Keeping watch over offenders

RECENT headlines have criticised the Probation Service as 'weak,' and Home Secretary John Reid has promised an overhaul in how it is run - but how is the Suffolk branch coping?

RECENT headlines have criticised the Probation Service as 'weak,' and Home Secretary John Reid has promised an overhaul in how it is run. KATE GOODING finds out what's happening at the Suffolk branch of the service.

MURDERERS, rapists and paedophiles can all be released early from prison on to our county's streets - and probation officers have to supervise these most dangerous members of the community.

But recent headlines have criticised the service as “weak” and Home Secretary John Reid has promised an overhaul.

In Suffolk the service is performing well - ranked eighth out of 45 in national performance tables - and pioneering work is being done here with persistent and prolific offenders. Last year Suffolk was the top service in the country when it came to completing community orders, which are made by the courts and include requirements such as curfews, drug treatment and unpaid work in the community.

Chief officer John Budd is quick to praise his staff's hard work, as the service looks towards its biggest shake-up since its creation in 2001.

He said: “I have no doubt that staff in Suffolk probation area provide an excellent service, and they work very hard - and I think very effectively - with offenders in Suffolk.”

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Currently the probation service has several main responsibilities: to advise the courts on offenders, and help in sentencing decisions; to supervise offenders according to court requirements; to assist prisoners before and after their release from prison; to enforce court orders and prison licences and to we as members of the public are protected by doing on-going assessments of the risks posed by offenders.

This work includes offenders doing unpaid work in the community, and officers staffing Suffolk's two probation hostels.

The Home Office provides about £8 million for the Suffolk service to meet these demands - this is what is likely to change.

If legislation goes through, the probation board in Suffolk will no longer have a statutory duty to provide these services. Instead the Home Secretary will have that responsibility - which will pave the way for him to commission services from other organisations.

This will mean probation and court services will be run in a similar way to the health service, with a 'regional offender manager' having the budget to commission who does the work.

Mr Budd said: “Suffolk Probation Area would become one of several providers, and we would bid to provide services.

“It is going to cause a different way of thinking. My job will be to present the work of my staff to the regional commissioner, as the best means of providing services to offenders in Suffolk. We might get other providers coming into the mix. There are some things that are done by probation staff that could be done by other people.

“We need to make sure we do well the things we are trained to do and I think that is about public protection, managing high risk offenders and working with offenders to reduce their re-offending.

“Some of the logistical parts of our work like transporting offenders could be done by someone else, and we are just beginning to look at our work and talk to other providers about entering into partnerships.”

He said unpaid work could also be delivered by other providers, but he would want to see the probation service continuing to monitor offenders as that is what his staff are trained to do.

It is this side of the work which has been criticised of late. With several high profile cases of prisoners released on licence going on to commit serious crimes, the probation service is facing difficult times nationally.

These cases include the murder of taxi driver Colin Winstone in Bristol, by a criminal who had been released half way through a four-year prison sentence for robbery.

Davidson Charles, 41, stabbed Mr Winstone through the heart in January last year.

Reading teenager Mary-Ann Leneghan was also murdered on May 6, 2005 by a gang of six men, four of whom were under probation service supervision.

There been no similar cases in Suffolk, leaving some probation officers in the county disillusioned by how the service is portrayed nationally.

Probation officer Corrina Stock, who has worked for the service for two years, said it was the public's negativity, rather than the lack of response from some offenders, which made her job most difficult.

She said: “We are very committed, work long hours, work really hard and take our work seriously but some of the negative reports disillusion us.

“There have been some tragic cases but we can't follow people for 24 hours a day. The public don't understand what we do and I think the view is that we are a bit 'woolly' and on the offenders' side.

“We are there to help them make changes. If the court gives a lenient sentence it is not our fault.”

She added: “If someone gets four years or less, the legislation says they will come out half way through their sentence.”

Ms Stock works with people who the police class as persistent and prolific offenders, and said it can prove difficult to change their behaviour.

She said: “You are having contact with people and trying to make some sort of difference.

“It is challenging and I guess that is why I came into the profession. You are not always going to have compliant people who just come in and do everything you say. You are challenging quite established views regarding offending, and they are views they have generally been brought up with and have been held by their family and community.”

She said the main priority for her and her colleagues is protecting the public, and they do this sometimes in very difficult circumstances.

Ms Stock said: “You are writing reports on people who might have committed a lot of serious sexual offences, who have maybe abused their own child.

“You have to see that person as not just an offender but as a husband, father or mother. They have other roles as well and you have to look at the bigger picture and sometimes step back.

“That's why I am glad I have got a really good team, and we discuss everything.”

Suffolk probation service employs 263 staff - 85 probation officers, 17 trainee probation officers, 103 probation service officers and 58 support staff.

John Budd, chief officer - responsible for organisation development.

Martin Garside, assistant chief officer, head of offender management - responsibilities include: overseeing enforcement and compliance, court liaison, safeguarding children, mentally disordered patients and lifers.

Julia Sharp, assistant chief officer, head of partnerships and commissioning - responsibilities include: community safety, contracts, offenders' accommodation and persistent and prolific offenders.

Kelley Parker, assistant chief officer, head of interventions - responsibilities include: unpaid work, probation hostels, prisons and accredited programmes.

Andrew Patton, assistant chief officer, head of finance - responsible for overseeing finance.

Steve Pestell, assistant chief officer, head of support services - responsibilities include overseeing human resources and administration.

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