Offending Behaviour Programmes and the work of the Parole Board

On 6th November 2017, Professor Nick Hardwick, the Chair of the Parole Board for England and Wales, gave a speech to The Butler Trust in which he looked back at the Board’s work over the last 50 years and tried to prophesise what the future might bring. For me, his speech was noteworthy because it contained the following phrase –

“…we lose something if our decisions simply turn on risk algorithms and the statistical analysis of the effectiveness of offending behaviour programmes and avoid moral and ethical judgement.” 

Many of you will be familiar with the dilemma such programmes can cause. Attendance on courses often means admitting guilt, maintaining innocence means being deemed unsuitable for attending many courses. For many people serving extended or indeterminate sentences, this, coupled with a system that has tended to view attendance on courses as the sole means of demonstrating a reduction in risk, has made the prospects of a successful Parole review unlikely.

Looking to the future, Professor Hardwick repeated his criticism of a system that continues to allow those sentenced to IPP to remain in prison without a release date –

“If, as Ministers have recently repeated, the IPP issue is a’ stain on the justice system’ – although a lawful sentence – why , those in future might ask , has nothing been done about it? It is a question we ask about many elements of public life today – ‘you knew something was not right but you did nothing. Why?’ It would be a hard question to answer.”

It’s worth considering the official Government stance in relation to courses. The justice.gov.uk website says –

“There is growing international evidence that the type of cognitive-behavioural techniques that NOMS accredited programmes apply are the most effective in reducing offending behaviour…”

 So what is this evidence? An MOJ research piece about the Sex Offender Treatment Programme dated 30th June 2017 found that 10% of those who attended the course committed at least one more offence during the 8-year follow-up period compared with only 8% of those who didn’t attend the course. Of those who had attended the course, 4.4% committed at least one more child images offence compared with 2.9% of those who hadn’t attended. The report also suggested that the concentration on group-work inherent in courses might serve to ‘normalise’ deviant behaviour.

SOTP has since been decommissioned, but there are no guarantees that new programmes such as Kaizen and Horizon are any more effective. Even if new programmes can be effective in addressing risks, this does not alter the difficulties in engagement that many people feel. A study by Dr Emma Palmer and Lisa Humphries at the University of Leicester on 28th September 2015 found that there were no significant differences in social problem solving and criminal thinking between comparable individuals who completed or did not complete courses. The report concluded that –

“…some offenders need extra support to engage with rehabilitation programmes.”

The problem isn’t a new one. In R (Gill) v Secretary of State for Justice [2010] EWHC 364 (Admin), Mr Justice Cranston quoted from PSO 2855 –

“It is vital that prisoners with disabilities can access any offending programmes as identified in their sentence plan, with adjustments made as necessary, e.g. relocation in a course if inaccessible”. 

He also said –

“It is not uncommon for offending behaviour programmes to be regarded as a requirement to demonstrate risk reduction before the Parole Board. Perhaps most notable in that regard are the comments of the law lords in R (on the application of Wells) v Parole Board [2009] UKHL 22; 2009 2 WLR 1149 , paras 26, 36. In her statement for this hearing, Dr Jo Bailey, the lead psychologist for the operations directorate of the National Offender Management Service, emphasises that participation in offending behaviour management courses is neither necessary nor sufficient to achieve release. She explains that the Prison Service uses seven so-called pathways to reduce re-offending as a basis for sentence planning targets of individuals: (i) accommodation, (ii) education, training, employment, (iii) mental and physical health, (iv) drug and alcohol misuse, (v) finance, benefit and debt, (vi) children and families of offenders and (vii) attitudes, thinking and behaviour. Those involved in the risk assessment and management of offenders are to apply a holistic approach through the pathways model, as a means of achieving and demonstrating a reduction in the risk of re-offending.” [39]

The reality remains that, however much is said about completing courses not being the only way to achieve release, little has changed.  Professor Hardwick’s wish to focus on factors beyond completion of courses is to be welcomed but, in the mean time, if difficulties with courses are standing in the way of you getting released by the Parole Board, we’d love to hear from you.

By Jason Elliott of Jason Elliott Associates ltd.

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