I hope the picture painted by inspectors this week of how probation deals with domestic abuse is just a snapshot in time, that it never was and never will be as bad again. Few aspects of the service comes out well – from assessment, to working with other agencies, to protecting victims, to supporting perpetrators to change their behaviour.
The report Transform Justice recently published on domestic abuse highlighted the tiny proportion (3%) of those convicted in court whose sentence includes a course designed to change their behaviour, and the lack of evaluation of the courses used. This report from HMI probation explains in more detail what is going wrong.
Problems start at the beginning. Not enough pre-sentence reports recommend specialist behaviour-change courses for those convicted of domestic abuse. Perpetrators are also not properly assessed by CRCs (the private probation companies that manage most offenders on community sentences and on licence from prison). And there were huge delays in getting offenders started on the only accredited course.
Of the 107 male perpetrators whose cases were reviewed, only 29 had been mandated to complete a perpetrator course, only 13 had started the course and in 7 cases the course had been cancelled. Unfortunately the financial incentives which are supposed to motivate the privately owned CRCs to get people to do the courses are not working. The companies are paid when an offender starts a programme and financially penalised if they don’t complete, but “if the order has been revoked, the custodial period has been activated, the licence condition has been removed, or the individual has transferred from the management of the CRC or died”, they avoid a financial penalty. The inspectorates said CRCs were more focused getting non completions “re-categorised” than on actually getting people to complete the course. This included the CRC returning to court to ask judges to remove the requirement for the perpetrator to complete the programme.
Most perpetrators referred to the CRC were not required to do Building Better Relationships (BBR), the approved programme. But most did have to fulfil a “rehabilitation activity requirement” (RAR) for a specific number of days. Enthusiastic practitioners wanted to do something useful with their clients, but knew that the BBR programme was too long. So they created their own programmes: “Some responsible officers were delivering the domestic abuse RAR on a one-to-one basis, borrowing resources from colleagues, browsing the internet for resources or devising their own one-to-one interventions. There was no system in place to make sure that interventions were evidence-based and delivered safely and effectively”. This all sounds a bit mickey mouse. And only 45% of offenders mandated to do either a RAR or a BBR course made “sufficient progress” in fulfilling the requirements imposed by the court.
I don’t blame individual CRC staff, but the system of dealing with those convicted of domestic abuse seems broken. Few perpetrators are referred to specific programmes, some of these programmes are “made up”, and more than half the offenders do not complete the programmes. And we still don’t know whether even the HMPPS approved programme works – the inspectorate refers to Building Better Relationships as “accredited” but fails to point out that its outcomes have not been evaluated in six years. So we have no idea whether it works.
I am not persuaded that programmes are the magic bullet to preventing all abuse. But there is good evidence that they can work. The programme previously used by probation – IDAP – showed a clear effect in reducing re-offending. So why are we forcing people to go on programmes which have not been evaluated?
If we are going to place our faith in the criminal justice system to deal with domestic abuse, we need to do better, for the sake of current and future victims as well as perpetrators who have the potential to change. But this report also suggests that our faith in the criminal justice system is misplaced. Outside the courts there are fantastic programmes run for those on conditional cautions (Project Cara), and as part of the deferred prosecution programme run by County Durham police (Checkpoint) and there are countless accredited voluntary programmes. All these programmes have been, or are currently, subject to rigorous evaluation. They are far, far cheaper than pushing cases through the courts, and avoid dragging reluctant victims to give evidence. Perpetrators outside the court system also get on the programmes much more quickly, possibly avoiding situations like this:
“Sean was a very young man who had received his first sentence: an 18-month community order with requirements to complete unpaid work hours, BBR and RAR days for assaulting his partner. There was a seven-month wait before Sean could begin BBR. In the meantime, he assaulted his partner again. The PLW [worker supporting the victim] reported this to the police and the responsible [CRC] officer. The responsible officer took no action in response to this, and did not review the plan for managing risk of harm to the victim, liaise with the police or seek any domestic abuse call-out information” (quoted from report).