt was missing, what I needed and what probably would’ve helped me further was the alcohol treatment requirement, because all of my offences were related to alcohol.Caroline, lived experience member
For DeQeon, the group sessions that he attended were effective in building up his confidence, keeping him busy and getting him out of the house, but the key driver of his offending, which was the breakdown of family relationships, was not being addressed at all. Ultimately, it was DeQeon himself who turned his life around through his own efforts, rather than the support of the community sentence.
In our written submission to the Committee, Revolving Doors called for community sentences to be tailored to the individual, by carefully considering their personal circumstances. For these to be most effective in preventing persistent offending, they should recognise and address the person’s full range of needs and causes of offending, and offer well-rounded support.
Finally, the key issue of Pre-Sentence Reports (PSRs) was discussed. Through PSRs, probation practitioners support sentencers to take full consideration of any mitigating circumstances into account, and make recommendations as to the sentencing option that would be most appropriate to the person. Yet, the experiences of our members in receiving PSRs were a mixed bag.
Caroline, who was on remand before receiving a community sentence, had no input into her PSR.
Whilst on remand, I [had] an assessment with probation, and then I received the PSR, so I had no idea what was going to be proposed to me.Caroline
Ayesha had a similar experience:
For the PSR, I wasn’t taken into account. I remember signing it and reading through it, but what was [written] on the PSR wasn’t anything of my input.Ayesha
DeQeon, who felt confident engaging with probation, had a more positive experience:
My experience with a PSR was really good, because I’m a person who can articulate themselves well and let the probation officer who [was] doing the PSR know what [was] going on. But a lot of my friends who have been through the same situation don’t know how to engage, so the person on the other side, the probation officer, just ticks boxes. It shouldn’t be like that.DeQeon
We have members who have PSRs based on what was happening in their lives 8 months prior, and not taking into account the steps they have taken in that time. It is the consensus view of our members that if they are done at all, then it is a tickbox exercise instead of being done in a meaningful, person-centred way.– Pavan Dhaliwal, Chief Executive
Revolving Doors’ Probation Inquiry highlighted how important well-written and timely PSRs are, but noted the sheer amount of people who either do not receive one at all or receive one that is rushed, inaccurate, or generic. Our recommendation is that more resource is immediately dedicated to probation in court to ensure the proper delivery of PSRs, and that His Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS) work closely with colleagues from His Majesty’s Courts and Tribunals Service (HMCTS) to advocate for more time to complete fuller PSRs, working alongside people with lived experience in this advocacy work.
The day was yet another reminder of the power that sharing lived experience has when advocating for criminal justice system reform. Who better to understand what works and what needs to change than those who have been through it themselves?
It also served as an opportunity to build confidence for DeQeon, Ayesha, and Caroline in their journeys, where they are using their experiences to advocate for a fairer criminal justice system for all.
Now I’m actually doing my GCSEs, to get to university, so I can have the knowledge, not just the experience, to … give something back and to do something within the criminal justice system.Ayesha, lived experience member
Now, we will await the Committee’s report and recommendations in their inquiry into community sentences, and hope that our members’ powerful testimony will have an impact on changes to community sentences going forward.